Other Literary Forms

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Colette, whose complete works fill sixteen large volumes, is best known for her novels. Her first success, La Vagabonde (1911; The Vagabond, 1955), was followed by its sequel, L’Entrave (1913; The Shackle, 1964), and in time by Chéri (1920; English translation, 1929), La Maison de Claudine (1922; My Mother’s House, 1953, a novelized autobiography of her early years that followed four Claudine novels, published from 1900 through 1903 under her first husband’s name), La Fin de Chéri (1926; The Last of Chéri, 1932), Le Blé en herbe (1923; The Ripening Corn, 1931; also known as The Ripening Seed), La Seconde (1929; The Other One, 1931), La Chatte (1933; The Cat, 1936), Julie de Carneilhan (1941; English translation, 1952), and Gigi (1944; English translation, 1952). These and many others constitute a substantial body of internationally famous novels. Colette is also the author of numerous volumes of memoirs, plays, film scenarios, essays, reviews, sketches, and criticism. A centenary edition of her uvres complètes de Colette (complete works of Colette). Short Novels of Colette (1951), edited by Glenway Wescott, contains translations of six of her novels. Robert Phelps edited The Collected Stories of Colette, which includes translations, again by various hands, of one hundred works of short fiction.

Achievements

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The publication of Colette’s first Claudine segment preceded by five years her first notable success under her own name, Dialogue de bêtes (1904; Creature Conversations, 1951), a group of “dialogues” between her bulldog and her Angora cat. The Vagabond, published shortly after L’Ingénue libertine (1909; The Gentle Libertine, 1931), was nominated for a Prix Goncourt. The publication of Chéri, when she was forty-seven years old, ensured her reputation as a literary giant in France. She had achieved fame in journalism, the theater, on lecture tours in Europe and Africa, and as a writer whose works were admired in English, German, and Italian translations. She began her consistently successful work in the cinema in 1931. André Gide’s journal entry for February 11, 1941, includes enthusiastic praise for Colette’s writing style and for two of her works in particular, one published in 1922 and the other in 1937. In 1936, Colette succeeded the countess Anna-Élisabeth Mathieu de Noailles to a chair in the Académie Royale de Langue et de Littérature Francaises de Belgique (the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature). She completed her last long novel, Julie de Carneilhan, in 1941. At the end of World War II, she won election to the Académie Goncourt. A fifteen-volume edition of her complete works appeared in 1949. W. Somerset Maugham had said in 1938 that “no one in France now writes more admirably than Colette,” and Wescott, in his introduction to Short Novels of Colette, calls her “supreme rememberer.” A biographer, Herbert Lottman, quotes The New York Times obituary of August 4, 1954, which states that Colette’s “fifty-odd novels and scores of short stories were as popular with housewives, shop girls and laborers as they were with intellectuals.”

Other literary forms

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Many of the works written by Colette (kaw-LEHT) defy ready classification. Aside from creating tales that are of such a length as to make it difficult to decide whether to term them short novels or long short stories (the term nouvelle, which Colette often used for her work, means both “novelette” and “novella”), Colette also frequently mixed fiction with fact in a confusing blend. La Maison de Claudine (1922; My Mother’s House , 1953), for example, can pass for fiction; however, the book is essentially a series of sketches from Colette’s life, primarily dealing with her mother, the famous Sido. Indeed, it has been observed that almost every page of this author’s very personal writing contains something that can be traced to her life. Several of her...

(This entire section contains 315 words.)

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particular fixations, such as animals and flowers, thus not only appear prominently in her fiction but also are dealt with at length (and with great knowledge and sensitivity) in her full-length essays.

When a film was made of her life in 1952, Colette told an interviewer who had not seen the production to go and see what a wonderful life she had led; she then remarked that she wished that she had been aware of its quality earlier. In fact, her interest in and wonder at life can be found in all of her writings. These works include, in addition to a number of short stories, a variety of reminiscences, adaptations of her tales for the stage and the cinema, and virtually unclassifiable publications on life as a music-hall performer, on cats, on writing, and on life in general. uvres complètes de Colette, the “complete” works of Colette (prepared under the eye of the author, who excised a number of titles that she considered unworthy of republication), published from 1948 to 1950, fill fifteen large volumes; these do not contain a sizable correspondence, most of which has been published separately.

