I just finished reading My Apprenticeships, by Colette - the French novelist and performer born in 1873, most famous for the novel Gigi. My love for the writing of Colette has always felt like a guilty pleasure – like intensely dark chocolate, a red bouduior drenched in velvet, or my new perfume Black Afgano, a hypnotic blend of hashish and tobacco. I slip into Colette’s books and fall away from distraction – finding complete understanding of all that I have left behind to be with her.
My Apprenticeships is a memoir of Colette’s young adulthood as a country girl, new in Paris, and married to M. Willy - an older man who had a knack for publishing and self-promotion. M. Willy asked her to write stories based on her days in boarding school with a few titillating bits thrown in. He eventually published them under his own name, and the Claudine series became so popular that every girl in Paris wanted to look just like Claudine. But Colette received none of the credit, or the proceeds.
“Love comes disguised as a thunderbolt and often vanishes at the same pace (Colette, 103).”
The problem with M. Willy was that he was in love with his own power over oblivious doe-eyed youth - the minute Colette began to near thirty, with success in the theater as an actress, he was done with her. He suggested a different kind of life, and by different, she understood that he was asking her to leave.
“How old was I? Twenty-nine, thirty? – the age when life musters and arrays the forces that make for duration, the age that gives strength to resist disease, the age when you can no longer die for anyone, or because of anyone. Thirty already – and already that hardening which I would compare to the crust that lime-springs form, dripping slowly (Colette, 101).”
Before M. Willy’s suggestion of a different kind of life, a woman offered Colette a traveling show with thirteen trained greyhounds.
“I have forgotten the name of the envoy who let fall this balm, this dew, this temptation, this breath of the high-road, this scent of the circus. I shrugged my shoulders and refused even to see the thirteen greyhounds. Thirteen greyhounds, their fabulous necks outstretched, the curve of their bellies drinking in the air. And thirteen hearts to conquer. Disquiet, anxiety. It was all very well for me to shrink back into my scribe’s virtue, my familiar, faithful fear, anxiety remained, working within me, for me. Thirteen greyhounds, a rampart, a family, a home. How did I ever let them go (Colette, 122)?”
Just as I am, Colette was a complete nomad and a solitary homebody at the same time. She was theatrical (No matter how many times I turn my back on it, there are always new ways to be on the stage). She never had many female friends (women blow in and out of my life like the breeze). She lacks sentiment, or any idealistic tripe, and yet, her writing revolves around love - realistic love rather than fake, idealized love.
For a long time I worked for the circus. Unfortunately, there was no act with thirteen glorious greyhounds. As suited to my homebody needs, it was a circus that doesn’t travel - they just change shows every four months to create a different theme on the same variation. Teatro Zinzanni – a dinner theater involving vaudeville acts, an opera singer, a chanteuse, acrobats, trapeze artists, aerialists, jugglers, and lots of sequins.
The tent is one hundred years old, and imported from Europe. You get the sense that Colette could have performed there. Table 13 is haunted, and the guests that sit there always behave in a ridiculous way and leave feeling dissatisfied somehow. Sometimes in the back hall, the chairs flip themselves off the hooks on the wall. At night, after the show is over, one lamp is left lit on the stage to keep the bad spirits away – it’s an old circus theater tradition.
To be in the tent after everyone is gone late at night, is more intense even than the spectacularly glitzy show. The quiet is strange because you still hear the sounds in the air – forks clinking, voices singing, the announcer bellowing, the instruments swooping music to the swinging people in the air. The tent holds an enormous amount of energy. Every night 268 people are served their food simultaneously. Within five minutes they all have their plates. Every entrée somehow always tastes the same, no matter what it is. It tastes like it’s been in a heating box for hours.
At the circus, I worked as a dancing server. Every night I crammed into a small mirrored-dressing room with ten other girls who had beautiful bodies and very loud mouths. We applied our liquid eyeliner, tons of rouge and bright matte lipstick. We swapped fishnets (this weird extreme version that are so strong they leave dents in your legs, but are not quite strong enough to withstand the abuse that we put them through). The girls gossiped, sang at the top of their lungs, and swapped stories about auditions, boys, and crappy day jobs. Being quiet, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. The loudmouths had their own club, and the quiet ones had secrets shared backstage when everyone else couldn’t hear.
