Colette's letters offer style and insights; Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.

Of all the great letters waiting rescue from private desk drawers, none are as intensely anticipated as those of Colette. Our interest is manifold. Not only will they illuminate the fine complexities of her character, they will, as we well know from her writing, do it with astonishing style.

Colette is the subtlest of stylists. Her prose is among the finest writing of the 20th century. In novels and letters alike, we read for the craft and shape and symmetry of her sentences. It seems almost too much that the content be as worthy of our interest. But, invariably, it is. whether her subject is love or illusion, gardens or children, Colette pierces to its quick, peeling back anything that obscures the moist living tissue of life itself.

The letters in this present volume, skillfully selected and translated by Robert Phelps, are the first of many that will surface in the next few years. Spanning a 50-year period, they are spontaneous, staccato bulletins to Colette's closest friends, mostly writers and actors, as well as to luminaries like Ravel, Proust, Cocteau, and Poulenc. We will have to wait for the most important letters, notably to first husband willy, her later husbands and daughter, and, most awaited, the surviving Side correspondence. But, for now, this selection serves us well.

Colette averaged half a dozen letters daily. Letter writing, as this volume shows, was but a stir in her whirlwind day. She is a fierce industry of effort; meeting deadlines, cajoling writers, memorizing stage parts, writing books, moving households. We are exhausted but delighted by her pace.

Much of the activity we already know: Willy selling her royalties, the completed manuscript lost on the metro, the same novel began the next day. What we are less aware of, and what these letters disclose, is her talent for friendship. She is practiced in her loyalties. An invitation to Leopold Marchand, for example, catches the ease and intimacy of the affection. "You'll have the sea, sun and sand, the incessant breathing of the waves, cider, warm nights, cool days, striped cats, three amiable children -- and me. Do you," she adds playfully, "happen to have boxing gloves?"

One can imagine friends declining invitations so they might receive a letter instead. Colette, they know, detailed the natural world better than they observed it. Indeed, her letters boast what must be the most stunning "weather reports" ever committed to paper. The eye of the naturalist and that of the poet ar allied in perception. A person crisis is crystalized in, "I am a pear that has survived a hailstorm: when it does not rot, it becomes better and sweeter."

Slender as this volume is, it amply discloses the difficulties Colette found in writing. A slow, methodical writer by her own accounts, Colette dispenses advice to other struggling writers. To actress Marguerite Moreno, perhaps Collete's greatest friend, she instructs, "Do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing." Later, she adds, "I cannot sympathize enough. SCratching paper is such a somber battle. There are no witnesses, no one else in your corner, no passion."

How much smaller the world would be if Colette hadn't heeded her own advice. How less rich we would be without these letters, the endless pages whose greatest character is Colette he rself.

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