Called a psychologist of the senses and a poet of the sensuous, Colette is considered, along with Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, and Émile Zola, to be one of France’s premier contributors to early twentieth century literature. A prolific and disciplined artist, Colette molded a world of characters peopling eighteen novels and more than one hundred short stories, and she also wrote plays, literary criticism, and essays.
She is considered a pioneer in the genre of social realism so popular in her era and a model for the French libertine movement that addressed action unrestrained by convention of morality, making references to lesbianism and sadomasochism. Her characters are deeply entwined in relationships, usually of a sexual nature. These subtle, realistic relationships, though shocking in the early 1900’s, may seem mild by later standards. Nevertheless, she was in a vanguard by addressing topics not usually discussed in literature, and especially those not discussed by a female author.
The Collected Stories of Colette, edited by Robert Phelps and translated by Matthew Ward, Antonia White, et al., features one hundred of her short stories culled from twelve volumes published between 1908 and 1945. Because of the restricted exposition and the emphasis on character development, the stories remain viable and only peripherally dated. For the most part, they feature relationships between two people who are only moderately connected to their locale, and they demonstrate the all-too-human nature of the developing characters. Although there are brief mentions of the café society of Paris, backstage views of vaudeville performances, and peeks into Parisian drawing rooms,...
Creating works that are sensual but not graphically sexual in tone, Colette remains a forerunner for the liberation of the female character and the female author. Her work is concerned with the demimonde, her own small world, but by demonstrating a positive, active female type, her writing serves as a model for more modern women authors. Ultimately, Colette believes that women’s most positive and most commonly shared trait is a refusal to give up, a will to persist and an instinct to survive. Each of her women characters possess it.
There is also in Colette, both the woman and the writer, an intense desire for independence, a longing for autonomy. It is this impulse that keeps her a viable role model for women authors. Her motto was “regarde!” (look!), and she was an acutely trained observer. After divorcing Willy, she supported herself as a mime in vaudeville, and her record of her experience is one of the few extant renderings of the period in Paris. Colette’s work is part memoir, part narrative, and part lyric, and it stands as a hallmark of the woman writer’s struggle to break free of traditional molds and seek a path of her own.
Colette’s career as a writer spans most of the first half of the twentieth century, and she gives the reader not only a glimpse of her own life during that period and earlier but also of the intimate lives of the people she observed as a child in Burgundy, a music-hall performer in various French towns, a traveler in the south of France and in North Africa, and a resident of Paris. She often includes herself—or a version of herself—in her stories, and when she does, she emphasizes the idea of the narrator looking closely at her material until she sees more and more of its meaning. The majority of Colette’s stories, in fact, are about perception in one form or another—appearances and the truth behind them, characters seeing what they can or want to until they are forced by their own actions or those of others, or by circumstances, to see truly, or the reader himself drawn to a climax in which he sees the characters’ personalities and actions with sudden clarity.
If Colette’s stories are a mode of observing closely and in detail, often what is observed and revealed is the nature of character. Colette presents in her stories a rich variety of women who show their nature through dialogue and action. In “My Corset Maker,” the main character (who does all the talking, as the characters in the monologue stories do) at first seems to betray cattiness by insisting that her client has put on weight, but in the end she betrays conceit and a touch of avarice by extolling the corset she herself has invented to hide the bodily flaws of the women who come to her. The proprietress in “The Sémiramis Bar” seems a vulgar ogress to outsiders such as the narrator’s female friend Valentine, but she is really tenderhearted and maternal to her poor, bohemian regulars. Among the women who perform in the music halls, of whom Colette presents an extensive array, there are those who stand out as vivid paradoxes. Bastienne in “Bastienne’s Child” is young, beautiful, and lives to dance, but she turns out to have the plainest of tastes and to have a genius for and a dedication to the domestic life. The lesbian in “Gitanette” has an idyllic affair with her fellow performer, and then she not only reveals to the narrator that she has been deserted but also that her sorrow is what keeps her alive. The actresses in “The Victim” take pity on Josette, a lovely girl whose actor boyfriend is killed in World War I; they give her sewing jobs and finally she gets a bit part in a play. In short, Josette’s loss and her poverty endear her to the people who know her, but then her life takes a dramatic turn which casts her into a condition opposite to the generous and excited one that used to be hers. She marries a rich man whom she does not love and is bitterly jealous of him because he is hopelessly in love with her—that is, because he has everything.
The aging woman is a type to which Colette often returns in her stories. The narrator’s acquaintances in “Alix’s Refusal” make fun of the main character, but this gives the narrator an excuse to lay bare the kind of woman who refuses to hide her age, to come to terms with it by doing so, for as the narrator insists, “the true Alix ... is the young one.” In “In the Flower of Age,” Madame Vasco, a widow, does everything she can to appear young and succeeds in marrying a young man; despite all odds, including the revelation that her new husband is a stay-at-home like her first husband and “just another old man,” she shows herself triumphant in her desperate masquerade of youth. A grimmer facet of aging, however, is highlighted in “The Rivals,” where what keeps Clara’s sexual vanity afloat is less the fact that she seduces a famous playwright than that she does so in competition with her old friend Antoinette.
Colette’s stories are often as interested in the nature of men and children as in the nature of women. The “Clouk” stories show the stages of numb disbelief, loneliness, fear and desperate hedonism that a husband deserted by his wife can go through, whereas “A Dead End” catalogs a man’s unfound fear of desertion, “The Omelette” and “The Murderer” his self-destructive appetite for mastery over women, “The Respite” his craving for a self-pity stronger than his physical pain, “The Tenor” his sexual narcissism, and “Monsieur Maurice” his care to protect his...
Cottrell, Robert D. Colette. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Although this work concentrates on the novels published by Colette between 1900 and 1949, it reveals information on the style, themes, and tone present in all of her work. Offers extensive plot summary of the novels as well as some literary criticism and biography.
Goudeket, Maurice. Close to Colette: An Intimate Portrait of a Woman of Genius. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. A memoir of Colette by her third husband, the book reveals facets of her inner life not usually addressed in a biography. The two met in 1925, and although she was seventeen years his senior,...