Chic lit

Colette, when not writing novels, also earned her living as a journalist, war correspondent and theater critic. She worked as literary editor for Le Matin from 1918 to 1924. One day, having read some stories by a young Georges Simenon, she summoned him to her office. She told him: “You’re too literary. You must not make literature. No literature! Suppress all the literature and it will work.

Rachel Careau, in the comprehensive introduction to her new translation of Cheri and La Fin de Cheri, quotes this story to emphasize how Colette took her own advice, developing a narrative style that was taut, stripped-down and lacking decorative touches. Raymond Mortimer, in his introduction to the translation by Roger Senhouse published by Penguin Classics in 1954, compared Colette’s imagination to that of Picasso and asserted: “She can foreshorten the French language as boldly as Mallarmé; she has it trained to obey her caprices like a pony in a circus. All of which is a perpetual feast to the reader, a chronic headache to the translator … The difficulty of translating her is more nearly desperate than anyone can know who has not tried his hand at it.”

Colette’s commitment to this worked-for simplicity seems emblematically revealed by her use of a mononym. Christened Sidonie-Gabrielle, called Gabri inside the family, nicknamed Minet-Chéri (darling puss) and Soleil d’Or (golden sunshine) by her mother, she became Madame Gauthier-Villars on her first marriage and Madame de Jouvenel on her second. That first husband, the man about town known as Willy, who as an adventurist journalist employed many pseudonyms, ran a factory of ghostwriters. He signed his wife’s first books as his own. Later the young woman came out as Colette Willy. After 1923 she signed herself simply Colette.

This was a surname inherited from her father, Jules Colette. Willy seems to have been the first to bestow the soubriquet, referring to the teenager, during their courtship, as his “pretty little Colette”. Her subsequent use of this name mingling masculine and feminine identities was appropriate: in the age of the belle époque and its ambivalent relish of exaggerated femininity, Colette took pride in what she called her own “virility”. Her novels characteristically both underline and gendered conventions concerning sex and love.

Colette outstripped Willy, the would-be writer suffering from chronic writer’s block who had swallowed up her literary identity. She also outstripped her father, who had ambitions to write and who kept his bound manuscript books on a shelf in his library. After his death these volumes, adorned with grandiose titles, were found to be blank. Perhaps Colette swallowed up her father’s ambitions. At any rate, masculine vulnerability became one of her recurrent themes, underpinning both Cheri and La Fin de Cheri.

Colette’s novels enjoyed great popular success, as well as being praised by her peers Marcel Proust and André Gide. The latter admired her grasp of the realities of modern life, high and low, the power struggles involved in love and sex, expressed in a diction that, as Careau puts it, “shifts seamlessly from high to low, from classical and archaic to contemporary “. Perhaps Colette’s linguistic freedom derived partly from her background. She grew up in Burgundy, the daughter of well-read, independent-minded bourgeois parents in whose library she could flick between Charles Perrault and Émile Zola. Her brothers were sent to boarding school and trained for professions, but an onset of family poverty saw Colette educated at the village school. Childhood escapades with country friends were opportunities to pick up slang and dialect words. Later, in Paris, mixing in bohemian and demi-monde circles, and for a while involved in lesbian cotries, she learned the various codes of their inhabitants, while her experiences earning her living as a music-hall artist and gave her access to rich seams actress of argot.

The vivacious range of Colette’s literary language matches that of her formal experimentation. She became one of the great French modernists, reinventing the French novel and wrestling it away from tired naturalism. For example, in her masterpiece Break of Day (1928), she names herself as both protagonist and narrator (while warning the reader that “Colette” is a fiction), and she exhilaratingly mingles memoir, letters, storytelling and outbursts of loving praise addressed to her mother, Sido. Her mapping of adult lovers’ bodies onto the maternal body and the southern French landscape is startling and moving.

