On the brink of getting old

Break of Day
by Colette
translated from French by Enid Mcleod

I found this book both beautiful and uplifting, and painstakingly slow and even dull. Which is probably why I had started and abandoned it once before. I’m glad I gave it another go.

I suppose you could call this novel a lightly fictionalised autobiography, and it may even have been the inspiration for so many books since written in that vein – half of Amélie Nothomb’s works, for example. Its ageing heroine, Colette, is spending a summer in her beloved Provence. She is alone but for a coterie of pets and, though she has endless company from friends old and new, she feels strongly that the time has come to learn how to be on her own, how to live without love.

The novel is partly addressed to, and partly about, her mother Sido. Colette quotes from her mother’s letters and realises with pride how much she has come to be like her. But mostly it is a musing on her own life, her love of nature and her thoughts on love. Her lofty aim to no longer depend on a man for happiness is complicated by the presence of Valère Vial, a younger man whose company she enjoys but who she frets does not belong in her story.

The prose is beautiful but rambling. The blurb calls it a prose poem and that’s pretty apt. If you can accept that for pages at a time nothing will happen, or her meaning will not be clear, then you can just wallow in the language and enjoy a master at work:

“The open windows let in the smell of the melon rinds floating on the water of the port; between two parts of a tango, a long sigh announced that a wave, born far out at sea, had just died within a few paces of us.”

The title refers to her ongoing battle with sleep and her love of the dawn. A lot of the book is set in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, with Colette perusing life in an overtired state, hoping to see the new day begin before sleep finally comes. It could be the most lyrical autobiography I have read, except that she adds the lines:

“Are you imagining, as you read me, that I am portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model.”

First published 1928 by Flammarion as La Naissance du Jour.
This translation first published 1961 by Martin Secker and Warburg.

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