Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette
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1999 National Book Award nominee! In 1900, a provincial beauty best known as the child bride of a famous Parisian rake captivated the Belle Epoque by writing a story that invented the modern teenage girl. It was the first in a series of wildly popular but also critically acclaimed novels that, combined with a flamboyant career on the stage, made this former country girl the first authentic superstar of the century.
But for all her celebrity as one of France's greatest and most notorious novelists and personalities, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a profoundly reticent and self-suspicious creature who fiercely resists being known. Now, following her acclaimed life of Isak Dinesen, winner of the 1983 National Book Award for biography, Judith Thurman gives us an incomparably nuanced and revealing portrait of the elusive woman, the prodigious writer, and the revered but misunderstood idol.
Having spent her village childhood in the shadow of a queenly, possessive mother who taught her the value of resilience, Colette would go on to embody the image of the modern woman. At twenty, she marries the canny but unscrupulous Willy, who not only takes the credit -- and the royalties -- for her best-selling Claudine novels, but also keeps her enthralled in more primal ways. In 1908, she divorces her Pygmalion and pursues the most public of her many affairs with women. At forty, she gives birth to her only and much-neglected child. Her second marriage, to her daughter's father -- a brilliant, predatory, patrician journalist and politician -- falters, then fails. At forty-seven, she seduces her adolescent stepson. At menopause, she rediscovers her mother. At fifty-two, she embarks upon a torrid adventure with a much younger man that blooms -- against all expectations -- into the serene and enduring mutual devotion she has yearned for but has never known. This third husband, Maurice Goudeket, also becomes the source of her worst anguish when he is arrested by the Gestapo during the Occupation.
As Colette redefines the conventions of loving and aging, she continues to live and write with Olympian vitality. Her principal subject is the bonds of love; her one true faith the consoling power of sensual pleasure. She opens a beauty institute and does makeovers in a lab coat; she produces a body of incisive journalism; she writes enchanting gems like Gigi and Sido, and provocative masterpieces like Cheri, Break of Day, The Ripening Seed, and The Pure and the Impure. Her wartime work remains the most controversial part of her legacy, and Thurman addresses the troubling questions it raises with a typically lucid and tenacious intelligence.
Drawing upon a rich mine of new documents, candid interviews, and unpublished letters, Secrets of the Flesh evokes Colette in the fullness of her contradictions.
A work of penetrating psychological insight, historical perspective, and literary discernment, superbly written, it is sure to reanimate our appreciation of its iconic subject.
She was three years younger than her friend Sido, and had four children of roughly the same ages as the Colettes’, the littlest Saint-Aubin boy just two months older than Gabrielle. In a playful moment, the mothers had exchanged sucklings, and Adrienne liked to remind Colette of it: “You,” she would call out in her husky voice, “the one I once fed with my own milk.” This teasing, says Colette, made her blush violently, because she was terrified that Sido would read her mind and find there the
prayers for God’s pardon of Colette. The readers of Le Figaro were, on the whole, in agreement with the cardinal, but the last words on this subject should be Colette’s own impious ones. In the course of their interviews for the French radio, André Parinaud had asked her: “For you, Mme Colette, does life have any higher direction?” She replied dryly: “It only goes in one direction, as far as I know, which is toward the exit.” But he pressed her: “I want to know if, for the writer and for the
Pichois, Pl. 1, p. xii. 10. Lanoux, p. 106. 11. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 192. 12. Aucler’s police dossier contained the opinion that she was suffering from “madness and hysteria, a disease that causes her to look upon men as her equals and to seek contact with them.” Private Life, p. 165. 13. La Vie heureuse, 1904, BN Fol. ZN53. 14. Rachilde, Gyp, Marcelle Tinayre, Judith Gautier, Gérard d’Houville (Marie-Louise de Hérédia de Régnier), Colette Yver, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Renée
dangerous distraction, and a choice between conflicting devotions: to self and destiny, or to other lives and their burdens. “THERE’S ONLY ONE PERSON in this world you can count on, and that’s yourself,”25 Sido told Colette at the time of her divorce from Willy, and she took this stark advice to heart. Her egoism, which she calls “my monstrous innocence,” and which is—like the shell of the tortoise—armor, plumage, camouflage, and refuge all in one, does not make her easy to approach. Yet it’s
death seemed to be imminent. It was a matter of waiting perhaps a month or two.… But M. Givry, his brother-in-law, didn’t have that much patience.” He sued, in his wife’s name, to have Robineau declared insane. There were two competency hearings, which must have been enthralling to a village which, as Colette puts it, “vegetates all the year round in peace and inanition and has to content itself with meager scandals.”5 The servants testified to their master’s violence. But Robineau was not