The Summer I Read Colette

I think my only earlier connection with the writer Colette was watching the 1958 musical film Gigi. It stars Leslie Caron and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on a 1944 novella by Colette about a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as a courtesan. She has a relationship with the wealthy cultured man named Gaston who falls in love with her and eventually marries her. It was also a play that starred the yet unknown Audrey Hepburn, and then another play based on the film (Lerner and Loewe) which is described as the “unexpurgated 1973 stage musical” that was not a hit on Broadway but was still revived on Broadway in 2015.

My more recent contact with Colette came through watching a 2018 biography film, Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley.

I read that the film was “inspired” by her early “Claudine” novels: Claudine at School; Claudine in Paris; Claudine Married; Claudine and Annie. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was pushed by her first husband, Willy, to ghostwrite novels based on her own youth.

My wife, who studied in France and taught French, said that she read those novels when she was in high school.
“Were they any good?” I asked.
“They seemed pretty good when I was 16.”

So I thought I’d give one a chance and I got the audiobook of Claudine at School. She was right. It would be a pretty good book if I was a 16-year-old girl in high school. In the novel, Claudine is smart, cultured, sarcastic, and a little ahead of her schoolmates and teachers. It is a somewhat flirtatious tale that probably was considered more than that in 1900.

That book and its sequels were published with her husband, Willy, listed as the author. The books were very popular and should have made Colette immediately a well-known author. But she only becomes recognized as a writer in her own right with her book about her music hall experiences, The Vagabond (La Vagabonde, 1910), which was published under her name.

Colette costumed for “Rêve d’Egypte”at the Moulin Rouge Link

The young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette began an affair with Willy (the pen name of Henry Gauthier-Villars) and he brought her to Paris as his bride. He considered himself to be a “literary entrepreneur” and employed a number of ghostwriters to write for him and asked Colette to write for him too.

Colette wrote a draft of Claudine à l’école based on her own life, but Willy rejected it. Still, when he is in debt, he took out the draft, suggested revisions which she made, and the novel was published. He did not expect it to be a bestseller. Not surprisingly, but surprising at that time, it attracted a large female readership. Delighted, Willy tells his publisher a sequel is almost finished. There is no sequel. Willy buys a country house with his new money and his anticipated wealth. He locks Colette in a room there and forces her to write. She initially objects but ends up writing Claudine à Paris which is another bestseller.

Colette’s books are often described as racy or erotic. In real life, Colette had a lesbian affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval. When the jealous Willy finds out, he also has an affair with Georgie. This inspires Colette’s next novel, Claudine en ménage (translated as Claudine Married).

Though the Claudine books earned a lot of money, the copyright belonged to Willy. Colette and Willy separated in 1906 and divorced in 1910. She made her living on stage in music halls across France. She even portrayed Claudine in sketches from her novels. But her earnings were minimal and she was often hungry and ill.

She had a number of relationships with other women, something that had actually been encouraged by Willy. One of those affairs was with the gender-ambiguous Mathilde de Morny (who was born female but presented as the male “Max” and sometimes as the female “Missy”). They prepared an act and a 1907 onstage kiss between Max and Colette in a pantomime entitled “Rêve d’Égypte” caused a near-riot at the Moulin Rouge. The outrage made Willy believe that her books’ sales would crash, so he sold all the rights to the Claudine books for 5,000 francs without Colette’s knowledge.

That was when Colette decided to divorce him. Willy told an employee to burn the Claudine manuscripts, but the man returned them to Colette instead. She turned to journalism and photography and chronicled this period of her life in La Vagabonde which is about women’s independence in a male society.

Colette’s numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades. Initially considered a limited if talented novelist, she has been increasingly recognized as an important voice in women’s writing.

“The Summer I Read Colette” by Rosanne Cash
from Songs Inspired by Literature
see lyrics

Old Man Hemingway

Henry “Mike” Strater and Ernest Hemingway with an “apple-cored” marlin. Bimini, Cat Cay, 1935. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain

In September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was published. It was the last novel published during his lifetime and it was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.

It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.

Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.

Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.

