For a while, I was on a Colette kick. I started reading about her life, which surely has to be spicier than any novel she wrote! Even so, she’s considered a supreme stylist — and often compared to another favorite author of mine, Marcel Proust.
At one point, I came across a description of Colette’s reporting about a terrible crime: “…she brought to the courtroom the same unsentimental yet empathic watchfulness which she brought to plants, animals, weather, lovers, and her own psyche,” (Robert Phelps, Belle Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook).
“Unsentimental yet empathic watchfulness” — what a wonderful way to characterize Colette’s gift! Here is her description of a man named Landru who was on trial for a series of murders. As you’ll see, she focuses on his eyes:
“I look in vain for human cruelty in these eyes, because they are not human. They are bird’s eyes…and when Landru half lowers his lids, his look takes on the languor, the unfathomable disdain of caged wild birds…I look further for evidence of the monster, but I don’t find it. If this face is frightening, it is because it has the air of perfectly imitating human beings which one finds in the immobile mannequins of clothing-store windows.”
What an amazing character sketch! In four bold sentences, Colette draws a chilling yet intimate portrait of someone frightening — not because he’s a monster, but because he’s someone inhuman imitating someone human — and therefore, truly monstrous. Not a word is wasted. This profile is lush, yet lean at the same time.
Here’s a great exercise: Write a character sketch of 4 to 5 lines every day for a week about someone you see — I wonder if this would improve our powers of observation?
Why not try it — and write on!