Colette Long Fiction Analysis
Maurice Goudeket, in his memoir Près de Colette (1956; Close to Colette, 1957), provides a touching and revealing picture of Colette’s last hours. The most remarkable incident is the choice of her last spoken words. Looking toward an album of insects and birds, a case of butterflies, and an open window outside which swallows were flying, Colette waved expansively and said, “Look! Maurice, look!” Several scholars have noted that the French word regarde signifies more than its usual English equivalent, having the connotation of close observation and even study. Colette was never interested in abstractions, a fact that has earned her some severe critical reprimands, yet she has no equal as an observer of the tangible world.
Colette frequently complained of the difficulty of writing, saying she disliked it, which might cause one to wonder why she did so much of it. Aside from the melancholy economic fact that, especially in her earlier years, even successful books earned their authors trifling sums by today’s standards, it seems clear that Colette wrote in order to make sense of her long and eventful life. She did not attempt to theorize about it, though some of her offhand remarks bear the mark of high-quality epigrams, such as her insightful observation, “A happy childhood is a bad preparation for human contacts.” Instead, she rewrote her life in differing versions, countless times, mingling truth and imagination.
Colette’s refusal to theorize about life was accompanied by a reluctance to judge other people and their modes of life. This detachment provided her with a sort of aesthetic distance from her subjects that helped to counter the elements of personal involvement that infuse her fiction. A work of partial autobiography, originally published as Ces plaisirs (1932) but better known as Le Pur et l’impur (1941; The Pure and the Impure, 1967), which includes extensive examinations of sexual practices, both “normal” and irregular, is considered by several scholars to be one of her most important works, yet in this brief volume there is no moral judgment, only understanding and sympathy. Colette is content simply to “look,” to try to comprehend without condemnation.
A vital feature of Colette’s writing is her use of point of view. Almost all of her stories are told in the first person, a phenomenon that has encouraged autobiographical interpretations but that also gives her texts an impressive immediacy and warmth. Thus, when the heroine of the brief tale Chambre d’hôtel (1940; Chance Acquaintances, 1952) declares, near the end of the story, that she must leave her home and says, “I went to collect the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude,” one can sympathize with her, whether the voice is solely that of a character or is partly that of the author as well. The most notable example of Colette’s abandonment of the first person is the novel that many critics believe to be her masterpiece, Chéri, which, along with its sequel, The Last of Chéri, is possibly the closest thing to a truly “modern” novel in her entirecanon. The modernity of Chéri can be ascribed in part to the relatively detached tone of the narrative. All the emotion in this tragic story is felt only in relation to the characters; the author does not intrude at all.
Another aspect of Chéri that marks it as unusual among Colette’s fictions is the fact that the central male character is the dominant figure and is painstakingly studied; though several female characters play important roles in the novel, Chéri is the basis of the story and is clearly the chief character. In most of Colette’s works, the women are the outstanding figures; the male characters are often merely sketched in. Colette focuses on the problems and interests of women, particularly in their relationships with men but also in their position as human beings trying to come to terms with loneliness and failure. Again and again in her fiction, she dramatizes the failure of sexual relationships, usually placing the blame on the man but recognizing that the woman also bears responsibility in such matters. Although not a philosopher, Colette came to a number of reasonably profound and often unhappy conclusions about the battle of the sexes. One is that there is no guarantee of happiness in any liaison and that, indeed, happiness is not necessary for a meaningful life. She also concluded that a woman suffers fully only once, when her initial romance fades.
Colette has been justly praised for her sense of place. Her settings, even the interiors, are presented in great detail and precision, most often with the impress of a mood or an element of characterization. As Sir Walter Scott is credited with seeing places in human terms, so Colette tends to perceive people in concrete manifestations, frequently presenting characters in the light of their surroundings, their clothes, even their pets. Léa de Lonval, the aging courtesan in Chéri, is seen most often in her pink boudoir—the silks are pink, as are some of the furniture and the curtains; even the light coming in through the windows is usually pink. In the earlier novels, Colette re-creates the memories of her childhood days in the beautiful Burgundian countryside. No item is too small for her notice, from a blade of grass to a tiny insect; she invests everything with a sense of the wonder and magnificence of nature. If people in her books are often undependable and even treacherous, nature is not. So strong was Colette’s affinity with natural things that she created in The Cat an animal character that overshadows both of the human characters. The novel is a love story, but the true passion exists between Alain and his cat, Saha, not between him and his wife, Camille. The tension of the disintegrating marriage becomes so great, and Camille’s recognition of Saha’s moral superiority so strong, that the jealous wife attempts to kill the animal, an act that brings the relationship of husband and wife to an end and reconfirms the bond between a man and his “pet.”
Claudine at School
The Claudine series, which comprises Colette’s first four novels, though inferior to her later masterpieces, displays several of the qualities that distinguish her work and reveals themes and topics that recur throughout her long career (Claudine, a character first conceived in...
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