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The Pure and the Impure (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 30, 2000

3.8 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

... comes closer than any of Colette's books, memoir or fiction, to revealing 'the mysterious nature of [her] being. -- Judith Thurman, National-Book-Award-winning author of Passions of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (September 30, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 094032248X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322486
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Diane Schirf on January 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
The Pure and the Impure by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette with introduction by Judith Thurman (Literature/Gay Studies). Recommended.
Colette believed The Pure and the Impure was her best work. I can't judge, not having read anything of hers but a few short stories, but this collection of her observations about human attitudes toward relationships and sexuality is insightful and timeless. It is also difficult and obscure at times, perhaps because of the translation and because there is no real structure to such a collection.
Thanks to her milieu, her position in it, and her willingness to seek the story, Colette could draw upon the most interesting people of her time-the givers and the takers. From the older woman who publicly fakes an orgasm while self-pleasuring in an opium house to gladden the heart of her young, sickly lover to the roué who exclaims of women, "They allow us to be their master in the sex act, but never their equal. That is what I cannot forgive them" to the circle of prominent women who learn the ways of sex from servants, dress as men, and love horses (she calls the most notable of these women "La Chevalière) to the "happy," alcoholic, lesbian poet Renée Vivien to the gay men with whom she seems most comfortable, Colette covers a spectrum of sexuality and combinations-including those men and women who play their heterosexual and homosexual relations against one another.
"I'm devoted to that boy, with all my heart," the older woman tells Colette, a stranger to her. "But what is the heart, madame? It's worth less than people think. It's quite accommodating. It accepts anything. You give it whatever you have, it's not very particular. But the body . . . Ha! That's something else, again.
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Format: Paperback
Colette, perhaps best known to Americans as the author of "Gigi" (1945) was a prolific French novelist, critic, playwright, and performer. She also wrote the four "Claudine" novels (1900-1903), and became celebrated for "Cheri" (1920; followed by "The Last of Cheri" in 1926).
She regarded "The Pure and the Impure" as her best work; a mostly autobiographical treatise on Eros and love, particularly Sapphic love. She mixes a reporter's objectivity with deeply felt analysis psychological and philosophical observations. Sometimes she takes a dispassionate, almost distant look at passion; other times her emotional attachments to her subjects--primarily lesbian aristocrats and artistes--are candidly exposed.
She is an exquisite writer without being precious. Colette bends words and phrases perfectly, and one is struck by her vivid yet subtle prose, as evocative as Woolf but perhaps even more sensual. "The Pure and the Impure" contains memorable passages of keen observation and wit, and one feels drawn to her observations:
"...I delighted in the...empty gaiety of the chatter and the diverting and challenging exchange of glances, the cryptic reference to certain treasons, comprehended at once, and the sudden outbursts of ferocity. I reveled...in their half-spoken language, the exchange of threats, of promises, as if, once the slow-thinking male had been banished, every message from woman to woman became clear and overwhelming, restricted to a small but infallible number of signs..."
This is not to deny, however, that reading the book is sometimes difficult.
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Colette eschewed salaciousness, so her approach to the discussion of human desire is careful, while her language doesn't fail in its turn on the human spirit; it's not an easy read. The beauty of her words does not always take one to a full comprehension of her ideas, but still, she makes fascinating points on the human condition. I must reread, but her brilliance leaves one a desire to read more of her work.
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Format: Paperback
The Pure and the Impure is an odd book, and not what I was expecting. The term "autobiography"--applied in several descriptions I've seen of this book--is a misnomer. There is very little of Colette here. She exists just as an observer, with a relationship to her subjects more like a reporter than a participant. In fact, this book could probably well be compared to a collection of journalistic pieces. (There are interviews, and she recounts at the beginning of the book a man criticizing her appearance at an opium den as an attempt to get material for a new book.) It is a series of vignettes describing variety within human sexual experience.

Another misnomer is "lesbian." Over half her vignettes deal with straight or homosexual male subjects. And her lesbians run a gamut from a slight, young, feminine "kept girl" to a community of androgynous women who dress in men's clothes. If there is any theme, it seems to be an exploration of people who have broken away from social norms and experienced both pleasure and unhappiness in their freedom. It could be considered a "lesbian" book only in the sense that the single instance of an apparently happy and lasting pairing are two quasi-famous Welsh women who ran away from home as girls and lived together into old age. However, this vignette goes against theme as it does not explore fleshly pleasures and seems to be written from a review of diaries rather than personal interactions.

The book is well-written, and the translation is transparent and transmits a clear and refined prose style, although how close it is to the original, I couldn't say. Also, I can't vouch for this edition, as I read a different one that I can't find on Amazon, and I'm not sure this is the same translator.
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