Day 65: Floating Through Time: From Colette’s bed-raft to the laptop hearth

7 March 2011

The 65th Day of 2011

March has arrived and it is Women’s His­tory Month. I would like to believe we don’t need a Women’s His­tory Month – that finally we are inte­grated into the fab­ric of his­tory. How­ever, that is yet to be true.  We do need to be reminded each March to stop and think about women and our role in the mak­ing of his­tory.  In March I think about famous women, and the lives of pri­vate women who have changed the world, or just one other person’s life.

The sec­ond wave of the Women’s Move­ment brought many women writ­ers and artists out of obscu­rity and shed light on their work and their con­tri­bu­tion to the arts. The French writer Colette did not need a res­cue oper­a­tion.  She was a celebrity in her own time.  Vol­umes have been writ­ten about her and much of her work is still avail­able. For my taste, too often the writ­ing about Colette cen­ters on her sex­ual liaisons and not enough on her mas­tery of lan­guage and power of obser­va­tion.  When I’m stuck and can’t imag­ine writ­ing a phrase, let alone a whole sen­tence, I turn to Colette.  Not because I think I will become Colette, but because she reminds me that style mat­ters, that the right word counts and that atten­tion to detail is essen­tial.  In his fine and mov­ing book, Close to Colette, her hus­band, Mau­rice Goudeket, wrote this about her craft, the craft of writ­ing, and writ­ing well:

It was not a more noble activ­ity to write than, for exam­ple to make a pair of sabots (shoes). Each needed to be per­formed as well as pos­si­ble, with care and atten­tion to detail.  In gen­eral she never clas­si­fied things and beings in order of merit, con­sid­er­ing that they deserved equal atten­tion for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. But just because she con­sid­ered writ­ing as a task, and because she had all the virtues of the French arti­san – humil­ity, patience, self-exaction, plea­sure in a well-finished arti­cle – she never let a page leave her hands of which she could have thought ‘That will do well enough.’  She always wrote as well as she pos­si­bly could, and thus it hap­pened that she pro­duced an immense body of work where you could search in vain for ten lines which do not con­tain some image full of savoir, some pen­e­trat­ing nota­tion.  She was like a provin­cial violin-maker who, unknown, to him­self, was mak­ing instru­ments wor­thy of a Stradi­var­ius.  (pg. 17, Mau­rice Goudeket, Close to Colette: An Inti­mate Por­trait, Far­rar, Straus, and Cud­ahy, 1957)

Colette died in 1954. Dur­ing her later years she was con­fined mostly to her room in the Palais Royal, with a glo­ri­ous view of Paris.  One could not define this as an impov­er­ished liv­ing arrange­ment and Goudeket was atten­tive and lov­ing.  Many years her junior, their rela­tion­ship was sus­tain­ing to her and essen­tial to him.   This book, which he wrote after her death stands as a per­sonal record of their devo­tion to one another and of the pos­si­bil­ity, indeed the abil­ity, for two peo­ple to make a non-traditional mar­riage work.  What moves me more than any­thing else about this vol­ume is the expres­sion of his pro­found appre­ci­a­tion of her as a writer.

Alone in my room I would bend over one of her books with the same enjoy­ment as any ordi­nary reader. My love for the woman and my admi­ra­tion for her work ran as it were par­al­lel.  … Today I search for Colette not only in my mem­ory and my heart’s mem­ory but in her books where there is always the glo­ri­ous chance of find­ing her on every page. Because she never described any­thing that she had not observed and because she con­sid­ered crea­tures and things directly, with­out any pre­con­ceived idea, no works have bet­ter reflected their author.  (Goudeket, p. 5)

Women’s His­tory Month, and I find myself quot­ing not the woman but her third hus­band!  I do so with a spe­cific intent. Colette was about my age when she met Mau­rice Goudeket and he was about my age when she died at 81.  Colette quo­ta­tions and her works are avail­able widely and she is best left to be dis­cov­ered by each new reader or redis­cov­ered.  Mau­rice is less well known except as the Hus­band Of… and I think often mis­rep­re­sented.  He under­stood her work, he under­stood what writ­ing meant to her, and he was wit­ness to the effort it took to con­tinue on in pain.  He belongs to my fic­tional or fan­tasy life because I need to believe in a com­pan­ion who under­stands a woman’s work and does not run away (in real­ity or emo­tion­ally) from an unwell woman with a chronic dis­ease.  Colette wrote any­thing and every­thing, from news­pa­per columns to film crit­i­cism, fic­tion, diaries, let­ters and more.  (No spoiler alerts here: Choose your own Colette and enjoy).

