Customer Reviews: Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
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on February 29, 2000
Colette is not an easy person to like, and this biography is dense and thick with information and literary interpretation, meaning that it's not an "easy" or quick book to read. That said it is an accomplished, thoughtful book. Judith Thruman is an excellent writer and I personally was engrossed -- I really couldn't put this book down. But it is not for everyone. It is for those interested in Colette or at least in her milieu. Thurman gives a vivid sense of the time Colette lived in, and a persuasive look at her motivations, personality, and contradictions. She shows those of us who love Colette's writing that it is possible to enjoy a writer's books without necessarily admiring that person's life and deeds. It is a facinating dicotomy: how can a person, Colette, or anyone else, be so senstitive in her writing life, yet so insensitive to those who actually surrounded her? It is a question to which there is no answer, yet one which Thurman beautifully illustrates.
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on June 4, 2002
I bought Thurman's bio of Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen in Danish after seeing "Out of Africa" in 1986 in Copenhagen, where I'm from. I never finished it, and sold it eventually. Then, two years ago I came across it in a used book store here in CA (the English edition), read it and adored it. It is one of the few books which I have read more than once. Sometimes we come back to a work of art and wonder how we could be so blind/deaf the first time around. I may feel the same way about Thurman's bio of Colette down the road, but as of today I must admit I had a tough time getting through it.
The fairly small print didn't help. Keeping track of the enormous gallery of people in her life took away a great deal of the reading pleasure, and Thurman's sentences are very long and not always "clear headed". Yes, Colette had quite a life, but somehow her life comes across as more interesting than her persona.
My favorite parts are those that tell of her complicated relationships with her parents. I learn more about myself from reading such analysis than I would from three years of therapy!
An A+: When Thurman writes about the "fin de siecle" in France she in fact shows herself to be a far better historian than biographer. (In the Dinesen bio she was both) And France around 1900 is remarkably like our world of today, which makes it very topical.
I don't know how much of the Colette bio is Thurman and how much is other biographers and that too is a big minus. Colette has been covered extensively by many writers, and I wish that Thurman had spent 1990-1998 reading, researching and writing about someone who has not been "bio'd" so often or, even better, not at all. There were a few bios on Dinesen before Thurman's, but she was almost "virgin snow" compared to Colette.
The fact that Colette was a very flawed human being doesn't mean someone should not write about her; in fact, flawed people often make the best subjects for a bio. Unfortunately, Thurman sounds at times star-struck, other times she sounds like a puritan, shocked, sometimes even somewhat envious, which of course are precisely some of the feelings and reactions that people had and still have about/to Colette. Dinesen is a much more likable person, much easier to relate to, and the movie "Out of Africa" made her the sort of romantic heroine that Colette probably never could be or would have wanted to be. Two very different women, two very different biographies. If a movie is ever made about Colette, one would hope they focus on a specific period and only a few people in her life as was done in "Out of Africa" in order to avoid the kind of horrible bio picture that Richard Attenborough's film about Chaplin was, where they rush through his entire (long) life in three hours with a "revolving door" of characters coming and going, leaving you dizzy and frustrated.
I do recommend listening to the interview archived on the Diane Rhemes (spelled correctly?) show website: (type in Thurman's name on Yahoo and it will come on the long list of Thurman webpages) She interviewed Thurman when the book came out in 1999. You can "hear" Thurman blushing at times when speaking of Colette's wild times, and perhaps that is ultimately the problem with the Colette bio: Someone uncomfortable writing about sex, lesbians, bondage, nude dancing, etc. will come across as a prude. Colette, I imagine, would have been proud to have that effect on people in the year 2002, OR maybe she'd be sad that we really have not progressed as far as we'd like.
Thanks for all the reviews - it's very interesting to read what other readers think - A virtual book club. I hope Thurman reads the reviews by the way. Writers can learn far more from "regular folks" than from critics who are feel obligated to either gush over a book or thrash it vicously, depending on who the critic is.
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on February 28, 2000
Colette has been one of my favorite writers for a very long time, and I have read her work in both French and English. Not only has this author managed to make her sound like a very unpleasant person, but the translations of her writing are so poor that she sounds like a bad writer too. The author tries to use 1995 American slang for phrases written in 1905 French, and it just doesn't come off. Also, much of the translation is of a very mechanical nature and fails to convey any of the real flavor of the original. Within a very short time of starting this book, I got the feeling that the author heartily disliked her subject. She also fails utterly to express the extraordinary role Sido, Colette's mother, played in her life; to convey the lush sensory evocations that make her prose so unique; and to show the color and verve of this amazing woman's life. Instead we get a plebeian laundry list of all the people Colette met and when and where, regardless of how tiny their role was in her life--but the writing of several of her novels is glossed over lightly or omitted altogether. I am terribly sorry that so many readers who have not read Colette yet now will never do so because of this poor biography.
