The French write Colette (1873–1954) wrote many books, including the novels Gigi and Cheri, made into popular movies. Colette also had an advice column in the women’s magazine Marie Claire during the years 1939 and 1940. These translations are from Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette published by State University of New York Press. The translations copyright 2014 by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel. The translators wish to thank Anne de Jouvenel, Foulques de Jouvenel, and Hugues de Jouvenel for their cooperation in making these texts available to English-speaking readers.
Note: In this letter Colette just briefly quotes the letter she’s responding to. Colette also mentions Edmond About (1828–1885), a novelist and journalist. She refers at the very end of this piece to Louise de Chaulieu, one of the heroines of Honoré de Balzac’s novel, Letters of Two Brides.
Colette on Love
It’s worth quoting, the letter I received last week. But if Marie Claire provided hospitality for all the letters that ask it for aid or advice, in terms that are moving and often literary, each one of these bound issues would weigh as much as an epic. Luckily the letter in question can be summarized in a few words: “When the time comes, and with it old age, with what will two beings, who love one another madly, replace love?” I could answer even more briefly: “But madame, with love.”
My correspondent isn’t going to let me off the hook with such a brief answer. I will just let her know to begin with that I do not relish the adverb “madly,” no matter where it is placed. Its vague and elastic paroxysm doesn’t augur well. It’s an adverb cherished by a he and she who play at being irresponsible. Turned into an adjective, it goes with every sauce: chic is mad, and the allure of a dress is mad. That hat is madly darling. I’ll stop there. Why associate love with the idea of madness? To love someone is, if not reasonable, at least inescapable. You love, you are loved: that’s what you need to assure the equilibrium of two entire lives, and not the brief fever of two youths. I would definitely bet that my correspondent has not reached the ripe age of thirty. She is looking from afar at that number 3 with its two bumps and it scares her. I hope that she will allow me, from the height of my two times thirty years, to try to reassure her. Does she think that love stands terror-stricken as she is by some fateful date, and that love sees that end arrive and right away withers, like a rose?
Edmond About was a very young man of letters. So young, that in one of his first comedies, where he lists on the first page the age and type of each character, he describes, “The Viscount de Sainval, pleasure seeker, age eighteen; the Baron de Réville, old and debauched, age twenty-five.” Twenty-five years later, the Viscount de Sainval became, under the same pen, a “young, elegant man” of thirty-five springs, and it was the turn of the Baron de Réville, quadragenarian, to proclaim himself a pleasure-seeker. Youth is replaced by youth. After love, reigns love, just as a prince is succeeded by a prince, his son, who resembles him.
You who love “madly,” have you decided, accepted, that one day love will disappear from your life? Permit me to be astonished. You seem more resigned than a nun who, taking the veil, devotes herself to a unique and divine love. The question you pose for me, after having asked yourself the same question one hundred times, do you think that in six decades it hasn’t occurred to my mind, as well? Young temple completely consecrated to one cult, will you misunderstand when I speak to you of succession and accession. It’s not a question of a changing the idol. Maybe you will be lucky enough that yours will keep the same traits. It’s just that the tributes you pay will be different, and marked by some chastening; we know that chastening and modesty are, for us women, almost synonymous.
From a distance and with an innocent terror, you contemplate the future of your love. Now, greedy love only sustains itself on the present. What you take for foresight is only a form of doubt. According to what happens in your letter, you can only doubt “madly,” that is, by clouding the clarity of the present moment with the question of what will come later. You will quickly lose your serene countenance that way. I refer you, for further information, to Love in person, as he has been imagined and depicted in statues and paintings. When he ceases to be a mischievous child, he is a smooth-skinned adolescent, whose face only expresses a sort of radiant stupidity. Handsome young love, on whom you cruelly search for the marks of future maturity!
You can find in France, madame, many bad young marriages and many happy old marriages. Sometimes they are one and the same, as time goes by. You’re smiling? You say, “Throw another log on the fire, more flames!” What? You always want to resolve all questions of love by hot and cold. If we were to believe you, the human couple can only go from fever to frostbite. You will be quite fortunate—if you have deserved it—if you traverse temperate climes. Often you will have the opportunity to wonder whether time is leading you toward your end, or taking you back to your beginnings—if you have deserved it. You don’t like the word deserve. The feminine nature has a keen appetite for the miraculous, which is always a sort of unfair advantage and a reward for laziness. Love, a miracle strong enough to break your bones, a dazzling catastrophe, an imperious host, changes in an odd way once it takes root in a fragile earthly lodging, into a greenhouse plant that fears cold, heat, and humidity. Accept it that way. In return for that it will astonish you with its longevity.
So you don’t need to hold onto the nervous fear that it will perish. One of my friends married around 1919 a “handsome chap,” as people used to say, a man with a waist like a wasp, and whose thinness drove her wild. “His waist,” she enthused, “is almost two inches thinner than mine.” By 1940, the wasp had become a bullfinch, and we know that the puffed-up chest of a bullfinch is no small thing. What does a little puff mean to a woman who is truly smitten? When her husband gets ready to go out, my friend straightens the knot on his tie, smoothes the handkerchief in his breast pocket with a little tap, blows a mote of dust off the coarse grain of his felt hat, and tenderly watches him leave. “My dear,” she says to me, “I could never stand skinny men. To me they look like a coat hanger with a jacket dangling on it, I don’t know if you feel the same way.”
Yes, I do feel the same way. I swear to you, Madame…Madame Madly. And you, too, will feel the same way she does, take it from me. That is to say, that as you continually renounce the old exaltation for a new fervor, you will reserve the severity of your judgment for yourself. Because the preservation of a work that is long, arduous, and humble—a reciprocal love—does not depend solely on the beauty of souls. Women are fond of saying that “Flirtation has no age.” A great saying, but they utter it without thinking much about it. Flirtation—which is an art, a need, a pleasure—only raises itself to the level of diplomacy between the ages of forty and sixty. Afterwards, it is the instinct for dignity that adjusts and keeps in place our armor.
So many victories, madame, await you late in the day, if you neglect nothing. Pay attention to all of them. As skin loses softness, it craves finer linens. That bright color, so flattering yesterday, banish it today. Morning light—also too raw. Look up in Balzac how Louise de Chaulieu escaped the traps of the first light of day. Everything is difficult, because you are battling one opponent, daily and dear, and he knows most of your tricks. Go forth, young woman, but armed with all your weapons. What? Always these words redolent of the secret war between women and men? Always. It’s the law. Hush, now! Let’s draw the shade on certain delicious antagonisms. Let’s keep quiet about certain surprises that nothing should be known about, except that they sometimes place, on the face and in the eyes of a mature woman, the triumphant glow that illuminates a young bride.
Colette (1873–1954) wrote many novels, including Gigi and Cheri, made into popular movies. She was also a prolific journalist and authored regular features for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media, including this advice column for women.
Zack Rogow’s translations from French include work by André Breton, George Sand, and Marcel Pagnol. He received the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award, and teaches in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of twenty books or plays.
Renée Morel is a translator and adjunct professor of French at City College of San Francisco. She lectures throughout the Bay Area on French culture, art, and civilization, from the Gauls to de Gaulle.