Achievements

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One indication of Colette’s persisting appeal is the impressive number of republications of her chief works, including a sometimes bewildering array of retranslations. In her lifetime, Colette enjoyed an enormous popularity with everyday readers and eventually was recognized by the literary establishment as a genuine talent. She was elected to the Académie Goncourt (1945) and was the first woman to serve as its president (1949); she was given the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur (1953); and she was the first woman in France to be accorded a state funeral. Perhaps a more significant index of Colette’s literary importance is the record of her friendships with towering figures such as Marcel Proust and André Gide, both of whom admired her work. Since her death, numerous biographical and critical studies (from writers in France, England, and America) have attested Colette’s impact on French letters and on world literature.

Discussion Topics

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Few authors begin their career as coauthors, as did Colette. How did this early experience benefit her career?

Colette is well known for her gamins, of whom Gigi is probably best known to Americans because of the film based on the story. By what means can an author contrive characters both “assertive” and “endearing”?

To what extent was Colette, by then a senior citizen, able to convey successfully the era of the Nazi invasion of France in World War II?

In what ways did Colette’s nation far exceed the United States in honoring a literary woman with a sensational personal reputation?

Is Colette open to the charge of repetitive plotting of her fiction?

Bibliography

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Crosland, Margaret. Colette: A Provincial in Paris. New York: British Book Centre, 1954. A very appreciative biography, written while Crosland was much under the spell of Colette’s personality. During her preparation of the book, Crosland often visited Colette and her third husband in their Palais-Royal apartment. She states in the introduction that one of her purposes is to convince others of Colette’s greatness.

Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Critical biography analyzes the subject’s work as well as her life. Janet Flanner, long a commentator on the French scene, contributes an interesting introduction. Supplemented with a chronology and a bibliography of works by and about Colette.

Cummins, Laurel. “Reading in Colette: Domination, Resistance, Autonomy.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 20 (Summer, 1996): 451-465. Argues that when Colette’s characters engage in reading, a dynamic of domination and resistance is established; the father’s censoring intervention debilitates, but the mother’s model of reading as dialogue and resistance empowers.

Eisinger, Erica Mendelson, and Mari Ward McCarty, eds. Colette: The Woman, the Writer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981. Collection of essays is divided into sections on Colette’s early development as a writer, the relationship between gender and genre in her work, and her exploration of a feminist aesthetic. Contributors draw extensively on feminist scholarship and on studies of the ways female writers use language and relate to their roles as women writers. Includes an informative introduction and an index.

Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Creating Colette. 2 vols. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 1998-1999. Worthwhile and comprehensive biography of Colette. The first volume chronicles the first forty years of her life and stresses the importance of her African ancestry and maternal family background in understanding her work. The second volume covers the years from 1912 to her death in 1954. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Holmes, Diana. Colette. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Notes how Colette’s fiction deals with female sexuality, domestic life, and the problems of working women in a man’s world. Argues that Colette’s stories need to be judged by female critics and asserts that the stories are open-ended and thus innovative for their time.

Huffer, Lynne. Another Colette: The Question of Gendered Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Chapters on Colette’s maternal model, her use of fictions and “phallacies,” her handling of sexual performance, and her role as writer. Includes notes and bibliography. Recommended for advanced students only.

Kristeva, Julia. Colette. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Scholarly critique of Colette’s life and work assumes that readers have some familiarity with the author. Kristeva, a Parisian professor of linguistics, examines Colette’s life from a psychoanalytical perspective, maintaining that Colette’s “writing itself appears as a substitute for erotic pleasure and the text as a fetish.”

Ladenson, Elisabeth. “Colette for Export Only.” Yale French Studies, no. 90 (1996): 25-46. Discusses lesbian desire in Colette’s fiction; argues that lesbian episodes in Colette’s work have been distorted by American critics who have suggested lesbianism where bisexuality would have been more appropriate.

