Quite possibly the most – er – alluring of titles published in 2008, this dinky little number from Pushkin Press has been calling to me from the shelves ever since the author was mentioned by name in Gilbert Adair’s The Death of the Author and a little girly fun now and again doesn’t go amiss.
Shortly after the Second World War, Paul Morand was living in exile in Switzerland (in disgrace for collaborating with the Vichy regime). Chanel was there also. (She had been far too cozy with a Nazi officer.) She gave Morand a series of interviews about her early life and career, the notes of which he stored for decades in a desk drawer. Shortly before his death in 1976 he finally published the transcripts. Pushkin Press published the English translation in 2008.
Apart from the introduction there is no authorial voice, just a series of monologues. Direct access to Chanel, if you will. The picture that emerges is of a feisty young woman, determined not to be disadvantaged by her humble beginnings. A difficult woman to live with, although many men tried! Not always likeable but then icons have their ways and means of becoming icons, don’t they? And from the tone of her narrative you’d believe she was a straight-talking person ….
A little post-reading research reveals the lies and omissions in her story that emerges from these interviews. But then Chanel didn’t like the reality of her early life and went about creating her own legend. Like she said:
Reality is sad, and that handsome parasite that is the imagination will always be preferred to it. May my legend gain ground, I wish it a long and happy life.
It’s the self-created legend that is presented in these pages. Which makes her an unreliable narrator, par excellence, n’est-ce pas? Not knowing anything about her prior to reading, I enjoyed her story and that enjoyment has not diminished now that I know the truth!
Morand was pre-World-War-II one of the most celebrated French authors of his day and his skill is evident here. The French title “L’allure of Chanel” with double-meanings not apparent in the English. Alluring, seductive, entrancing yes but “l’allure” also means speed and Chanel certainly ran on the hot track to success, taking the fashion world by storm with her modernist designs and expensive elegance. Her inspirations are discussed – sometimes spawned by her genius – at other times by nothing other than practicality. For example- she created the shoulder bag simply because she was fed up forgetting (and thereby losing) her expensive handbags.
There’s a down-to-earth quality about the rebel who was to become the diva. Busy but lonely. A woman who needed men even though not prepared to sacrifice her freedoms. A contradictory genius, then. Fascinating.