January 28, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Two letters from Colette, who was born on this day in 1873, to her friend Marguerite Moreno.
Rozven, mid-September 1924
… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!
I am speaking to you now just as bluntly as I would speak to myself … You, who are magic itself when it comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color. For instance, your Proust—pages 3, 4, 5. If you were talking to me, this scene would be stunning. But in your written version what do I find? “Madame A. had a critical mind and brought ruthless judgments to bear … a chorus of flatterers agreed … the conversation took a bitter turn … mocking exclamations, derisive remarks,” etc. Do you realize that in all that not one word makes me see and hear what you’re talking about? If you were telling me this in person, you would paint old Madame A. and her husband, Papa Anatole France, and the whole company in fifteen lines. You would transform your “untethered mischiefmaking” into a single line of dialogue, of heard conversation, and it would all come alive. No mere narration, for God’s sake! Concrete details and colors! And no need of summing up! I don’t give a damn whether or not you ask Proust’s pardon for having misunderstood him. Nor do I care whether or not Sardou was “one of the kings of the contemporary stage”! Do you see? And the same goes for Iturri. A “charming and delicate dinner party”—“a conversation which wandered from one subject to another”—what are you showing me with phrases like these? But nothing! Paint me a décor, with real guests and the food they are eating! Otherwise, it’s all dead! In spite of yourself, you’re thinking of Madame Brisson. And I forbid you to do so! Liberate yourself! And try, oh my dear heart, do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing. Try also to pardon me for throwing all this on paper so hastily. I must dash. Write me at Blvd. Suchet. I love you, I hug you, and I am determined that you shall write “marvelous” things, do you hear? My paw to Pierre.
Paris, June 14, 1926
I’m told you’ve been working ten hours a day and I hope this isn’t true. If it is, I cannot sympathize enough. Scratching paper is such a somber battle. There are no witnesses, no one else in your corner, no passion. And all the while, waiting outside, there are your blue springs, the very cries of your peacocks, and the fragrance of the air. It’s very sad.
Translated from French by Robert Phelps, 1980.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.