He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.

I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.

The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.

Dr. Williams, Jersey Poet

Williams in his 1921 passport photo

It’s the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. He the first of two sons of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry. Growing up in New Jersey, I was interested in Jersey poets when I was in high school and discovered Williams through a used copy of his Selected Poems that I found at a yard sale. Seeing that it was his birthday, I took that old paperback off my shelf and read some breath into his poems again.

When Williams was in high school he decided he wanted to be both a poet and a doctor and saw no clash between the two professions. He pursued both vocations with equal passion for the rest of his life. He wrote poems on the back of prescription slips, and he drew from the passions and pain of the patients he visited in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and, later, in his practice in Rutherford.

In my high school days, I fell under the spell of his contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and poetry that “sounded like poetry” and that took some digging to understand. I found Williams’ poems oddly simple and almost “not poetry.”

Apparently, Williams admired those poets too but found them “too European.” But along with Pound and H.D., he is considered a leading poet of the Imagist movement. It became his aim to capture a uniquely American voice. He wanted to use the plain speech of the local people whose lives he became part of in his medical practice.

In the second half of my poetic life, I lost interest in the most “poetic” poets and found my reading and writing closer to Williams, though more narrative in form.

The sixteen-word unrhymed poem from 1923 below is among Williams’ most famous poems.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

“The Red Wheelbarrow” should be called  ‘XXII’ since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’ 1923 collection Spring and All and that is how it was listed in that collection – but everyone refers to it as “The Red Wheelbarrow.” When I first became really interested in Williams, this poem intrigued me. It is so simple and yet its “meaning” is not so easy to explain.  That wheelbarrow is a metonym for something greater. The fact that it is “glazed” by rainwater is very much “Imagist.”

Williams’ poetic reputation was slow to form because it was a time Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was considered the pinnacle of English poetry. It was in the 1940s and beyond that Williams gained wider recognition, and his five-volume poem Paterson, (1946 – 1958) is considered his masterpiece.

It is a much more complex and difficult poem on first reading. (It is available online if you can read text on a screen – I can’t, so I prefer to read it on the paper page.) Yes, in high school, I took a copy of it to read beside the Great Falls of Paterson, New Jersey feeling very much a poet myself. Corny Romanticism, I suppose, but I still visit those falls quite regularly, without his book but usually with my notebook and camera.

But another of his best-known poems is this very short one that reads like a note left for his wife.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem is very much “modernist and imagist” and so we look at it as dealing with temptation, guilt, and life’s simple pleasures as he apologizes and yet doesn’t apologize.

This post is not to say that all of his poems are so simple on the surface or difficult to understand as poems.

Take this opening of his straight ahead and rather erotic poem “Arrival.”

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles…

And I do love the idea of and this line “Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?” from his poem “Danse Russe.”

He certainly was a prolific poet. His Collected Poems take two volumes.


This post originally appeared on my poetry blog
connected to the website for POETS ONLINE.

Leaving Walden Pond

I’ve written about Thoreau at Walden Pond and about the book that came from his time there, but it was this week in 1847, that Henry David Thoreau left Walden Pond. On September 6, he left the little place at the pond that had on the land that Ralph Waldo Emerson had bought there. In Thoreau’s one-room cabin, he tried to live up to Transcendentalist principles. He simplified his life, spent time alone in nature as a spiritual practice, and lived off his own labor.

It sounds very basic but he was only a couple of miles from the village of Concord, Massachusetts, and Thoreau often went into town to get cookies from his mother, have dinner with friends or spend time with the Emersons.

He also spent a night in jail because he refused to pay taxes because he didn’t want to support slavery or the United States’ war with Mexico. That would eventually became the basis for his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was first published in 1849 as “Resistance to Civil Government.”

He lived at Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days. I suppose he liked that 2-2-2 as a good time to leave. Though he wrote while he was there, it wasn’t the book that would be Walden. During that time, he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

Why did he leave his cabin? Emerson asked him to come and stay with his wife and children while he, Emerson, was away in Europe. Thoreau later wrote: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

He also journaled that he missed the woods and wished he could go back. I’ve never read he didn’t just walk back sometimes or return to the cabin. Did anyone else make use of it?

