The name and image of Michel came to torment her. She harbored against her dead husband a grudge which often distracted her from her variable, capricious and ill-controlled grief.”—”Le Toutounier” by Colette
Colette was a fascinating bisexual woman with multiple husbands and lovers, a lyrical writer, a traveling music-hall artist, a critic, a journalist, and the owner of a cosmetics business. Not only was Colette extraordinarily beautiful and original but she wrote beautifully and originally about love and work. As Erica Jong says in the introduction to The Colette Omnibus, “Colette’s fiction…is self-mythologizing in the way Proust’s or Henry Miller’s fiction is. It often draws upon the author’s life with seeming candor, but is not literal autobiography. The facts of the author’s life have been shaped, honed, and elevated to myth.”
And it is perhaps the myth that raises Colette to cult status. Was any writer more popular than Colette among women readers when Farrar Straus Giroux reissued her books in paperback in the ’70s? Judging from the number of Goodreads reviews, she is still popular today. How much is fiction? How much is fact? Some years ago I read two biographies of Colette, Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette and Creating Colette By Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. And still I mix up fact with fiction, because her memoirs seem so closely tied up with her novels. Of course Renée, a traveling music-hall artist in the novel, The Vagabond, is not Colette, but she is what we would like Colette to be.
The time comes when one can’t reread the favorites constantly, and goes back to lesser works. I recently reread Duo, a novel I didn’t care for much years ago, and Le Toutounier, a sequel I’d never heard of.
In the quotation at the top of the page, from her novel Le Toutounier, the heroine, Alice, is bewildered, sad, and angry. Her husband Michel drowned in what she calls “an accident” on the river while they were on vacation. She has returned to Paris and, as she lets herself into her bohemian, impoverished sisters’ flat, she does not quite allow herself to realize it was suicide. In Alice’s case, he died so suddenly that she can’t come to grips with it. Readers of Duo know he committed suicide.
This diptych of novels is rather stagy: indeed Duo was later adapted as a play. And this “duet” between a theatrical couple, Michel and Alice, beautifully reveals their characters in dialogue. Michel, who directs theatrical seasons in casino towns, is the more sensitive of the two, worried about the business. Practical Alice, who grew up poor with three sisters who also worked in different capacities in the theater, designs costumes and doesn’t worry .
The plot of Duo centers on Michel’s discovery that Alice had a brief affair with his business partner. When she attempts to hide a purple portfolio, he insists on looking at it. As he carries orchids in a glass jar to the table of the run-down family manor house where they are vacationing, the dialogue is charming and lyrical.
“The purple light looked so pretty in your eyes and on your cheeks…like that. But we need that other thing too; it’s the same color—you know what I mean?”
“What other thing? Look out, Michel—you’re spilling the water from the flowers. Are you coming?”
“I’ve never knocked over the water from flowers in all my life! Some kind of blotter—it was there, on your bureau…it isn’t there anymore. Have you put it away? What were you doing with it? Were you writing?”
There is a love letter in the portfolio. He does not take the affair in stride, even when she tries to sugar-coat it. He is, however, aware that he cannot express his anger while their housekeeper, Maria, is in the house. Alice is annoyed that he cares so much what people think but what Michel says is true: they are vacationing in his manor house in the country where gossip spreads very quickly. Finally, she tells him more about the affair, since he can’t seem to get over it, and he commits suicide while she is sleeping. He is thinking grimly on the way to the river that she’ll have no problems dealing with the business and the estate.
In Le Toutounier, Alice returns to Paris, after being hassled by the insurance agents trying to prove it was suicide. She moves into the crowded flat with her sisters, bright, brittle, pretty women, Colombe and Hermine, with married lovers. Actually, Colombe is a virgin, faithful to her inaccessible man, while Hermine is dramatic, having a nearly fatal meeting with the wife. Le toutounier is the big American sofa where they relax and where two of them sleep. And, ironically, her sisters’ involvements with their inappropriate men mean that soon Alice will have le toutounier all to herself. She doesn’t want to be alone, but she will be alone.
I preferred Le Toutounier to Duo, though that, too, was much better than I had remembered. Her best books are great; her lesser books are better than you think.