Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Colette at St-Tropez


Colette was in her mid-fifties when she wrote Break of Day. Her second marriage had ended and she had bought a house at St-Tropez on the Côte d'Azur, decades before the fishing village became a fashionable haunt for the jet set. The novel's theme is a woman’s return to independence, sustained and enriched by the beauty and peace of her natural surroundings. 

"Tomorrow I shall surprise the red dawn on the tamarisks wet with salty dew, and on the mock bamboos where a pearl hangs at the tip of each blue lance. The coast road that leads up from the night, the mist and the sea; then a bath, work and rest. How simple everything could be!"
                                                                                               From Break of Day

It’s less a novel than a kaleidoscope of ideas and observations, an assessment of her own life in middle age. She ignores the conventional rules of narrative, introduces real people into her fiction, and there are clear autobiographical passages as her first-person narrator finds, against the odds, a mutual attraction with a younger man, Vial.

At the time of writing, between July 1927 and February 1928, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) was one of France’s best-loved writers. She had written a series of novels featuring her eponymous heroine Claudine; she had been a prolific journalist, embarked on a scandalous stage career and had lovers of both sexes.

She was fifty-two when she fell in love with Maurice Goudeket, a thirty-five year old jeweller, and Break of Day is rooted in the idyllic summer they spent near St Tropez, before she purchased her house there. She and Maurice went on to marry and were together for the rest of her life – though, as a Jew, he was interned during the Second World War. It was during the horror and uncertainty of this time, that Colette turned to the past for comfort and wrote the small masterpiece that is Gigi.

The real joy and exuberance of Break of Day is its glowing spirit of place. Descriptions of the coast and the sea are vibrant and detailed. Stylistically, it is a sequence of post-impressionist paintings in words. Yet her attention to close-up detail – the pearl of dew that hangs on the leaf - gives a clear empathetic sense of what it is to be the famous (some would say, infamous) Colette as she walks alone along the paths, with time and space to stop and see clearly. Interestingly, Maurice Goudeket was a dealer in pearls…

"Vial took himself off and I became more aware of the warmth, the freshness, the increased slant of the light, the universal blue, a few sails on the sea, and the nearby fig tree spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass. A tiny little tuft of fire was smoking on a mountain. The sky turned pink where it touch the harsh azure of a Mediterranean as ripply as an animal’s coat (…) His absence left me with a sense of emptiness and airy well-being."

But to read Break of Day as an autobiographical work would be to miss the vital point she makes in it about writing and the writer. The genesis of any work is the writer’s experience, stored away like treasure, whether hurtful or happy. As the store of experience increases, she stands back from it like a painter from a canvas.

"…she returns, and stands back again, pushing some scandalous detail into place, bringing into the light of day a memory drowned in shadow. (…) Is anyone imagining as he reads me, that I’m portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model." 


This is the captivating - really quite perfect - cover with gilt cloth of the book published by the New York: Limited Editions Club, 1983. The version with brown cover and photo of Colette is the most widely available edition, translated by Enid McLeod, and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

28 comments:

Jennifer said...

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Pretty cool, huh?

Jennifer said...

The genesis of any work is the writer’s experience, stored away like treasure, whether hurtful or happy.

Fantastic line. Love the cover of the book as well.

I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any Collette. I do need to make more time to read the classics, and it always seems I'm lagging behind.

Wonderful post, btw.

Bunched Undies said...

Wonderful review Deborah
It’s less a novel than a kaleidoscope of ideas and observations

Great line...I may borrow it ;)

Pétales de fées said...

I also love Colette! She was passionate about the gardens and animals and his pen is a very elegant! Good evening!

Stephanie M. Hasty said...

i friggin' love colette, she lived and was flawed and regretted nothing...and, would not know she existed if it wasn't for my french teacher friend...thanks for sharing about this book and about her! :)

RICHARD MOISAN said...

Merci, Deborah, de nous raviver le souvenir de Colette. C'était une grande écrivaine, mais aussi, c'est vrai, une femme hors du commun!
Bonne fin de journée!

Kenza said...

