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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – October 31, 2000
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The same keen yet affectionate gaze Judith Thurman trained on Isak Dinesen in her 1983 National Book Award winner, The Life of a Storyteller, distinguishes her robust portrait of the great French writer Colette. In Secrets of the Flesh, Thurman shrewdly disentangles fact from legend during the course of the writer's long and turbulent life (1873-1954), yet she doesn't question Colette's right to mythologize herself. The fictions Colette created about herself were part of a lifelong attempt to make sense, not just of her own experience, but of the "secrets of the flesh" (André Gide's phrase in an admiring letter), the bonds that link women to men, parents to children, in an eternal search for love that is also a struggle for dominance. Chronicling Colette's scandalous life--male and female lovers, a stint in vaudeville, an affair with her stepson, a final happy marriage to a younger man--Thurman makes it clear that the writer's adored yet dominating mother and exploitative first husband made it difficult for her to conceive of amorous equality. Yet she nonetheless created a satisfying, creative existence, firmly rooted in the senses and filled with artistic achievement, from the bestselling Claudine novels to the mature insights of The Vagabond and Chéri. Thurman assesses with equal acuity the bleakness of Colette's world-view and a zest for life that it never seemed to dampen. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
In May 1945, the elderly Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, long known by her surname, became only the second woman to be inducted into France's staid but extremely prestigious Acad?mie Goncourt. At 72, she had become but a shadow of the androgynous sexpot novelist who had flouted convention in the early years of the century (even to the point of taking, when nearly 50, her teenage stepson as a lover). She had become respectable, the acclaimed author of the Claudine novels, The Last of Ch?ri and Gigi. Thurman's biography comes on the heels of the final installment of Francis and Gontier's multivolume life, and it triumphantly withstands the comparison. Elegantly written and handily appearing in one substantial volume, Thurman's book has fewer personal details than the French duo's, but it is more effective at setting the morally subversive Colette in the social milieu of early-20th-century Paris. Despite much legwork on her own, Thurman does lean upon Colette's many recent French biographers. And her account of the Nazi occupation of France is sometimes hard to follow. But the book is impressive. Thurman (whose Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, won the National Book Award in 1982) does not hesitate to expose the dishonest, selfish, exploitive facets of the feminist icon who wrote articles for Occupation newspapers and sometimes behaved heartlessly toward lovers. Nevertheless, her Colette comes off as an appealing, even heroic, figure, quoted memorably as saying, "What more can one be sure of than that which one holds in one's arms, at the moment one holds it in one's arms." 24 pages of provocative photographs. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, by Judith Thurman, is a stunning biography that travels from Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, the site of My Mother's House and Sido, to Paris with her first husband and the Claudines, through her second marriage, to Henri de Jouvenal, Cheri, Pure and the Impure, innumerable affairs, perfomances, friendships, and writing – always writing. Of The Pure and the Impure, Thurman writes:
"The popular Colette, the daughter of Sido/Ceres, is our guide to the earthly paradise. But in The Pure and the Impure she takes us on a tour of a realm with which she, like Proserpine, is on intimate terms. This erotic underworld has no glamour for her, and she knows the prisoners to be quite ordinary poor devils: phantoms I seem always to be losing and finding again, restless ghosts unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef, mysterious and incomprehensible, the human body.
"As these ghosts confide the secrets of their flesh (always the flesh) to Colette, a pattern begins to emerge from their confessions. All of them have lived their lives starved for an essential nutrient and unable to renounce the fantasy of meeting the Provider who will fill the “void” once and for all."
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was not a feminist and yet she was, in her way, the freest of us all because what she insisted upon most of all was her own freedom. Freedom to love where she would. Freedom to write how she would. Freedom to live as she would. Freedom, above all, to resist political involvement of any kind.
Liane de Pougy, wrote of the set of sexual rebels of whom Colette was one:
"We were passionate rebels against a woman’s lot, voluptuous and cerebral, little apostles, rather poetical, fond of illusions and dreams. We loved long hair, pretty breasts, simper, charm, grace, not boyishness. ‘Why try to resemble our enemies?’.."
Thurman writes that Colette is "too much of a pagan to judge the fallen for their sins, and too conservative to believe that human nature is capable of reform. What she does ... is to bear witness to poverty, incest, racism and exploitation and - because she is writing as an artist, not a journalist – to mistrust the witness that she bears."
