Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, was born in 1873. Hailed as France’s greatest woman writer, she published almost fifty novels in her lifetime, many with autobiographical themes. A provocateur in a time of sexual conservatism, Colette scandalized French society with her career as a racy music-hall performer; her three marriages, the first of which ended after a much-talked-about affair with her stepson; multiple lesbian relationships; and an onstage kiss with another female artist that nearly caused a riot. When Colette died in Paris in 1954, she was given a state funeral. The following is excerpted from Break of Day, a novel about a divorced woman’s return to an independent existence, which Colette began writing after the breakup of her second marriage. Translated by Enid McLeod. English translation copyright © 1961, renewed 1989 by Martin Secker and Warburg, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com.
“You ask me to come and spend a week with you, which means I would be near my daughter, whom I adore. You who live with her know how rarely I see her, how much her presence delights me, and I’m touched that you should ask me to come and see her. All the same I’m not going to accept your kind invitation, for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is probably going to flower. It’s a very rare plant I’ve been given, and I’m told that in our climate it flowers only once every four years. Now, I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn’t see it flower again.
“So I beg you, sir, to accept my sincere thanks and my regrets, together with my kind regards.”
This note, signed “Sidonie Colette, née Landoy,” was written by my mother to one of my husbands, the second. A year later she died, at the age of seventy-seven.
Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: “I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter” — that letter and so many more that I have kept. This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love. I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, closefisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls. I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it. Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three-quarters of a century.
Now that little by little I am beginning to age, and little by little taking on her likeness in the mirror, I wonder whether, if she were to return, she would recognize me for her daughter, in spite of the resemblance of our features. She might if she came back at break of day and found me up and alert in a sleeping world, awake as she used to be, and I often am, before everyone.
Before almost everyone, O my chaste, serene ghost! But you wouldn’t find me in a blue apron with pockets full of grain for the fowls, nor with pruning shears or a wooden pail. Up before almost everyone, but half naked in a fluttering wrap hastily slipped on, standing at my door which had admitted a nightly visitor, my arms trembling with passion and shielding — let me hide myself for shame! — the shadow, the thin shadow of a man.
“Stand aside and let me see,” my beloved ghost would say. “Why, isn’t what you’re embracing my pink cactus, that has survived me? How amazingly it’s grown and changed! But now that I look into your face, my child, I recognize it. I recognize it by your agitation, by your air of waiting, by the devotion in your outspread hands, by the beating of your heart and your suppressed cry, by the growing daylight all about you, yes, I recognize, I lay claim to all of that. Stay where you are, don’t hide, and may you both be left in peace, you and the man you’re embracing, for I see that he is in truth my pink cactus, that has at last consented to flower.”