Self- Portrait or Model?

This is my review of La Naissance Du Jour (Garnier-Flammarion) by Colette.

This is the first book I have read by Colette and I gather it is not regarded as her best. Published in 1928 when she was in her fifties and established in her fame, this has a poetical, stream of consciousness style, beautiful and original when applied to the landscape and climate of coastal Provence, to her passion for gardening and cats, but somewhat precious, at times tedious, when the theme is the nature of love, and her relationship with her mother.

There is a good deal of falsity here, although it is hard to say to what extent Colette is deluding herself or deceiving the reader. The book begins, ends and is punctuated with letters from her deceased "muse" of a mother, yet I believe that Colette edited these letters to suit her purpose and, despite repeated claims of her admiration, apparently found her mother impossible in real life.

In a blurring of autobiography and fiction, Colette claims to have given up love, but her innate sensuality belies this, together with the vanity which makes her unable to resist seducing and encouraging for long enough to cause havoc, her handsome neighbour Vial, despite plans to marry him off to a young painter called Hélène who is besotted with him, but devastated by the belief that Colette is his mistress, which again Colette does not deny. This triangular love affair appears to be completely fictional and may have been intended as a cue for Colette to explore love and renunciation, although it mainly serves to show her as egotistical and capricious. This romantic thread is impressionistic and ambiguous, perhaps in keeping with the novel's style, and so open to different interpretations, which could be a strength although it may leave the reader frustrated by its lack of development.

This novel needs to be read more than once to appreciate it fully. It encourages discussion, assisted by a knowledge of Colette's life. It told me little about relationships, but is memorable – if read in the original French – for its sensual evocation of nature – "un jour qui coule en instants bleus et or…. une tristesse de soleil" – and of cats in all their fascinating movements and moods. I like the little touches of wry humour as when a neighbour protests over Hélène feeding Colette's cat with moths burnt in a lamp. To paraphrase: "Why not?" Colette snorts. "They're made of fat and roasted. Naturally I wouldn't set out to grill moths for cats, but you can't stop them flying into lamps".

My four stars were given after a period of reflection with a sense of relief at having finished the book. The reading of it in French (as a second language) was an ordeal, with the striking, evocative passages of prose obstructed by frustrating paragraphs I was unsure I had understood without the aid of a English translation, which only confirmed my lack of sympathy for her more over-the-top rants about ageing and love.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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