In France Colette received the highest literary awards and was given a state funeral. Her work is canonical. Biographies continue to appear: those by Michèle Sarde (1978), and by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier (1997), for example, make a case for the solid achievements of a serious experimental writer. In the UK Colette’s appeal has been muted, partly by an uneven flow of translations of relatively few works, and partly by a prejudice, in some quarters, that her books, celebrating earthiness and sensuality, are therefore frivolous and unimportant: chick lit not chic lit. A Guide to French Literature: From early modern to postmodern by Jennifer Birkett and James Kearns (1997) writes Colette off in a single paragraph, in a section devoted to lesbian writing, as a “more important contemporary” of post-decadent producers of “fairly minor work” such as Renée Vivien and Liane de Pougy, and faintly praises her “luminous novels of childhood, her cats and her sensuous landscapes”.

A certain sort of critic may have continued to undervalue her writing, but Colette’s readership in the English-speaking world has widened. When feminists began challenging the male-dominated literary canon in the 1970s, Colette’s novels were reappraised and properly celebrated. In 1979 the newly founded Women’s Press reissued Enid Macleod’s 1961 translation of Break of Day. Colette’s early champion Margaret Davies was joined by critics and biographers such as Diana Holmes, Judith Thurman and Nicole Ward Jouve, all of them alerting to their subject’s flaws as well as her gifts. Angela Carter, for the prosecution, wrote tartly about Colette’s genius for manipulating publicity.

Now, fresh translations are at last appearing. Belinda Jack is preparing hers of Cheri for a Penguin series of new editions of Colette’s works, and Rachel Careau gives us here her version of two key novels, produced for an American readership.

Cheri and La Fin de Cheri were first published in 1920 and 1926 respectively. Both are short, compact and intense. Cheri explores the changing relationship and power play between Léa, a wealthy Parisian courtesan, and her much younger boyfriend-gigolo, whom she keeps, cherishes maternally and finally discovers she loves. La Fin de Cheri tracks the return of Chéri, disillusioned and cynical, from the First World War. Re-encountering Léa, who has survived by switching from selling herself to making money through canny investments, only deepens his sense of futility. Where Cheri is staged fundamentally in Léa’s opulent pink bedroom, with its vast bed displayed in rosy light like the interior of an iridescent shell, La Fin de Cheri opens out into the dark Parisian streets Chéri haunts at night. Both novels rely on masterly dialogue and precise, telling sensual details. Both show how a woman’s sense of self-worth derives from her youth and beauty. She is a commodity, whether as wife or courtesan. Women over fifty are ugly and repellent, since they are not desirable to men. They flounce and compete in a harem world, adept at subtly bitchy exchanges, drawing comfort from rivals who are familiar enemies. The wit, silkiness and sparkle of Colette’s prose sometimes veils the cruelty of this culture, sometimes flourishes it.

Translating texts embodying the diction and slang of a particular milieu and past epoch is tricky, and becomes more so when Colette’s sinuous prose has to be transformed into either British or American English. Careau deprecates Senhouse’s “mystifying” British locutions, such as “done a bunk” “skivvy” and “wheezes”, which might, to a British ear at least, reliably create a landscape of the past. She also deplores his omissions, inconsistencies, embellishments, alterations, and disregard for sentence structure, paragraphing and space breaks. Where Senhouse allows himself poetic license, Careau stays close to literal meaning. This fidelity goes along with Americanizing the novels: “cookies”, “playing hooky”, “gotten”, “ice water”, “barkeeps” et cetera.

Carau can in turn be misleading, for example translating “lingerie” as linen closet rather than linen room, the place where washing can be hung to dry as well as stored, a status symbol in a large house such as Léa’s. Sometimes I think she also makes mistakes. For example, when Léa and Chéri are lying in bed post-orgasm, Colette employs the subjunctive: “ils attendaient l’un et l’autre, dans une immobilité respectueuse, que la foudre décroissant du plaisir se fut éloignée d’eux“. Senhouse captures this mood, if imprecisely: “Both were waiting, concentrated and motionless, for the abating tempest of their pleasure to recede.” Careau has: “they waited, each of them, in a respectful stillness from which the decrescent thunderstroke of pleasure had distanced them.” Waves of sexual pleasure may ebb away, but Colette’s enduring importance and fascination as a writer will not.

Michael Roberts is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her most recent novel is The Walworth Beauty2017

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