Jesse Kornbluth here, mostly of HeadButler.com, musing this week on the first 20th Century woman to become a brand — and she was a writer!
You ask me to come and spend a week with you, which means I would be near my daughter, whom I adore. You who live with her know how rarely I see her, how much her presence delights me, and I’m touched that you should ask me to come see her. All the same, I’m not going to accept your kind invitation, for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is probably going to flower. It’s a very rare plant I’ve been given, and I’m told that in our climate it flowers only once every four years, Now, I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.
So I beg you, Sir, to accept my sincere thanks and my regrets, together with my kind regards.
— Sidonie Colette
This charming letter from “Sido” — mother of the most celebrated female writer in France — to Colette’s second husband begins Break of Day. But forget about the husband. Within sentences, Colette pierces your heart with the ultimate news of her mother: “A year later she died, at the age of seventy-seven.”
“Break of Day” is many things, but above all, it’s a love letter from Colette to Sido. And that was a stunning departure for Colette in 1928, for she was just coming off the huge success of her “Claudine” series and her two Cheri novels. In the first, we follow the sexual awakening of a young girl. In the second, a younger man has a long affair with an older courtesan. Not terribly shocking stuff in Paris — child prostitution wasn’t outlawed in France until 1909 — but not discussed in public, and thus very racy reading.
Colette was a powerhouse. She published fifty books. She was a marketing wizard, with chocolate and cosmetics bearing her name. She showed her breasts on stage. She wrote about orgasms, real and otherwise. And, in 1954, she was the first woman in France’s history to be given a state funeral.
So by l928, Colette — like our latter-day Madonna — needed no last name. She was a brand, and her product was sex.
But here she asks a remarkable question: Who obsesses a woman most — her mother or her man? We’re trained by habit and media to think only of the man, the night, the perfume, the champagne. And then there’s reality. As women hit their 50s and “the change” frees them from an insistent awareness of reproduction…. but this is beyond me. So I turn to Colette.
Problem: memoir or novel? The catalogue says fiction, but “Break of Day” doesn’t even seem like writing. Page after page, you feel you’re reading the diary of a season in Colette’s life.
Here she is, awake early, writing in a notebook “until the smell of the sea warns me that that the hour when air is colder than water is at hand.”
Here she is, fending off worshipful guests.
Here she is, in the closest thing to an ongoing story, dealing with a young man who has no chance of becoming her lover — trying to pair him with a young woman who’s smitten with him.
Here she is, on every page, delivering a bon mot: “I no longer ask for anything except what I can’t have” and “My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved” and “I instinctively like to acquire and store up what promises to outlast me.”
And here, most of all, is a tribute to a great mother.
But beware. Colette is a master, and this is a masterpiece; her writing darts toward truth but won’t stay there. In Secrets of the Flesh, her biography of Colette, Judith Thurman tells the story of Colette’s first wedding night. In the morning, when she came downstairs, there was Sido, still in her party dress. She had spent the night awake, brooding and inconsolably sad — and now Colette was devastated by her mother’s sadness.
A touching scene. But hardly one that suggests a healthy separation. Or anything like the relationship Colette describes in these 168 pages.
So this is largely fiction. But not like any fiction you have ever read. It’s so easy on the eye, so seductive, so physical that you feel the book more than you read it. It’s what a man thinks of as woman’s writing, in the sense that it’s written from intuition and marrow.
Men fear irony, Colette writes. And she’s hardly the first to note that young admirers — and admirers not so young — have urgent needs. She, in contrast, is beyond all that. In her house in the South of France, she has her garden and the sea and the sky for comfort. She’s done — at least for now — with carnal love. Her heart beats for a greater lover: “Here is the dawn. Today it is all little clouds like a shower of petals, a dawn for those with hearts at rest.”
I know a number of women of a certain age who tell me they are glad to be done with the fire and disappointment of romance. “Break of Day” is for them. As it is for the bewildered men in their lives. As it may be for young readers who’d like to know what lies ahead.
It’s easy to be dazzled by Colette the superstar. Or entranced by her life. Or lured into her racy novels, though they’re so much less sexy now. You’ll do better just to read her at her best. Start with “Break of Day” — and watch her create, one perception at a time, one of the most liberated women you may ever meet in print.