Even though her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, was a Jew, she found ax murderers, parricides, and serial killers “more interesting than the rise of a peculiar little tyrant in Munich who didn’t eat meat and didn’t seem to like [intimate relations with] anybody, not even men.”
Maurice was Colette’s most beloved husband. She wrote to him "about such ordinary things…dark little things which are like the grains in a mortice which bind the solid volumes...Look at me, abashed to write that I love you. I’m going off to hide my embarrassment in a hot bath." He was several years younger than she, and, while not always faithful, he was always true to her. She was aware of his infidelities and didn’t blame him at all. In her elder years, she was nearly crippled with arthritis. "The day comes when one abandons oneself," she wrote. Thurman tells us that "her dependence on Maurice was one [self-abandonment], and the valiance it took, on her side, to conceal the humiliation was matched only by the gallantry, on his, to conceal the burden."
In 1951, according to Thurman, she attended a documentary about her life and afterwards remarked to a journalist, "What a beautiful life I’ve had. It’s a pity I didn’t notice it sooner."
We should all, for all of our sins and excesses, have so few regrets.
Secrets of the Flesh; A life of Colette is over long. The scholarship is excellent. Ms Thurman is at her best giving her analysis of Madam Colette's extensive library, but the biographer cannot tell the difference from significant, or illustrative events and tittle-tattle. Overall this is a good book. There is too much book and not enough of it is important.
Early in Secrets of the Flesh Author Judith Thurman tells us that her subject, Colette may have invented the modern teenager. Her subject is self-indulgent, moody, jealous and given to causing jealousy. These details may be sufficient to validate the case, but Ms Thurman does not define what she means by so categorizing Colette and which of these characteristics prove the characterization.
This same woman was a prodigious writer, novelist, autobiographer, reporter, reviewer, and playwright. In short there were very few applications of the written word that carry no examples of Colette as a superior performer. When not writing, and she was almost always writing, she became an actress. Not merely a woman of the stage but a performer at the leading edges of the field, even where the roles required nudity. Meantime she had at least three husbands (one would become head of the French government and a major player in world politics) and scandalous for her affairs with men, including much younger men and women. There would be few secrets of the flesh unknown to Colette, but one suspects many secrets of the heart that eluded her.
As much as the book title emphasizes matters of the flesh an as much as Colette's life and writing revolved around matters sexual. Ms. Thurman can be rather prissy. Leaving it to your imagination may be the academically correct alternative, and indeed Colette herself was never overtly pornographic but the readers should not have to read between the lines about who is having affairs with who. Colette could be very wounded by the many infidelities of her various husbands and lovers, except that she frequently was involved in infidelities of her own. Including infidelities with the mistresses/lovers of her husbands and lovers. All rather complex and occasionally calling for the kind of specifics that Ms Thurmond avoids.
The breath of Colette's authorship is as vast as her romantic entanglements. This biography is at its best when time is taken to consider these writings. Ms Thurman shares with us insights and opinions that clarify the context of the novelist and the shades of meaning as one moves from French to, in my case English. I am most grateful for those parts of this Bio that help me relate the author to her words.
I am least grateful for the nearly endless recounting of the many parties, homes and other social engagements of this important and well connected woman. There are too many pages given over to these visitations and listing attendees. Madam Colette lived a complex and productive life. She is worthy of 500 pages. More of the pages could have been devoted to the product of the author and less on how and with whom she dined.
Given all of Colette's literary accomplishments and dearth of writing, it isn't always easy to like this woman. Especially for me I found her relationship (or lack thereof) with her daughter disappointing and sad. Given the complex relationship Colette had with her own mother it is tragic she did even make an attempt to right the ship so-to-speak and foster a positive relationship with her own daughter. It is what it is however, and Colette is hardly alone in her lack of parental sensitivity.
Of particular interest and pleasure to me was Colette's devil-may-care proclivities. From her dabbling in Lesbianism, her appetite for men, and her focused seduction of her adolescent stepson, Colette loved sex with an equal voracity she put pen to paper. What isn't there to love about a woman with a ferocious sexual appetite and the confidence to pursue what she desired, I would ask. And thus the biography reveals a woman with a prodigious enthusiasm for sex and a singular talent to write volumes of stories. What we are left with is a picture of a provocative, erotic and intelligent woman who was equally admired as she was lusted after.
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