99 percent of the performers were introverts when offstage. They were from all over the world, and the one thing that stood out, was how lonely they all were. Well, except for the performers that lived in Seattle. As for the international stars - the more beautiful, ethereal, and otherworldly they were, the more alone they seemed to feel. They never stopped traveling from circus tent to circus tent, wherever they could find them, throughout the world. Marriages didn’t last, unless the partners were in an act together, or always in the same show.
The servers looked up to the performers with adoration and jealousy. Almost all of the servers were actors or musicians. We presented the performers like diamonds every night, while we were relegated to the periphery of the tent with brief food-baring dances at the center. We were scolded whenever we accidentally stepped into the performer’s spotlight, or tripped into their path.
Every Sunday night to make up for it, we all went to sing karaoke down the street. We needed that moment in the limelight to refuel our egos. One night, we found ourselves up against the cast of Hello Dolly, and surprisingly, we put them in the dust with our singing skills and audience lust.
Besides being told every now and then that I needed to “sparkle more” or that my tickets were “too perfect,” I suppose I wasn’t so bad at being a server at Teatro Zinzanni. Five nights a week, sometimes more, I was there doing the exact same repetition every night. The circus began to feel like a broken record, a loop that could suck me into the vortex. I had tendinitis from carrying too many plates, and my back was always a mess. Without fail, just before we opened the curtains to let the guests into the tent, I had anxiety attacks - dizzy and nauseous, like I was about to pass out.
Work came home with me too. The same workmares haunted me over and over in my sleep - flashing lights, lurid faces, and some terrible obstacle course to get to my tables. In general, the same cluster-fuck that I lived every single shift.
Now when I see my past coworkers from TZ, I am always impressed by their extreme energy. I wonder if it’s the tent that gave them that tenacity, or if they would just naturally be that way if they had not worked there. Being around greatness makes you strive to be great as well. No one wants to be that server in the wings, and if you don’t get out eventually, you languish there until you are too old to “sparkle” anymore.
It’s obvious that the theater added to Colette’s greatness as a writer. In the theater she studied people and places, traveled, and gained admirers. She became a ravishing woman in that circle of activity.
In one of my favorite scenes from My Apprenticeships, Colette meets Mata Hari, and relays what a fake she thought she was.
“The people who fell into such dithyrambic raptures and wrote so ecstatically of Mata Hari’s person and talents must be wondering now what collective delusion possessed them... the colour of her skin was disconcerting, no longer brown and luscious as it had been by artificial light but a dubious, uneven purple… (Mata Hari) did not move a muscle as the voice of Lady W________ rose beside us, saying in clear, plain words:
“She an Oriental? Don’t be silly! Hamburg or Rotterdam, or possibly Berlin (Colette, 129-130).””
Teatro Zinzanni was exactly like Mata Hari. On rainy, depressing days I could escape into the lights and forget my own life. But then the cracks began to show – the constant stench of body odor backstage and non-stop febreze spray in the pits of our costumes, the guy who refused to pay on New Years Eve, the way we all had to fake it every night of our lives, the way I had no life outside of the tent, and how the rest of the world began to feel distant and strange, like it was passing me by and I was missing it.
On my bookshelves, there are fifteen books by Colette. I stumbled onto them in chance meetings in bookshops. Some are almost impossible to find. My favorite (and her favorite as well) is The Pure and the Impure - a dark foray into the erotic underworlds of Paris. There is really no plot, just character after character swimming in their own particular decadence. When I first read the book, decadence was my tool for self-discovery. Now I see it as a tool for avoiding pain. I’m not in pain anymore, so I don’t’ really need decadence, at least, not all that much of it.
Colette understood life, unflinchingly - her writing is poetic because of this. It’s not the poetry of solitude, but the poetry of human understanding - beautiful life, dark life, art that imitates life, life that always has a new beginning.