Boy, is that title going to get me some hits or what?? Imagine the disappointment when the post turns out to be about Colette and Marcel Proust. And, not, well, you know…or not so much, at least.
I recently read a book called “Earthly Paradise: Colette’s Autobiography, drawn from the writings of her lifetime, by Robert Phelps” (published 1966). Apparently, Colette didn’t actually write an autobiography per se, but she did write a lot of what the editor, Robert Phelps, calls “autobiographical prose”- memoirs, portraits, essays- and these works are what he used to piece together this book. And on the very first page, non, the very first sentence of the book (in the Editor’s Foreword) we have Proust invoked:
“In her own lifetime, and especially outside of France, Colette was best known as a novelist, as the creator of Gigi, Cheri, Claudine; and as such, her place in twentieth-century fiction is very high, comparable among her countrymen only with that of Proust.”
This is possibly not so surprising, in that they both excel in their ability to see and record the fine details of a person, a time, a place, an object- and in their mastery of conveying, in vivid and evocative words, these observations in a way that relates the parts to the whole. What is surprising and interesting, at least to me, is that Colette and Marcel were contemporaries, they traveled in some of the same circles, shared some of the same friends, both lived in Paris and even met on a few occasions. And- here’s where the Sodom and Gomorrah come in- both were attracted to members of their own sex.
Colette’s “autobio” actually contains several references to Proust, including a portrait she wrote of him in her last book, published in 1950, entitled En Pays Connu. Here are some of her observations of Marcel:
“When I was a very young woman, he was a very good-looking young man. Trust the portrait of him by Jacques-Emile Blanche. That narrow mouth, that mist around the eyes, that tired freshness, both the features and the expression really are those of the young Marcel Proust.”
(The portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche)
Years later, after the conclusion of WWI, she saw him again:
“When I saw him again in the Ritz Hotel, where he lived during the war, his illness and the passing years had already done their swift work on him. His agitation and his pallor seemed to be the result of some terrible inner force. Dressed in tails, standing in his timidly lighted hallway, at the heart of a darkened Paris, Marcel Proust greeted me with faltering gaiety. Over his evening dress he was wearing an unfastened cape. The expression of the white, crumpled shirt front, and the convulsions of his tie terrified me as much as the black marks under his eyes and around his mouth, the sooty, telltale traces that an absent-minded malady had smeared haphazardly across his face.”
That seems a very sympathetic portrait, n’est-ce pas? Yet Jean-Yves Tadie, in his 1996 biography of Proust entitled Marcel Proust: A Life, passes on to us this description of Marcel, written by Colette in 1895, that he says is “shocking in its disdain”:
“…I was hounded, politely, by a pretty, young literary-minded boy. He compared me…to Myrtocleia, to a young Hermes, to a love of Prud’hon’s…My little flatterer, thrilled by his own evocations, never left me…(I did not much care for) his over-weaning politeness, the excessive attention he paid to those he was talking to…”
Sometime around 1917-1918, Colette sent Marcel a copy of her book Les Hueres longues. Did he read it? What did he think of it? From reading Proust’s correspondence of the period, Tadie tells us this:
“When Colette sent Proust Les Hueres longues, he picked out a few quotations from ten or so pages so as to compliment her on them. This was his method for making people believe he had read a book.”
Although he pretended to have read Colette’s book and complimented her on it, in a letter to someone else he said that he found “…contemporary writers unbearable”. One assumes he includes Colette in this assessment. But in March of 1919, Proust read Colette’s book Mitsou, and he admitted that he cried upon reading the letter from the heroine at the end of the book. So he must have found this short love story “bearable” reading, probably because it is a love story and because the heroine writes her so-touching letter when she realizes that her loved one, once he senses that she “belongs” to him, no longer loves her. A theme close to Proust’s heart.
And so, to another theme close to Marcel’s heart: Sodom and Gomorrah. This is actually the title of Volume Four of Proust’s novel, but when the original English translation was published, it was called Cities of the Plain. It is the section of the novel that primarily deals with homosexual and lesbian activities, and presumably, Colette read it. In 1932, in her book Le Pur et L’impur, she wrote a chapter called Sodom, and once again, we find Proust in the first line:
“Ever since Proust shed light on Sodom, we have had a feeling of respect for what he wrote, and would never dare, after him, to touch the subject of these hounded creatures, who are careful to blur their tracks and to propagate at every step their personal cloud, like a cuttlefish. But- was he misled, or was he ignorant?- when he assembles a Gomorrah of inscrutable and depraved young girls, when he denounces an entente, a collectivity, a frenzy of bad angels, we are only diverted, indulgent, and a little bored, having lost the support of the dazzling light of truth that guides us through Sodom. This is because, with all due deference to the imagination or the error of Marcel Proust, there is no such thing as Gomorrah.”
And yet Tadie says that Colette was delighted by Sodome et Gomorrhe, and adds, “…(she) knew what she was talking about…”