Pre-Walden, in 1841, he had moved in with his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and did odd jobs for the family to earn his room and board. He had earlier tried working in his father’s pencil factory. He also ran a school with his brother for a short time, but neither felt right to him. He had decided he wanted to devote his life to poetry. That’s something very few parents want to hear from their children.

He lived at the pond to “live deliberately” and figure out what kind of life he should be living. I think it was his two “gap years” and he had learned something about nature but more importantly he knew he was going to be a writer. After living simply at Walden Pond, Thoreau went on to travel widely as an amateur naturalist, and he wrote prolifically.

He left Walden Pond, but he would work on Walden; or, A Life in the Woods for another seven years, publishing it in 1854.

The House at Pooh Corner

I read that Posingford Bridge, otherwise known as Poohsticks Bridge, was up for sale. Located in Ashdown Forest in England, it was a place where author A.A. Milne and his son, the real-life Christopher Robin, would go to play a game they called Pooh Sticks. It is the simplest of games. You put a stick in the water upstream, then go to the other side and watch it comew3 out from under the bridge and sail away. The game appears in the Winnie the Pooh stories.

I played Pooh Sticks with my sons on the bridge at our local library, and we read all the Pooh books. I still had my own childhood copies of the Milne books and some newer simplified versions for younger readers.

Pooh’s birthday just passed on August 21st. It is also the real Christopher Robin’s birthday. What a nice coincidence. The stories about Christopher Robin and his toys (His toy Edward Bear became Winnie the Pooh in the books) that became his father’s stories seem like such a nice series of tales. I made up stories about Peter Rabbit and his friends and family for my oldest son at bedtime. For my younger son, the stories were about Curious George. The stories closely paralleled my sons’ lives day to day., and I’m sure I was partially inspired to do this by what I imagined had happened in the Milne household between father and son.

But the real-life Christopher Robin and his father didn’t have as loving a relationship as Pooh and Christopher. Alan Alexander Milne was not Pooh or Piglet. Definitely not Tigger. Maybe a little bit Eeyore. He wasn’t warm and snuggly and was often absent from their home. His mother dressed him in “girlish” clothes and kept his hair very long – both styles that didn’t help him in his earliest school days.

Christopher Robin also had a love-hate relationship with his fictional version. That was true when the books became famous and he was maturing and it continued into adulthood.

Christopher wrote a memoir, The Enchanted Places, and in that book he writes, “At home I still liked him, indeed felt at times quite proud that I shared his name and was able to bask in some of his glory. At school, however, I began to dislike him, and I found myself disliking him more and more the older I got.”

Theirs is not a very happy story and though he did come to terms with his relationships with his father and the character, it didn’t happen until after his father’s death.

Christopher Robin Milne.jpg
Christopher and Edward Bear, 1928, Fair use, Link

The fourth and final Pooh title is The House at Pooh Corner, published in 1928 when Christopher was 8 years old. The entire series of books was a bestseller worldwide by then. The more popular the books, the more Christopher disliked them. He was teased at school and it was no better when he was put into boarding school at age 9.

He saw his father on school breaks, but when he went on to Cambridge University and served in World War II, their relationship was distanced physically and emotionally. After the war, he finished his degree and in his mid-twenties didn’t know quite what to do with his life.

Christopher married at age 27 his first cousin, Lesley. His parents did not approve. The couple moved to Dartmouth and opened The Harbour Bookshop together.

Though he occasionally visited his father when the elder Milne became ill, after his father died in 1956, Christopher never returned to Cotchford Farm. The farm near the Ashdown Forest in East Sussex was a place the family went on holidays from London. It is the real life Hundred Acre Woods of the books and that’s where Pooh’s walnut tree home and the bridge were located.

His mother sold the farm and his father’s personal possessions, and Christopher wanted no part of his father’s things or royalties from the books. Sadly, after Alan’s death, his mother, Daphne Milne, had almost no contact with her only child and did not see him at all during the last 15 years of her life. She refused to see him on her deathbed.

