It is lovely, isn't it, this quiet medieval village in central France with its chateaus and imagined winding cobbled streets. Are the crumbling ruins of a chateau still hiding there, on a hill overlooking the village? Those ruins, where Colette, nearing 70, took refuge in the summer of 1940 after the German army entered the outskirts of Paris. Colette writes:
"We have been here since 15 June. We had to leave on the fourteenth or the thirteenth, because the Germans had reached Mere. And I wanted to stay. And despite everything, I regret not having stayed. Curemonte, in ruins, has been loaned to my daughter by one of her brothers. We are waiting, and with such a hunger, to go back to Paris as soon as there is a route open. Not enough petrol...
'When it rains, the damp soaks into and revives the colours of the little dome, twelve or fifteen feet above our heads, which forms the roof of a little circular room in the ruin. In dry weather, the same paintings, apparently dating from the Renaissance, turn pale and powdery. We gaze up at them from below, there is not a single wall solid enough to lean a ladder against. These inexpungeable frescoes, consisting entirely of geometric decorations converging on the keystone of the dome, are painted very closely over a background of dark stone. They once enlivened with their yellows, their blues, and their olive greens, the solitary state of a Lady who kept herself warm without the aid of a fire, her feet tucked up in her great skirt...
'It is her bedroom that we are burning, its wooden panels carved into flowers and picked out in colours; under the paint it is crumbling away and as soft as sponge. From her little square window, the Lady used to see the invader, the ally, and the merchant mount the hill; she used to watch for the approach of what we lack: her freshly churned butter, her honeycombs, her rents paid in kind with chickens strung up by their legs, and the fine-ground flour...The curfew was not, as it is for us, the moment to be dreaded above all other, the moment when we all know that we can no longer count on anyone but ourselves until the coming of the clear dawn, cold as in all mountain districts, and heralded by a hundred goldfinches perched on the tips of the pea stick."
She remained in the chateau ruins with her husband, her servant Pauline, and her daughter Bel-Gazou's family for only a short time. In September she made her way back to Paris ("I'm used to spending my wars in Paris!"). The following year her husband, a Jew, was arrested by the Gestapo and interned. He was released several months later and left Paris to escape possible re-arrest. Suffering from arthritis, Colette remained in Paris.
I am continually in a swoon as I read Colette. Her writing is evocative, beckoning, picks me up and swoops me back in time. I hover over her shoulder while she, at her desk near a window in her beloved Palais-Royale apartment, scribbles on sheets of light blue paper (her "fanal bleu, or blue beacon light").
Nearing the end of Earthly Paradise, her collection of memoir pieces, I think her writing is getting stronger, more alive. A lifetime of writerly observation has given her pen a knife-like edge. She chronicles her life with a keen sense of certainty. And, her mother, Sido, remains the major influence on her outlook.
Writing about her own experience during WWII, she remembers how Sido reacted to her first glimpse of a Prussian soldier on a country lane in Burgundy during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870:
"It was up in Fox Lane...At dusk there is almost always a mist up there, along Fox Lane, because the spring is smoky then. So there I was, and I saw a soldier with a spike on his helmet standing in the middle of the lane. He was holding his rifle as though it was a shotgun. I could just make out that he had a thick, short beard. I think he was a Bavarian. Because of the dusk and the mist, there was no way of telling the colour of his uniform or of his beard. And for a moment I had the impression that the whole German Army must be composed entirely of grey men just like him, grey clothes, grey faces, grey hair, like people in engravings...
'What did you do?
'I went straight home and buried all the best wines."