“Today I didn’t even have to use my AK; I got to say it was a good day”
BY COLLYN HINCHEY
Let’s leave our world for a little, let’s leave breaking news from Syria. Let’s talk about Colette— let’s talk about her, because, it’s impossible to take her in and not want to have a conversation. I was struck by it the other day, sending a passage from Earthly Paradise (her collected personal writings, always on my nightstand as it serves the dual purpose of bedtime story and holy book) to a friend in which she writes, “But I did have the habit— and still have— of marveling.” It felt generous of Colette to remind me of her talent and identity. A woman, an artist of great and feminine majesty.
There’s a documentary of her, in her last years, being interviewed in the Paris apartment where she famously retired overlooking the Palais Royal. I’ve seen a clip of it. Colette is a mountain of a woman with delicate features and a soft, large shock of white hair that recollects the court of Marie Antoinette at Versailles. A large silk pillow pushes her forward in the generous armchair; her companion (is it Cocteau?) sits perfectly forward in an upright side chair just out of frame but Colette, in her dressing gown, is suggestive as always of being in bed. The gentleman pours her coffee and they discuss with slight, deep pleasure the activity of children in the bright park outside. Colette receives her cup and cream and navigates her sugar and mail with the deft and delicate movements of a hostess and a dancer. As she is, as she was born. There is a muscle memory in her of a woman who has handled affectionate cats and luxurious dresses and the faces of cruel or pliant men like a jeweler, all her life.
The subtitles are as inadequate as they are unimportant. But they tell us, the man speaking first: “Many letters?” “Quite enough.” “About the post, what about the film they want to make? The one about you. What d’you think?” ”That I’m no longer photogenic,” Colette says, pouting, and lifts her arms to the height of her heart, protectively. Shoulder up to hide her head behind an imaginary fur piece, a bouquet of violets that don’t exist. A pout, flirt! At her age! A French woman. More than Brassai or Atget, more than Balzac or Rodin or Renoir, Colette allowed me, all the way in America, all the way in a different millennium, to understand the concept of a French woman. A costless, sensual existence punctuated with sharp and expensive accessories. A life executed in pleasure.
I remember having that lesson confirmed by a Frederick Wiseman documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet a few years ago. Three hours of footage with the whole soft machine: the dressmakers, the dancers and teachers, the men who vacuum the floors. All of them shown to live lives that hold the sensory at a level just above the sensible. In Paris, I think, they have a habit of getting their groceries fresh every day. No need for the deep freeze or the vending machine— food is processed in the body, not the factory. There is pride in the autonomy of it, and a satisfaction in the beauty it brings. Americans who stop short in their understanding of it often call it smug.
Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, wrote in his essay on Miniature: “Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” I understand this, the value of it, in the way I consume and record the world. I grew up learning from poetry, which, at one of its more manageable bests is a moment that implies an entire existence, the world through the keyhole. But Colette is not looking through the keyhole. She is throwing wide the door and letting the summer air wash over her bedspread. Colette is receiving visitors in her dark apartments, Colette is pregnant and prone to naps at all hours of the day. Colette is young and ill in Paris, married to a man who takes advantage of her talent and beauty, and her mother is coming in from the country to buy her a warm winter coat. Colette is spending her only money on cups of warm chocolate infused with lavender, and cherished by people of influence who care for her. Colette is devoted to that which captures her attention and recklessly alive in the world.
She taught me how to revel in regret at the loss of beauty that age brings, and how to accept a compliment from a man. When my friend and I visit my older friends Arthur and Barbara for the holidays the other week I am dressed for a party; it is one of the first cold days of winter and Barbara tells the two of us we look like a Russian couple. So it’s easy to laugh right away while we unwrap ourselves from the coats and hats, and then there’s cold cider in champagne flutes for toasting. We sit at their table and talk about decisions I have to make and the perspective I’ve lost in my worries, and Arthur tells me, “No one who walks in a room looking like you did today has to worry about anything.” I know the beauty of how I accept it from Colette, the shy instinctive shoulder raise. My friend sees it, sitting next to me. He can’t stop staring.
Colette loved the attention and relished in playfully turning away from it. The raised shoulder is a gesture of protection, but a reveal of the shoulder as well, the strong naked lines of it. A diaphanous veneer of modesty over a true and stunning soul. In Colette, in her writing and existence, every movement is calculated, but careless. It is remarkably easy to stumble into it and fall down someplace soft and fragrant. She is a pleasure to read and to know.
From New York,