Colette and women

” I give my indulgence  – and-  I am not the only one – and approval to those who wear the colours of their survival, the signs of their activity into the arena. Too much courage has shone among the female kind, and for too many years, for women, under the pretext of loyalty, to  break the contract they signed with beauty. ”  ( trans, Matthew Ward)

Alix had done the unforgivable and looked her age, which to the women in Colette‘s milieu was  just  plain wrong, Alix was not however invisible, nor was her experience –

I  wonder at the literary year 2010- 2011,  and those lists which include  the Forward Prize, the New Yorker Magazine , the TLS and others whose  editors seem to imagine that we will be distracted by  Franzen’s  glasses, or depth literature and angst from male writers, that do not and cannot ever write from the perspective of  the woman’s relation to her body, to cosmetics, to  pressing issues such as covering, torture, unfair imprisonment. The historical lessons learned about  female voice and experience must be re-learnt for another generation of women, and indeed men.

There is just one other excerpt from Colette’s oeuvre on this blog, and it is about her own childhood, her unique relation to words and her development as a woman writer. I am inserting it here and as I do, I wonder at those people who would deny the veracity of female education and literary writing because :  it is not male.  What a  bunch of codswallop  to expect a great writer like Houellebecq ( whose description  of  a forty year old vagina in Atomised  is clearly   exterior to his understanding) to actually get  into the head of that woman whom he writes so beautifully.  He cannot, he can only describe outsides.

Colette , from Alix’s Refusal.
” But it’s my real face!” No. Your real face is in the drawer  of your dressing table, and sadly enough, you have left your good spirits with it. Your real face is a warm, matte pink tending toward fawn , set off high on the cheeks by a glimmer of deep carmine, well blended and nearly translucent  – which stops just under the lower eyelid, where it disappears  deep into a bluish gray, barely visible, spread up to the brow; the thick eyebrow, carefully drawn out at the end, is brown like your thick curling lashes between which your gray eyes look blue.”

 (trans, Matthew Ward)

And yet our lists have been dominated by male writers, more so these  two years than in  any others. I wonder do the publishing industry remark upon the absence of women literary writers and poets   from lists,  or maybe they  expect that we are all gender-neutral ?  What matter to them  if the  voice of  the female rape or torture victim is written by a man who has not the experience of  (for one)  sexual discrimination as part of his experiential approach to his work !  See here and here .
I am going back to reading Colette, to Carter, to West , to Weil, because these women writers resonate with me. Weil’s essays on affliction could be proofs for Colette’s Alix, though, without the emotional or philosophical depth. But we do not ask for depth amongst Colette’s  heroines;  the pearl-stringers, the corset-makers, the concubines,  the show-girls or the bored, endangered and eternally restive wives of small-business owners. What a carnival of grotesques would occur if literature and poetry, being male-dominated, tried to write these women.  Publishers assume that this is where the market is and by  default those   books  furnish the halls of academia,  making tokenism and or specialisation the   provenance of the endangered female writer.
Alix’s crisis is of discouragement , a  ‘déflouquement,’ (Rabelais), I wonder what kind of crisis has to be provoked in publication to avoid this type of statement from Peter Stothard :

The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” and “while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.”

Quite.  Clearly Peter Stothard does not recognise women’s contribution to the literary canon, no more than VS Naipaul !  But it’s always been about the market and for some reason publishers do not get that women are highly educated and whilst enjoy fluffy novels sometimes, we expect a bit more choice in our reading than to bombarded with depth interviews with literary giants and more dedication to bringing forward the female voice.  Thanks, I am adding my refusal, my discouragement to my heroine’s.

My Mother’s House and Sido, by Colette. Originally : La Maison de Claudine , 1992 . Sido , 1929

excerpts from The Collected Stories of Colette, Vintage Classics 2003.

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