For Colette Fans, Museum Is a Must
A 17th-century French chateau houses memorabilia from the award-winning writer
Nestled in the lush green countryside of northwestern Burgundy lies Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a small village with a population of 1,019. Saint-Sauveur is pretty, not extraordinarily so; yet France's most-beloved woman writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Claudine Colette, known simply as Colette, who lived there at the end of the last century, found her hometown an endless source of inspiration for many of her approximately 70 works of extraordinary literary quality. Earlier this summer, after years of trying to get the project off the ground, Colette family members opened the Colette Museum in part of a restored 17th-century chateau in Saint-Sauveur with backing from an insurance company and the Direction des Musees de France (under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture). The museum opening is timely as stirrings of a Colette renaissance are now in the air. A new book of her correspondence was just published in France; Colette's grand-nephew Foulques de Jouvenel is negotiating with Farrar Strauss & Giroux (Colette's publisher in the United States) to have her works retranslated; and Judith Thurman, a New York author, is writing a biography of Colette for Alfred A. Knopf, which will be published next year. Burgundy instead of Paris For Americans, who know Colette mainly from her books ''Cheri'' and ''Gigi,'' or the 1958 Vincente Minnelli film of the same name, the choice of Saint-Sauveur over Paris, where Colette lived for more than half a century, might not be an obvious one. In fact, attempts had been made in the early 1980s to buy back Colette's Parisian apartment in the Palais Royal, where she had spent so much time in her later years. But the apartment had been inherited by Colette's last husband's second wife, who fixed an impossibly high selling price. Colette's late daughter, known as Bel-Gazou, had originally wanted the museum to be in Saint-Sauveur and to many, the final choice was the right one. Colette's love of nature was rooted in a childhood spent in the Burgundy countryside. In her early novels, such as the Claudine series, Montigny was a direct transposition of Saint-Sauveur. The village was the setting for her later autobiographical novels as well, as in ''Sido'' and ''La Naissance du Jour.'' Even though Colette left Saint-Sauveur as a teenager, and returned only a few times later, she often said she didn't need to go back; it was all in her memory. The museum was conceived by artist Helene Mugot, who had never worked on a design project before but had a special love for Colette's writing. The result is a small treasure of a museum. ''We didn't want to make it into a mausoleum,'' Mr. de Jouvenel says. Ms. Mugot re-created Colette's living room and bedroom as they had been in the Palais Royal apartment, giving the museum an immediate feeling of intimacy. Colette's lovely collection of paperweights is exhibited in a simple glass cabinet the way she once had them; her butterfly collection is in a separate room painted sky blue. The overall impression is one of having stepped into the very personal and feminine world of Colette. Videos project images of ponds and streams in the area, so often evoked by Colette in her novels. A rich pictorial biography in the museum's first room allows the visitor to situate Colette during various stages of her life. There are photographs of Colette as a young woman at the turn of the century, married to her first husband, Henri Gauthier-Villars, who encouraged her to write and then had her books published under his literary pseudonym, Willy. There are pictures of Colette and Missy, the last daughter of the Duke of Morny, with whom she had an affair for five years, and Colette during her theatrical career; with her second husband, Henri de Jouvenel, and with Bel-Gazou. In 1925, Colette embarked on yet another chapter of her life with Maurice Goudeket, 17 years her junior. Mr. Goudeket happily dedicated most of his time to serving Colette's literary genius, and he is often present in pictures taken during the following 30 years of her life. Pictures taken in 1953 show Colette as she was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor. (A few weeks later, the American ambassador presented her with an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.) Colette's life in Paris was exotic and incomprehensible to those living in Saint-Sauveur. Mugot and de Jouvenel ran into strong resistance from residents in the village when the project for the museum came to light in the late 1980s. Villagers' resistance ''They were afraid of having to pay more local taxes,'' de Jouvenel explains. ''But also, Colette had not been very tender toward her fellow Saint-Sauveriens.'' While she had given fictitious names to characters in her novels, they were easily recognizable. Marguerite Boivin, a Colette specialist from Saint Sauveur even drew up a glossary of the names in Colette's novels and matched them to real people in the village. ''Some of their descendants are still angry,'' de Jouvenel says. However, once it opened, ''many people from the village came to me and said the museum had given them a different image of Colette,'' Mugot says. ''They had seen Colette as a libertine but had now decided to read her works.'' Mugot studied Colette's writing in depth, feeling she had to translate its essence for the public. ''Colette used nature to make art; I wanted to make nature into something that Colette had created,'' she says. There are plans for expanding the museum into the large garden surrounding it, where Colette's favorite trees and flowers will be planted. Colette was also a gourmet, and she once said ''If I can't have too many truffles, then I don't want any at all.'' In keeping with this, there is a pretty cafe on the ground floor that serves regional cakes and a salty cheese tart called Fra. There is even a pastry called six cornes from a Colette recipe. The Colette museum is certainly worth a detour for visitors heading for Burgundy. ''After all,'' says biographer Ms. Thurman, ''She's a perfect fin de siecle character.'' * The Colette Museum is open April 1 to Oct. 31, every day except Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Off season, it's open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. For information, call (011 33) 86 45 61 95. In the village of Bleneau, about 15 miles from Saint-Sauveur, there is a pleasant hotel called the Blanche de Castille, telephone: 86 74 92 63. The same owners run an excellent restaurant nearby called Le Point du Jour: 86 74 94 38.