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on December 4, 2000
"Secrets of the Flesh," Judith Thurman's superb life of Colette, guides the reader with great assurance through a wealth of complex material. Thurman won a 1983 National Book Award for "Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller." A gifted literary biographer, as sure-handed as her subject, she never conflates the life with the work or allows her admiration to interfere with an informed and delicately balanced critique of Colette's uniqueness.
"Like all those who never use their strength to the limit," Colette once wrote, "I am hostile to those who let life burn them out." Fiercely disciplined, hugely productive, the author of "Gigi" and "Chéri" lived 80 years and produced nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism and drama.
She married three times, had male and female lovers and for a time supported herself as a mime, dancing semi-nude in music halls throughout France. When she died in 1954, she received the first state funeral the French Republic had ever given a woman.
Colette is a strikingly elusive writer. Packing her books with delicious clothes and furniture and ravishingly attractive people, she delivers pleasures that most "women's writers" only promise. But her prose is rarely straightforward or transparent, and her characters -- captured at the height of their beauty or in beauty's humiliating decline -- maintain a mocking, self-protective reticence.
Colette, Thurman says, was "remarkable among modern writers -- perhaps the great women in particular -- for a sense of self not vested in her mind." Maybe female writers have simply had to think harder in order to carve out space within ideologies that would otherwise have shut them out.
She drew inspiration from entertainers, courtesans, an aristocratic Parisian lesbian subculture and the fin de siècle gay aesthetes whose "fetish worship of human beauty" she shared. She admired the bravery of lives lived on the sexual edge, the consciously chosen tastes and prejudices, the risk of physical danger. Her understanding of gender was far ahead of its time; her treatment of sex between generations can still make us uneasy.
Courting dissatisfaction in love, Colette's characters nonetheless do so within one of the most satisfactory physical worlds ever depicted (who under the pseudonym Pauline Réage wrote "Story of O") remarked that Colette never neglects to describe her heroines' meals or the comforts, grand or shabby, of their bedrooms and bathrooms. Her interiors have the plenitude of gardens, and she writes magnificently of food, flowers and animals -- not analytically but, as Thurman says, "from the point of view ... of the child first 'sorting out' her paradoxical instincts and experience."
A less happy immaturity was the intellectual and moral passivity that allowed her to publish in pro-Vichy, anti-Semitic journals during the Nazi occupation, even as she fought devotedly (and successfully) to keep her Jewish third husband from being deported.
It's one of the great virtues of Thurman's biography that she deals unsparingly with Colette's tin ear for moral principle, locating her complacencies within contemporary French social history and popular opinion.
"Secrets of the Flesh" is a fiercely intelligent and accomplished book and -- using the words with all due weight -- an immense pleasure.
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on May 30, 2015
If many Americans know Colette at all, we know her through Gigi, the 1954 movie starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, and featuring the now problematic little song, Thank Heaven for Little Girls, performed by the inimitable Maurice Chevalier. I like it anyway. After all, the original Gigi was being groomed to be a courtesan. This was just another day in the life for Colette.

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.
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As a long-time reader and admirer of Colette's writings, I thoroughly enjoyed Judith Thurman's "Secrets of the Flesh", an accounting of Colette's life. This biography attempts neither to villefy Colette nor raise her to sainthood, but shows her to be very human, a real woman who became one of France's greatest writers. It is interesting to discover how autobiographical her writings and stories were. As an added bonus, the picture of Colette on the cover is totally mesmerizing.
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on October 24, 2015
Bottom Line First
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.
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on December 2, 1999
I had never heard of Collette before reading about this book and purchasing it. I have found the book interesting not only because of the subject but also because of the insight it provides into the time period. I downgrade it for two reasons. I agree with the other review that it is difficult to read but have found that if you stick with it, you eventually get into the flow of the writer's style. Also, it is probably more appropriate for someone who knows the subject and her work to make the complete connection with the author's comments.
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on April 8, 2012
This large read seemed to be quite exhaustive on the topic of Colette. Though it was tedious at times it nevertheless moved along nicely enough, never getting too mired in minutia. The author conveys a picture of a complex and fascinating woman of her time. A particular point of interest I thought, was that Colette was the first French woman given a state funeral. This is a fact that shouldn't be lost or brushed aside. It speaks volumes about the woman as a French national treasure.

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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on November 17, 1999
On the strength of reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post, my book club selected this book as a must read. To a woman, we found this book difficult to plow through. Thurman is enamored of subordinate clauses, tangential references and elliptical thoughts. If she were a journalist, her editor would tell her that she buried her lead at every possible opportunity. The book club came away not giving a hoot about Collette, who her mother was or who either of them slept with. Bottom line: if you are a huge fan of Collette, this might be an interesting book. For the rest of us, it is not.
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