Lottman, Herbert. Colette: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. The twenty-four photographs included in this text help to bring to life the pursuits and notoriety of Colette. Particularly valuable as complements to this reliable but rather matter-of-fact and sketchy biography are the photographs of Colette and Willy at table, Colette and her bulldog Toby-Chien, Colette in her Egyptian Dream theatrical costume, Sido at sixty, Henri de Jouvenel, Bel-Gazou, and two views of Colette with Maurice Goudeket. Lottman’s list of Colette’s works in the chronology of their publication is useful, but he omits the posthumous publications.

Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. An examination, insofar as possible, of the relationship of Colette’s works to her life. Begins from the premise that Colette’s books totally lack analogues in philosophy and politics, asserting that they are informed by a highly personal moral admonition, summed up in the term regarde—look, experience, feel.

Mitchell, Yvonne. Colette: A Taste for Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Biography makes the argument that, although some of her readers found her choice of subject matter objectionable or even depraved, Colette was instinctively deeply moral. She accepted no arbitrary hierarchies, choosing instead to be led by the life force and her five senses. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, notes, and an index—all extensive.

Phelps, Robert. Colette: Earthly Paradise. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966. Phelps, who has elsewhere compiled the best collection of Colette’s short fiction in English translation, has in this collection put together an autobiography of Colette “drawn from the writings of her lifetime.” The eighteen pages of his foreword and chronology contain a superb introduction to Colette’s career. The materials of the text are judiciously selected and arranged; they include translations of segments of Belles saisons and Les Heures longues.

Richardson, Joanna. Colette. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. The first full-scale biography of Colette written in English by a scholar steeped in French literature. Richardson had access to Colette’s papers and cooperation from her family. Includes illustrations, notes, and bibliography.

Rogers, Juliette M. “The ‘Counter-Public Sphere’: Colette’s Gendered Collective.” Modern Language Notes 111 (September, 1996): 734-746. Argues that although Colette claimed she was apolitical, her works are often grounded in social practices and familial relationships of French everyday life in the time in which she wrote. Argues that Colette incorporates feminist notions of the development of identity through a concept of community, a gendered collective that defines itself against society as a whole.

Sarde, Michèle. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: William Morrow, 1980. Study of Colette’s life and work is one of the most informative books on Colette available. It has not been superseded by subsequent studies and profits from a Gallic stamp and mood that non-French commentators have not yet begun to match. The research is superior to that of other biographies, and the bibliographical appendixes are thoroughly practical, including posthumous publications and the translator’s additions, with considerable assistance from the Gibbard chronology, of available English translations.

Southworth, Helen. The Intersecting Realities and Fictions of Virginia Woolf and Colette. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. Argues that although the two authors lived in different countries, there were similarities in their lives, literary styles, and the themes of their works. Places the two subjects within the context of a group of early twentieth century artists and writers and describes Woolf’s contacts with France and Colette’s connections with British and American writers.

Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. New York: Twayne, 1996. Provides discussion of how Colette emerged as a writer, her apprenticeship years, the erotic nature of her novels, and her use of dialogue. Includes chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.

Strand, Dana. Colette: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1995. Explores Colette’s treatment of mothers and daughters, women and men, gender role playing, old age, morality, reality, and the artist. A separate section explores her view of herself as a writer, and a third section includes commentary by her important critics. A chronology and bibliography make this a very useful research tool.

Strand, Dana. “The ‘Third Woman’ in Colette’s ‘Chance Acquaintances.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 499-508. Argues that in “Chance Acquaintances” Colette fashions a story that, despite a male plot structure, veers significantly from the masculine model. The writer who becomes the reluctant confidant of the wayward husband in the story is Colette herself, whose perspective reveals the inadequacies of generally accepted gender differences.

Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Presents an admiring but nevertheless candid account of the life and times of Colette, helping to place her work in a larger context.

Wescott, Glenway. Images of Truth: Remembrances and Criticism. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. Chapter 4, “An Introduction to Colette,” is reprinted from Short Novels of Colette (1951) and from Westcott’s introduction to Break of Day. Chapter 5, “A Call on Colette and Goudeket,” and chapter 4 provide valuable observations of the methods and person of Colette. Chapter 5 is quite moving in its details of the reception that Wescott received from a very ill Colette only two years before her death. During the visit, Colette said that The Pure and the Impure was her best book.

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