The Blue Lantern by Colette
As you might be aware, August has been designated “Women in Translation” month (you can read more here) and it’s an initiative I’m happy to support. Looking through my shelves, I think I’ve always read a lot of WIT, mostly in the form of French and Russian authors – I have piles of Simone de Beauvoir, Kollontai, Akhmatova, Leduc and of course Colette. You would think, perhaps, that Colette wouldn’t need much promotion nowadays, but I’m not so sure. In my early feminist days, she was highly regarded and many of her books published in a lovely matching set by Penguin. But I just feel that in this country particularly she doesn’t get as much press as she should; her writing and her life are inspirational and so I felt moved to carry on my WIT reading with a re-read – “The Blue Lantern”.
Back in the day, it was very hard to get hold of non-mainstream books (pre-Internet, of course), and some of Colette’s less well-known works proved impossible to track down. “The Blue Lantern” was one of these and it was only in recent years that I managed to find a copy (it must have been pre-blog though). It was Colette’s last book, a volume of jottings, recollections and thoughts on life, and it was pure joy.
Written between 1946 and 1948, “The Blue Lantern” finds a Colette who’s approaching 75 and dealing with physical restrictions. Crippled by the arthritis that plagued the last years of her life, she’s restricted to a divan in her Palais Royal apartment, where the lamp with the blue shade is always burning and where she continues, against all the odds, to write. There are occasional trips away, to the south of France or to taste the new Beaujolais; visits from friends and neighbours, particularly Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais (the latter of whom springs vividly onto the page); thoughts and observations on her life, the local children, animals and plants – in short, everything you might expect from Colette’s ever-observant gaze.
All of this sounds very simple, but the prose is shot through with Colette’s vivid writing, her sharp eye for detail and her zest for living. Even at the end of her life, in great pain, she was irrepressible and unique. Colette laments the loss of her great friend Marguerite Moreno; describes visiting Switzerland to have treatment for the arthritis; takes us through some of the strange and often impertinent letters she receives; and at all times she is accompanied by her third husband, the wonderful and faithful Maurice Goudeket, her “dearest friend”.
I’ve yet to find something Colette wrote that I don’t love (which is quite a wild declaration, I know), and I find myself wishing that some enterprising publisher would bring out a beautiful uniform edition of all her works. Penguin did a lovely job with the paperbacks I have from the 1980s, but they didn’t bring out everything, plus not everything has been translated – and Colette is a writer than needs to be read by all lovers of France, beautiful prose and pioneering women!
(We’re very lucky that a young film-maker was clever enough to record Colette during these last years of her life, and the film can be seen here – Cocteau visits, her dearest friend is beside her and Colette reminisces about her past. It makes a perfect accompaniment to this book and is a pure delight….)