Une grande dame que j'admire pour la vie très riche et libre qu'elle a menée! A une époque ou elle a dû quand même publier ses premiers romans sous un autre nom...
Je connais un peu le sud du Royaume-Uni. Dans quelle région habites-tu Déborah? J'aimerai bien te situer.
Très belle soirée et à très bientôt

PS: Je n'ai pas encore eu le temps de venir visiter ton univers, je reviens dès que possible.

versus said...

Colette aimait le bleu, comme la couverture superbe du livre que vous nous présentez, Deborah !
Elle venait aussi chez Marguerite Moréno dans le Lot, près de Touzac, dans une maison nommée " la source bleu ".
Charmant texte et souvenirs.

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

What a wonderfully written review of these books and a true celebration of Collette's life.

You are a beautiful writer with a beautiful blog! Looking forward to reading more.

Cheers!

Dianne said...

Bonjour Deborah - I have never read "Break of Day" must see if it's in our local Library. You have inspired me! xx

James Kiester said...

Wow, I hope I put as much of myself into my writing, as she put into hers.

Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

Lovely and thoughtful review. I haven't read the book but you've nudged it closer to the top of my to-read pile. :)

mel u said...

I a few months ago acquired The Collected Stories of Collete-I have only read 3 or 4 of the stories but I really liked them a lot. I enjoyed your post a lot-I hope to read the full collected short stories this year

MuMuGB said...

I totally agree! Colette's Break of day is her Masterpiece (I didn't know the English translation before your post!).

litlove said...

What a beautiful post on one of my favourite writers. I love the play of fiction and reality in Break of Day. The famous line about her mother staying home to watch her precious cactus flower? Not true. The hymn to the renunciation of passionate love? Not true. And yet this is still a profoundly autobiographical novel. I do love the way she teases the reader who seeks to know her through her work.

Danièle said...

Je ne connais pas du tout cet ouvrage que je m'empresse d'aller lire . Merci :-)

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

I need to read this book. It sounds wonderful.

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Interesting and informative and as usual beautifully written.

Thank you Deborah!

Leovi said...

Colette over time has become a major reference, not only women writers, but also women of the XXI Century. It's funny, but at least in Spain at present the literature is dominated by women. For every 10 books I read 8 are written by women and they really are the ones giving a new vision of life that until now were only a few exceptions. In the field of art most artists with whom I communicate are women, even some people think I am also a woman, perhaps under the influence, but although I personally feel artistically state structures as a man I would not mind being like any of women with great talent that currently exist.

Sarah Allen said...

Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing. Those covers are stunning.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Rafia Shujaat said...

awesome review.... Deborah I sent you a message regarding the Giveaway, please send me the details when you get time.

thank you

Avalon Cat Cartoons said...

Lovely blog. I'm glad to be a new follower. I'm from Belgium, by the way.

Vanessa
http://avalon-lion.blogspot.com
http://vanessa-morgan.blogspot.com

Krafty Max Originals said...

I couldn't find the post about the Blog Hop, so I am leaving my note here....

BLOG HOPping around - I am now a follower of your blog, wont you also follow me?? ~KM
Krafty Max Originals

Billy Burgess said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Robyn said...

Beautiful pictures, beautiful description of Break of Day, and beautiful blog. I can't wait to read your novel. Are those purple artichokes in the picture here on your sidebar, or some kind of flower? Also beautiful. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog.

Jennifer said...

Hi, following from Boost My Blog Friday. Hop over and say Hi if you get a chance http://wedemeyerfamily.blogspot.com/

Clipped Wings said...

Such a lovely blog! Enjoyed looking through the posts.

Deborah Lawrenson said...

I've learnt my lesson after last week after trying to write too lengthy a comment to thank you all individually as blogger just wiped the lot when I tried to post - I do hope it suffices to express my appreciation that I come and visit your blogs and comment there.

Just a very few asides, then. I'm so happy to have introduced this book to those of you who love the south of France and didn't know it. Litlove's words on it are valuable, and learned, as ever. I'm also really interested in my French friends' view of her - sometimes we presume to know what other nations think of their own, but I think we're safe with Colette.

Finally, to Robyn: yes, artichokes from Apt market, and you can see them in context in today's post.

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