A few months after his father’s death, Christopher and Lesley had a daughter Clare. She was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy but lived into her mid-50s.

Christopher Milne gave the original stuffed animals that inspired the Pooh characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, and Kanga – to the book series editor, who in turn donated them to the New York Public Library. Christopher did not like the commercialization of the Pooh books and characters.

Christopher Milne died in April 1996 at age 75. He had lived with myasthenia gravis for some years.

In the film, Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017) there is a version (not completely accurate) of his relationship with his father that was “inspired” by the more accurate book Goodbye Christopher Robin: A. A. Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh. There is also a Disney live-action/animation hybrid film “biography,” Christopher Robin, in which the adult Christopher encounters Pooh and relives some of the best parts of his childhood.

The two Pooh novels are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Milne also wrote two poetry collections, Now We Are Six (as in being 6 years old) and When We Were Very Young, which features the very first appearance of Pooh.

The four books are available as a collection.

Reading Aloud

Now that I have a grandchild and another one about to arrive, I’m reading aloud to children again. I did it with my own sons but in my 25 years of teaching in K-12 (and even sometimes in my undergraduate and graduate classes) I would often read to my students. My draft title for this piece was “Reading to Children” but I realized that it is really about reading aloud to anyone. Reading to the baby yet unborn and to the senior citizen in the nursing home or a patient in a hospital are all terrific things to do.

I enjoy reading out loud. I enjoyed it when I was a student in my post-kindergarten days when I could read. Not a good thing, but I didn’t have a lot of patience for my classmates who were not good readers. I would get in trouble because I read ahead and then didn’t know where we were in the book. I learned as a teacher that you have to let everyone read – the good, bad, and the average readers.

I was inspired to write today because of an excerpt I found online from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done.

He is writing about reading to the really young ones. as when you say “Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet” and read from a picture book holding it up for all to (sort of) see.

I never had the chance to read to a class of mostly non-readers, but I did get to do that one-on-one and one-on-two with my sons and with my granddaughter. But the advice he gives often applies to reading aloud to any age group. And as a big fan now of audiobooks, the best readers follow most of these suggestions too.

His book probably goes deeper into the research on reading but in brief, we know that “reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.” They also learn what good writing sounds like and that will influence them as writers.

It really helps grow children’s vocabularies. H states that the average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand, so in a typical school year (around 185 days), if you read one book a day to your class, by the end of the school year they will have heard 185,000 words.

Reading aloud well requires “the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician.” We don’t all have those talents, but we can all read with a better expression than some AI device (sorry Siri and Alexa and my GPS).

The best part of reading 1:1 is when the little ones start to ask questions about the story. Those interruptions probably aren’t a good thing in classrooms but when the audience is on your lap, it’s great. It shows they are paying attention and that their imagination is at work. I love hearing my son read to his daughter and ask questions like “Can you find the apple? How many ducks are there in the pond?” I did the same thing when I taught Dickens or Shakespeare just at a higher comprehension level.

There should be reactions from your audience – just like at any performance. Laughs, giggles, maybe a gasp, or an “oooh” when the llama finds its mama. No tears in the early years, but I saw those in my classroom sometimes. (I always read Johnny’s letter to Pony in The Outsiders aloud to get that emotional reaction.)

I used to have my “sophisticated” middle school students bring in a children’s book they loved as a kid that they thought had a “message” for grownups too. They had to read it aloud to the class – dramatically – and discuss the “theme” with their classmates. It was a good and not too threatening front-of-the-class experience. I was pleased that a number of students would connect their children’s books with something we had read in class. “I think that The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss) is a lot like what happens in Romeo and Juliet with the two families.”

I remember a girl who brought in another Dr, Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! She said, “My mom got this for me at the end of fifth grade when I graduated elementary school, but I think it applies to middle school or high school too.” Yes, yes, and for college grads, and people changing jobs, and someone starting retirement. No matter where you are in your life, there is still much to see and do. The possibilities are still pretty endless.

Now, get your mat from your cubby, and let’s all take a little nap and dream about all those things.