There are few books for those of us on the other side of fertility. There’s a whole literary genre, the coming-of-age novel, that details with wonder and reverence the moment in which girls become sexual, and yet both male and female writers have been reluctant to take on menopausal characters. As I entered my own transition, I began reading the whole tiny canon of menopause literature. In Edith Wharton’s book Twilight Sleep, fifty-year-old Pauline Manford is so obsessed with staying thin and avoiding wrinkles that even her daughter compares her to a “deserted house.” Menopausal Rosalie Van Tümmler in Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan thinks her period has come back because of her infatuation with a younger man. On the night of their rendezvous, Rosalie begins to hemorrhage from her vagina, eventually slipping into a coma on a bed soaked with her own blood. The original German title of Black Swan was Die Betrogene, “the betrayed.”
Pathetic. Depressed. Doomed. These examples may seem extreme, but I could not find a single story that did not equate menopause with disease and death. I’m all for darkness, but these stories made me feel hopeless. I’d just about given up trying to find a book that would honor both the physical struggles and the spiritual complexity of the change when I came across Break of Day, by the French writer Colette.
We know from her letters that at the age of fifty, Colette missed a visit from what she called her “cousin Pauline.” Afraid she was pregnant, Colette went to the doctor. He “poked two fingers into the place of mystery” and told her, “It’s possible your period won’t come back.” Colette, unlike her mother, did not go complacently into middle age. She had an illicit affair with her seventeen-year-old stepson, Bertrand, a liaison perilously close to statutory rape. A quack doctor gave her transfusions of blood taken from young women and she had a lifting, French for a face-lift.
By 1927, at fifty-two, Colette had changed course. She broke it off with Bertrand and began to write Break of Day, a work of autofiction in which she used herself as a main character and wrote out her philosophy of menopause. Unlike the other menopausal characters I’d read about, Colette was not miserable. She was contemplative. She was alone, “not abandoned.” Her life as a romantic “militant” was over. She would no longer waste her time pursuing or pining over love. She sensed the beginning of a “long rest between herself and men.” Colette’s newfound equilibrium made her lose interest in “ordinary lovers.” She wanted either someone who would not make her suffer or to be completely alone. Her late-life emotional independence reminded her of an earlier phase, of childhood. “Can it be,” she wrote, “that I have attained here what one never starts a second time?”
At La Treille, her summerhouse in Saint-Tropez, the Colette character in Break of Day feels like a younger self, a girl more interested in animals than humans. She no longer wants to marry a man but still dreams of marrying a very big cat. A hawk moth drinks rosé out of her cupped palm, her cat gives her censorious looks, and a human animal, a younger man named Vial, lies on her divan clutching a cushion as if “hanging onto a reef.”
Colette is happy having Vial’s tan animal body lounging around her house until another member of their set, twenty-five-year-old Helene Clement, admits she has feelings for him and that, until his recent infatuation with Colette, he had felt something for Clement as well. Colette mulls over her position. Is she interested in Vial romantically? As a woman in her fifties, is her sexual life over? “What do people suppose we are thinking,” Colette writes in Break of Day, “when we look at men—and women—we older women centered in a precarious solitary sort of security face to face with the youth of other people?”
Colette had little respect for female convention. When her mother was alive, Colette rarely visited her and did not answer even her most desperate letters. She was ambivalent about her own daughter and motherhood in general. “I have a little rat and I paid the price for it. Thirty hours with no relief. Chloroform and forceps.” She refused to have the emotions expected of women. She cast off maternal love as well as grief; she was always happy to contribute money for a friend’s abortion, but never for a friend’s funeral.
Earlier in her life, Colette had flaunted her feminine body, even appearing topless in a play based on one of her books, but internally she often felt like a “hermaphrodite.” In the Claudine novels she made clear that girls have ferocious desires equal to those of boys. In The Pure and the Impure, she states that women like herself can be a homosexual threat to heterosexual men. In Break of Day, she writes of her body becoming more masculine, with a “thicker neck.” She moves without feminine grace. Rather than claw her way back into a false femininity, Colette accepts these menopausal changes and revels in a calm and celibate existence.
But does she? Is the Colette character of Break of Day really Colette the author? Always the provocateur, Colette wants it both ways. “Is anyone imagining as he reads me that I’m portraying myself? Have patience: this is only my model.”
In many ways Break of Day is a decoy. In its pages Colette turns Vial down. But in life Colette did not reject the younger man who pursued her. Maurice Goudeket, a thirty-five-year-old poet and diamond merchant, fell in love with Colette the same summer in which Break of Day takes place. “Everything is there … in Break of Day,” Goudeket writes in his book about his time with the author, except the “renunciation.” In letters from the period, Colette tells her friends about Goudeket, who would become her third husband. “How incorrigible I am,” she writes, “and how happy I am to be so.”
Critics accused Colette of lying to her readers. But both versions of her life are true. She chose both solitude and love. Julia Kristeva writes in her book about Colette that the central paradox of the author’s life was the “perpetual evasion of the love relationship and a constant tearing away from the life of the couple.” At fifty-five, Colette wrote, “At no time has the catastrophe of love, in all its phases and consequences, formed a part of the true intimate life of woman.” She goes on to explain that by concentrating on “sex” and “love” in her novels, she was able to hide more elemental mysteries that even she herself did not understand. By using romance as a smoke screen, Colette protected her intimate, unknowable self.
Break of Day is both decoy and testament. It is also Colette’s most technically adventurous work, a novel that uses postmodern techniques, mixes philosophy with autobiography, and blurs the line between the real and the fictional. The book received mixed reviews. But Colette never let the culture define her work or her private life. She had an ability to absorb negativity and then regenerate. Unlike her contemporary Simone de Beauvoir, Colette did not believe women were the second sex. She believed they were as strong as men if not stronger, and much better at transformation. “She devours the weaker male,” Judith Thurman writes in her biography of Colette, “and incorporates his powers.”
Where did this power come from? Her second husband pointed to her “monstrous innocence,” which some might call narcissism. Others saw her as an earth goddess sucking up sustenance from nature. Colette, like the mystics before her, was not selfless but self-interested. She was a wild being rolling over everyone in her path, driven to pursue the largest, freest life possible. And this was true even in menopause, a period often referred to in her era as “the dangerous age.” The source of Colette’s ability to regenerate is not mysterious. In letters, she mentions her husband and lovers occasionally, but her main focus is always on her work, a long-standing and passionate relationship that continued to sustain her until the very end of her life. “I look at myself without laughing in the inclined mirror,” Colette wrote in Break of Day, “then I turn to my writing again.”
Darcey Steinke is the author of the New York Times Notable memoir Easter Everywhere, as well as five novels. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her web-story Blindspot was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, the American University of Paris, and Princeton. Flash Count Diary is her most recent book.