Colette was unknown to me until my 12th birth­day although I had seen the “infa­mous” film Gigi, which was based on a story writ­ten by her.  Three years after the movie event, my mother had suf­fi­ciently recov­ered from my father’s choice of birth­day cel­e­bra­tion. I was then told that Colette, the author of Gigi, was a real woman, and a writer.  I wanted to be a writer, but I had wanted to be an actress and a dancer as well.  My 12th birth­day was a mile­stone year for me.  Sev­eral days before that birth­day I was diag­nosed with an incur­able autoim­mune dis­ease, then believed to be JRA (Juve­nile Rheuma­toid Arthri­tis).  The word chronic wasn’t yet part of the med­ical ver­nac­u­lar, incur­able was a far more threat­en­ing word.  Despite my mother’s panic, she reached for some­thing to keep me afloat.  She intro­duced me to the aging Colette, the Colette that Mau­rice knew best.

It is inter­est­ing to note that before the Amer­i­can film ver­sion of Gigi, there was a Broad­way play in 1951, which had a run of 219 per­for­mances.  Even at 78 years of age, just a few years before her death, Colette’s vision was unclouded.  She was out for lunch (in her wheel­chair) with Mau­rice.  They saw a young actress film­ing a scene on loca­tion in the lobby of the Hôtel de Paris.  They stopped and watched.  Colette turned to Mau­rice:  “Volià notre Gigi pour l’Amérique.”  That young actress was Audrey Hepburn.

Colette never stopped writ­ing, despite the pain caused by her ill­ness and her immo­bil­ity.  She called the bed where she spent most of her hours her “raft.”  A desk had been fash­ioned to fit onto the bed so that the writ­ing did not stop nor did the energy of her mind.  She could no longer travel nor see the wider world, but she still observed and she remem­bered.  Every­one knew where her apart­ment was and peo­ple came by the build­ing and she saw them from her win­dow. And she saw all of Paris, what she could see and what she could not for­get.  I won­der what Colette would make of the lap­top com­puter and how much it helps writ­ers like myself?  I think she would think it was ter­rific but I think she would worry about the fact that it can make a writer sloppy.  Too fast, too quick, too many gad­gets, spelling check, gram­mar check, etc.  What I am sure about is that Colette would not have changed her stan­dards.  She is often a haunt­ing pres­ence in my dreams – because unlike Colette I do some­times release writ­ing that I think will “do well enough.”  I know that; I regret it.  The Stone Sage Lion knows it when he greets me on a morn­ing after Colette has vis­ited me at night—in my sleep, demand­ing changes that can’t be made because I rushed some­thing out too rapidly.  Writ­ing still mat­ters, through the cen­turies from bed-raft to lap­top hearth.

Good writ­ing mat­ters more than any­thing, yet I so often fall short of her stan­dard.  I fall short of my own stan­dard.  Colette per­se­vered through bad even dis­as­trous mar­riages, she sur­vived dra­matic rela­tion­ships, she broke hearts and she had hers bro­ken. She bore death and loss with epic grief.  How­ever, when she couldn’t move with­out expe­ri­enc­ing bone– crunch­ing pain, she was still alive and present to her life and to the real­ity of love, and all of its pos­si­bil­i­ties. But through it all, and above it all, was the pre­dom­i­nant love of her entire life – the craft of writ­ing.  Not arro­gant, I’m-smarter-and better-than-you-are-writing (although she was!) but the end­less writ­ing and rewrit­ing and think­ing and rethink­ing of it all. This was her endur­ing and last­ing love.   The French gov­ern­ment granted her a state funeral, held in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais Royal.  She was the first woman in France to be given a state funeral. She is buried in Père-Lachaise Ceme­tery; a pink gran­ite tomb­stone marks her grave and is inscribed sim­ply:  Ici Repose Colette 1873–1954.

About writ­ing she said this:  “Put down every­thing that comes into your head and then you’re a writer.  But an author is one who can judge his [sic] own stuff’s worth, with­out pity, and destroy most of it.”

