FIFTY YEARS AGO Virginia Woolf wrote that the belief that the art of letter writing "is dead . . . dealt its deth blow by the telephone" was a commonplace. Whether or not this assumption is true it is too soon to tell. But that this is a rich time for the readers of letters is proven by the publication of a number of splendidly edited volumes by authors from as many different periods as Byron, Flaubert, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Evelyn Waugh and Woolf herself. No individual letter in any of these collections needs be a work of art by itself. It is the cumulative effect, the range of stimulus behind the letters -- friendship, love, business, condolence, politeness -- the combination of spontaneity and discipline that projects the personality of the writer. From a well-edited volume, one which includes the necessary background and framework to enlighten a reader unfamiliar with the details of the writer's life, there emerges a self-portrait, a three-dimensional mirror image.
This, alas, does not happen in Letters From Colette, far too slight a selection or, more accurately, sampling of letters to do justice to the most remarkable French woman writer and personality since George Sand. Compared to the rich, full-length portrait with background that we are given in any volume of Virginia Woolf's letters, this collection resembles a sketch for a pointilliste picture. Yet, with only the meager background of a compressed chronology set in eye-straining print, a kaledioscopic impression does emerge -- kaleidoscopic because so many of the letters are brief excerpts, sometimes consisting of only two or three lines, five or six extracts on facing pages.
Nevertheless a reader finishes the book seduced by this larger-than-life figure, this dynamo, this fountain of energy. During her long life Colette was an actress, a music-hall performer, a lecturer, journalist, beauty salon proprietor, lover, wife, mother, and always unceasingly a writer. Although she wrote more than 50 books and as many as six letters a day, although when reading her one would say she was a born writer, certainly a complusive one, snatches from these letters show what a burden she found it.
"I simply must finish La Fin de Cheri. But, my God, how hard it is! . . . I'm working well and with desolation." On another occasion she writes, "Scratching paper is such a somber battle. There are no witnesses, no one else in your corner, no passion." And again, "How my work bores me! Nine hours yesterday, seven the day before -- what a pretty metier writing is!" This from an author who never wrote a boring word!
Clearly her approach is never cerebral -- nothing of analytical intellectual about her. In only one of these letters is there a hint of how she made her own writing effective. Advice to a friend reveals the essence of her own style:
"You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the 'diary' effect . . . You, who are magic itself when if comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color. For instance, your Proust . . . If you were talking to me, this scene would be stunning. But in your written version . . . not one word makes me see and hear what you're talking about. If you were telling me this . . . it would all come alive. No mere narration, for God's sake! Concrete details and colors! And no need of summing up! . . . And the same goes for . . . a 'charming and delicate dinner party' -- 'a conversation which wandered from one subject to another' -- what are you showing me with phrases like these? But nothing! Paint me a decor, with real guests and the food they are eating! Otherwise, it's all dead!"
Concrete, sensual, physical, but never materialistic, she is always alive. Claiming that she wrote only to earn her living, she admits that "I have never been rich in money . . . For me, being rich means to possess -- a bit of ground, a car that runs -- good health, and the freedom not to work when I don't want to, or cannot."
Were it not for the success she achieved one would think it sad that her zest for the physical aspects of life could not have carried over into her work. "Yesterday I cleaned the roof," she writes. "Lord, how sweet it is to live physically, and to feel muscles one had forgotten quickening in one's body!" Her preoccupation with the concrete precludes her ever being sentimental. Describing her joy in her 8-month-old daughter, Colette delights in her "superbly robust little body, very well made, hard thighs and calves, agressive buttocks, and a pair of shoulders which will surely be beautiful."
Her love, her enthusiasm for all living creatures -- flora, fauna and human beings -- permeates these letters. Of fig trees she writes from Saint-Tropez, "One must live here to appreciate the four colors of figs: the green with yellow poulp; the white with red pulp; the black with red pulp; and the violet, or rather the mauve, with pink pulp, and all with such delicate skin."
And of creatures that many people would find repulsive or at least distastful: "The toads . . . are enormous down here. But we also have tiny pine toads, the size of bumblebees, marvels of tooling and almost all black. We saved the life of one of the large toads, which had fallen into a ditch and was clutching on to twigs, like a human being."
About human beings she is equally concrete if less compassionate: "Fernande C. in an evening gown, with jewels, lacquered hair, and a butcher's mug tending to fat . . . accompanied by a ecollete gigolo . . . a tall, skinny marmoset with . . . a head of hair like a Mary Stuart cap."
Because every word Colette writes is significant it is a pity that the editor has seen fit to omit all the headings and conclusions of the letters, an omission that only adds to the choppiness of the text. The translation is smooth except for one outstanding Gallicism throughout: "eight days" and "fifteen days" for a week and two weeks or a fortnight.