31 March 2016

An Olfactory Novelist: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Je suis un romancier olfactif.” - Sidonie-Gabr
« Deux hectares, vigne, orangers, figuiers à fruits verts, figuiers à fruits noirs. Quand j’aurai
dit que l’ail, le piment, et l’aubergine comblent, entre les ceps, les sillons de la vigne,
n’aurais-je pas tout dit ? »

"Two hectares, vines, orange trees, fig trees with green fruit, with black fruit.  When I’ve
said that the garlic, chili, and eggplant fill in between the vines, the furrows of the vine,
haven’t I said it all? " (translation: JL)

"Je suis un romancier olfactif." - Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. 

“In the kingdom of smells, everything is either bliss or torture, sometimes so subtly blended that I find myself, when the many strands of a supposedly simple are trapped in my palpitating nostrils, actually listening to it, as carefully as if I were unraveling a symphony's sonorous phrases.” - S-G Colette

I. - Nowhere was Colette, the olfactory novelist, happier that at La Treille Muscat,  near Saint-Tropez.  She had discovered the dilapidated old farmhouse in the 1920s with the help of her friend, the artist Andre Dunoyer de Sergonzac,  who already lived nearby.  It was there that she wrote Sido (1929),  The Pure and the Impure (1932) and The Cat (1933),  all of them lovingly illustrated by Segonzac, 
A typical day at La Treille Muscat, according to Dunoyer de Segonzac: in the morning  Colette worked in her garden, at noon she swam at the beach of Salins, after lunch she napped, then the afternoon was devoted to her writing.  She ended the day by meeting with friends at the port. Colette's version, from a letter to Helen Picard, written during the summer of 1928:  « En t’écrivant je pose pour Segonzac qui a besoin de ma grosse personne pour des eaux-fortes. Ce grand peintre est un si charmant ami. »  (While I’m writing I pose for Segonzac who needs my big self self for his watercolors.) – translation, JL 
 “Fragrance, with your inexplicable way of making a flower's essence as palpable as an animal's while bombarding us with molecules more astonishing that electric ions, are you perhaps a function more of our minds than of our bodies?  The hypersensitive, exposed to your power, stagger, swoon as if from an illness.  Though a lover cured of his love may be able to confront his now harmless “ex: face-to-face without a qualm, let him breathe one whiff of the old familiar perfume and he blanches, eyes filling with tears.  Because Asmodeus, god of lechery, enlists fragrance as his assistant, filling the night with lethal honeysuckle, unfailing acacia, wanton lime-blossom, to ravage hearts and that remember and savage ones that resist.” - excerpts from  “Fragrance” by Colette included in ”Colette's Salon” by Robert Reilly,  Vogue:  November 1998.

II. - When Francois Mauriac learned that he had won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1952 the first call he made was a visit to Mme. Colette at her apartment in the Palais-Royal.  Under the light of her blue lantern he told her that the wrong writer had won the prize; Colette had been nominated for the prize in 1948, but lost out to T.S. Eliot.  
There have been other years when, with hindsight, readers have thought the prize went to the wrong nominee.  The idea has a long history, when the first committee met to award the first Literature Prize in 1901, members agreed that the Russian Leo Tolstoy was the greatest living writer (me, I would have chosen Anton Chekhov) but at that point Tolstoy had alienated so many of his admirers through his rages and intolerance that they could not bring themselves to award him the prize.  Instead, the prize went to a Frenchman, Sully Prudhomme, whose “lofty idealism” has dated rather badly.  Prudhomme is remembered, if at all, for the composers who set his words to music, Gabriel Faure and Henri Duparc.   Then in 1911, the year that Maurice Maeterlinck received the prize, Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells nominated Henry James and, my personal best of the worst occurred in 1932 when Sinclair Lewis nominated the Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson (real name – Ethel Richardson)..
Colette's international reputation has only gained luster in the decades since her death.  Yet during her lifetime her most esteemed peers, from the Jesuit-educated Francois Mauriac to Andre Gide, a law unto himself, considered her the better writer.  A sensualist, Colette wrote from a perspective somewhere beyond the deeply conflicted Mauriac and the totally - and sometimes disastrously uninhibited - Gide
1. Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac -  Colette vedangeuse, 1929.
2. Andre Kertesz - photograph of Colette at La Treille Muscate, 1930

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