The year I was born she wrote: “It is beyond dis­pute that I can fly in dreams. You too. I add ‘in dreams’ because my efforts, like yours, have not suc­ceeded by a sound, a stran­gled sigh – in cross­ing the fron­tier that sep­a­rates the two worlds, only one of which we des­ig­nate, arbi­trar­ily as ‘real.’ I can cross a val­ley; pivot, to turn, on one or other of my fly­ing arms and swop down, head first, feet raised to gain speed, then straighten my trunk to regain the hor­i­zon­tal for climb­ing or land­ing. And how I sport with the wind in this entire uni­verse! Entire, because it pos­sesses its pale day-star, its nights less dark than early lights, its plants, its pop­u­la­tion of the loved dead, of the keenly star­ing unknown, its ani­mal life especially.”

Dear­est Colette,

Fly with me, with us, this March dur­ing Women’s His­tory Month. In dreams, and in your prose, you do stay with us. Come to this ter­race, and although I can’t promise you one of your beloved liv­ing feline crea­tures, both the Stone Sage Lion and I wel­come you.  We’ll show you the tricks of the lap­top hearth if you will teach me how to be more patient in writ­ing and in life.



©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace

If you have a favorite Colette quo­ta­tion or story or fact, leave a com­ment for us and your thoughts will be posted.

© Katie Bam­berger 2010



Filed under Hope, Inspiration, Life, Love, Memories, Relationships, Seasons, This Moment, Time, Women, Writers

8 Responses to Day 65: Floating Through Time: From Colette’s bed-raft to the laptop hearth

  1. Leo Knudson

    Thank you for mak­ing me aware of authors I would never think to look at and remind­ing us of the value of ded­i­ca­tion to a craft that we love whether it writ­ing, act­ing, shoe mak­ing, or motor­cy­cle repair.

  2. You always paint such beau­ti­ful pic­tures! I have yet to read Colette and really must, but I do love the movie ver­sion of Cheri. I really love all of the sym­me­try and intri­ca­cies and par­al­lels in this piece, and, well, all of them. They are why I read and write.

  3. This is such a beau­ti­ful piece, Alida. I felt immersed in Colette’s life as I read it (I loved how she referred to her bed as her raft). But, even more mov­ing was that I felt the deep con­nec­tion between the two of you. You have kept her alive in your own ded­i­ca­tion to the craft of writ­ing. It feels as if you and she are trea­sured friends.

  4. How happy I am to have found this web­site! I will enjoy — and more impor­tantly, learn a lot — as I explore in the days to come. Thank you espe­cially for giv­ing me a new appre­ci­a­tion for Colette.

  5. fromthisterrace

    Dear Carol marsh,
    Wel­come to From This Ter­race and thank you for vis­it­ing us.

  6. Colette is a won­der­ful writer and you cap­tured her spirit per­fectly. Though for me I love her not because of her ded­i­ca­tion but because of her sen­si­bil­ity, that she was a music hall artist, that she saw the beauty and ugli­ness in human­ity and could cap­ture it so precisely.

    You are an ele­gant writer as well, and this project seems like quite a lot of ded­i­ca­tion I mar­vel at. Happy to have made the discovery!

  7. Colleen

    Colette is still my all time favorite writer. I dis­cov­ered her in my high school library when I came upon the only vol­ume of her work rep­re­sented on the shelf. The book was “Clau­dine a l’ecole”. I was at once impressed by Colette’s style. When I checked the book out, the elder librar­ian gave me a sat­is­fied smile. I sensed she had expe­ri­enced some dif­fi­culty pick­ing and choos­ing which vol­umes could be dis­played given the lim­ited space at her dis­posal. The Clau­dine series intro­duced me to the rest of Colette’s writ­ings which left an indeli­ble imprint on my own writ­ing style. I’ll admit I find myself copy­ing her style in my own short sto­ries. One of my fan­tasies is to meet Colette and have her write a descrip­tion of the impres­sion I’ve left upon her. Oh what a won­der­ful mir­ror that would be!

    • fromthisterrace

      Oh yes, this is the per­fect fan­tasy. I stood in front of the apart­ment once in Paris and thought..if only…if only…what would she have thought of me…
      thanks for this com­ment. I’ve been on the bed-raft lots these days and it is Colette’s pro­duc­tiv­ity through it all that sustains..

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