Colette, a legacy of modernity

Texts that have not aged a bit: begun at the beginning of the 20th century, Colette’s novels, marked by heroines in search of emancipation, resonate “more than ever with our time”… 150 years later His birth.

“The more we read it, the more we are convinced of this timelessness and especially of its modernity”, assures AFP Dominique Bréchemier, professor of Letters and member of the Society of Friends of Colette.

This literary circle – which has more members than that of Marcel Proust, as he would like to point out – regretted at the beginning of January that no major exhibition was devoted to him in Paris or in a major French city at the time of celebrate his birthday.

Mother-daughter relationships, maternity, homosexuality, abortion … and even menopause: the avant-garde writings of Colette “resonate more than ever with our time”, underlines with AFP Diana Holmes, professor of French at the University of Leeds (UK).

Sign of this timelessness? Two texts by the writer, who died in 1954 in Paris, will be on the baccalaureate program for the first time this year: “Sido” (1930), an autobiographical account of her mother and “Les Vrilles de la vigne” (1908) in which she returns to the village of his childhood.

– Transgressive –

In the Anglo-Saxon world, where she has been studied since the 1970s in French and feminist studies courses, two new translations of her novels “Chéri” (1920) – undoubtedly the best known – and “La Fin de darling” (1926) were recently published.

However, the work of Colette – born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette on January 28, 1873 in Burgundy – has been relatively forgotten in France in recent years, even though the writer was the first woman to receive a state funeral.

Novelist, journalist, cabaret dancer, actress… Colette, who had three husbands, many lovers – including women – never ceased to proclaim her freedom.

Her first writings, the Claudine collection, initiated by “Claudine at school” (1900), she did not sign them under her name but under that of her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy.

The cycle ends with “The Sentimental Retreat” (1907) which she signs Colette Willy.

Abroad, her books, which are largely inspired by her life, are known thanks to the 7th art which has, on several occasions, seized the work of the woman of letters.

The first is a classic of American cinema: “Gigi” (1958) by Vincente Minnelli, adaptation of his eponymous short story, which received nine Oscars.

In 2009, “Chéri” was released, another adaptation with Michelle Pfeiffer.

– Anti-feminist? –

It is the film “Colette” with Keira Knightley which makes it possible to reach more new audiences. “For the Anglo-Saxon public, it is Colette’s life that interests us,” says Kathleen Antonioli, associate professor at Kansas State University.

“What fascinates is his story, his colorful life made up of transgressions”, adds Diana Holmes. Each time, the feminist aspect of Colette’s work and life is highlighted.

A term that she nevertheless rejected, believing, in a sentence passed down to posterity, that the suffragettes deserved “the whip and the harem”.

So, rather feminist or anti-feminist? “She has never ceased during her life to take action for the freedom of women. Let her share her complexity”, pleads Dominique Bréchemier.

For Diana Holmes, this anti-feminist positioning is more a matter of “posture” than a sincere position. “It was part of his public image,” she insists.

“There is great skill in Colette”, abounds Kathleen Antonioli, who recalls that the author, unlike Marcel Proust or Gustave Flaubert, “needed the money from her books” to ensure her independence.

“He is someone who was aware that his image had become a brand that had to be protected”.

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