The Commonplace Project is a daily post based on Ray Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers: read a poem, a short story, and an essay every day for 1000 days. These posts start with a quote and go wherever the rabbit hole leads. Follow The 1000 Day MFA so you don’t miss a thing.
“You must not pity me because my sixtieth year finds me still astonished. To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly.”
— Colette, Speech on being elected to the Belgian Academy
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French writer better known by just her surname, was born 146 years ago today. She was many things, but all of them boiled down to one. Colette was a storyteller.
When she was a very young woman she wrote a series of four racy novels called the Claudine stories. The books were published under her husband’s pen name — just Willie — and Colette received no credit for her work.
The 2018 biopic Colette stars Keira Knightly as Collete during the Claudine years. I watched it over the holidays and was completely enchanted.
The Claudine stories were wildly popular in their time. Millions of copies were sold, they were put on stage. But Colette’s most lasting work, the story that most modern people connect her with, is Gigi.
Colette’s Gigi was inspired by the marriage of an 18-year-old ballerina, Yola Henriquez, to a 58-year-old wealthy man named Henri Letellier.
Gigi was turned into a play starring a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn, who Colette knew on sight was her Gigi, and a movie starring Leslie Caron.
Colette was seventy-years-old when she wrote Gigi, a novella about a teenage girl raised to be a courtesan, but bucks tradition by convincing the older, wealthy man to marry her.
She wrote all her life. Colette was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 and was the first French woman of letters to be given a state funeral.
Gigi is all tangled up in my head with Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, from his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which, if you’ve never read it, you should. It’s so, so brilliantly good. It blows the movie out of the water.) For many reasons. Gigi and Holly are both beautiful, both gamines, both naive even as they behave as borderline prostitutes. And both were played by Audrey Hepburn.
Capote’s essay about meeting Colette who gave him a paperweight from her extensive collection (and started him on his own collection) is included in the book Portraits and Observations, The Essays of Truman Capote. I’ve added it to my reading list.
That was the summer that followed the spring
The sad anniversary of a thousand old things
I was letting them go
The words of Collette and a strange new perfume
The drenching my senses and filling the room
The heat from my body is the light in our eyes
Word is surrender and then we can fly
We were letting it go
It’s a song, but I think it counts. Click the link for the full lyrics.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.