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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette Hardcover – October 12, 1999

3.5 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 12, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039458872X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394588728
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,488 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on February 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
"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.
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