Colette The Evening Star: Recollections (1946; English tr. 1973)
This is such a sad book: the ageing Colette is almost entirely confined to her Paris apartment by physical infirmity. She is also, for much of the memoir, wracked with anxiety about her husband ("my best friend") who is on the run from the Germans in occupied Paris.
The Evening Star (L'Étoile Vesper) is the second volume of Colette's meandering reminiscences and covers Paris during the Nazi occupation and the years immediately following. Colette's war was a painful one - her husband Maurice Goudeket, a Jew, was sent to the Compiègne concentration camp and although released he then spent the rest of the occupation in hiding for fear of further imprisonment (and worse). Every time there was a knock at the door of her apartment in the Palais-Royal, Colette assumed that the axe was about to fall.
Colette (found here)
Colette was nearly completely confined to her apartment during these years by her failing health but there is no doubt that the confinement of her room was no confinement to her imagination. Certain things did, however, assume a great significance for her. Some of these are rooted in the physical, such as the all-important view from the window into the gardens of the Palais-Royal. Others are in the nature of recurring reflections about, for example, the passing of time per se. Colette is nothing if not consistently self-reflexive: at one point she notes that her publisher is pressuring her to finish her memoirs; but she cannot stop writing and must continue to put down anecdotes both from the past ("My publishers are all younger than I am. On the evidence of their elders who witnessed my beginnings... I believe that their juniors have formed a confused but highly-coloured impression of my life.") and what might be considered minutiae of the present: "Haven't I anything better to write today? I doubt it. No part of this miscellany is intended towards a peroration or an apotheosis."
This is indeed a miscellany - it is almost a stream of consciousness in places as Colette's mind skips nimbly about while her arthritic frame remains trapped in her rooms.
I recall a woman I once used to know... She used to maintain that the preserved love-letter gives no one pleasure, that it can give rise to a thousand irritations, and that, rather than create posthumous difficulties, she had destroyed all her own. . .'What, all of them?'She winked her little old lady's eye, which still shone with the colour of a great sapphire.'No. I've kept one.''It must have been a very beautiful letter?'For me. I know it by heart. Shall I tell it to you?'She let her gaze, not devoid of majesty, wander over her well-kept gardens, her overflowing kitchen-gardens, her luminous sheets of water, and recited:'The key will be hanging behind the shutter.''What's next?''That's all.'She paused before adding:'Believe me, it was enough.'
Colette recalls lost friends and lovers, pets, objéts, her writing and reading, childbirth, two world wars and the seemingly endless waiting for the time when it will be safe for her beloved to return home to the little community of the Palais-Royal from "the perfect and classical nightmare of absence".
Fifteen hundred days. A thousand days and then more than five hundred on top of that. As many days and nights as it takes for a child to be born, grow, speak, become an intelligent and ravishing human being; days sufficient for mature blooming creatures to descend, in frightening numbers, into the grave. In fifteen hundred days of war and oppression, of organized destruction, may not a people abandon even hope itself?... Humbly, I am one of those who did nothing but wait.
This melancholy survey of the declining years of a once-glittering and scandal-filled life is not a happy read but Colette's descriptive powers are certainly far from being in decline and The Evening Star offers moments of great beauty. Don't read it if you're feeling miserable.
If you liked this: I want to read more Claudine.
(Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris). Author, 2009.