Somewhere among the thousand-or-more books I own, books stashed in three or four places at home and office is The Collected Stories of Collette. I don't think I've ever cracked its bindings, but I remember buying it decades ago, in part because I knew at least this much about Collette--she was a scandal. Not much more.
The cover art suggested the very real possibility of some steamy reading--that was cause, I know. And I was, at the time, trying to increase the size of my library of short story collections. It was at a time when I wanted to know everything--every important writer. I actually remember buying that book, in part because I remember the cover, remember the impulse, which was neither righteous nor something I'm celebrating. But I never read it, and the book is still there, I think, on a shelf full of short story collections.
What do I know of Collette? Not a whole lot more than I ever did, and, of course, barely a thing about her fiction. Constancy--commitment--was not her forte. She married and remarried as if the institution was actually a revolving door, spicing up her life on more than one occasion with fairly well-publicized trysts with lady friends. She wrote fiction and poetry; some French literati considered her their finest writer in the early years of the 20th century.
She was, in other words, a presence in the world's finest literature of the time--and since, I imagine. I'm sure one could find a dozen or so dissertations on her and her work just this year. I have no idea how her books sell anymore.
During World War II, she hid her husband, a Jew, in the attic of her home during the entire Nazi occupation of France. She lived the kind of glossy life upon which gossip rags make their livings. For decades, in Paris, she had to have been all the rage.
But I never opened the book. And now it's time for me to downsize. One of my jobs in the next few years is going to be to get rid of that massive library. I won't have much trouble with Collette. Although she still has her disciples, I'm sure, I'm not among them. Honestly, I don't know her.
Today, the Writer's Almanac says it's her birthday: ". . . the novelist Colette, (books by this author) born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the Burgundy region of France (1873). She is best known as the author of Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1945)."
And then this: She said, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."
The Collected Stories of Collette is a brick, really, and the likelihood of my reading it before my office gets scrubbed is pretty slim. To see it again this morning reminds me of what were once my dreams, my professional dreams, of what I wanted to be, where I once wanted to see myself.
And now I just have to giggle, because the only words I'll likely ever read of this early 20th century French writer, someone who left just as many lovers in her wake as scandals, is two short sentences I just now heard for the first time, wisdom that could well come from Proverbs: "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."
From Collette. Then again, Solomon was no paragon of virtue either, come to think of it.
No matter. "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."