Colette was full of contradictions. She despised feminists and said that the only things they deserved were the lash and the harem, but she divorced twice, lived openly as a lesbian for a decade, danced half-naked on the stage at the turn of the century and had an affair with her teenage stepson when she was approaching 50. She turned her own mother into an endearing character, “Sido,” and presented her to the public with convincing filial piety, but in real life she ignored her during her long decline and refused to attend her funeral. Colette was famously kind to cats and liked to picture herself as someone so close to nature she was almost feral, but in actuality she quite unnaturally rejected and ridiculed her own daughter, left her in the care of servants, then packed her off to strict boarding schools. Finally, Colette’s third and last husband was a Jew whom she adored and managed to save from harm during the Nazi occupation, but she contributed to collaborationist magazines and, in 1941, published a novel, “Julie de Carnellhan,” full of anti-Semitic slurs. And though she was quintessentially French and regarded as a national treasure, the Catholic Church refused to give her a religious funeral.
Of course, what this summary omits is her genius, which made many people want to forgive her all her shortcomings. She was generally considered to be the leading French woman novelist from the mid-1920s, when her talent emerged in all its glory, until her death at 81 in 1954. Today we would say she was, after the death of Marcel Proust in 1922, quite simply the most talented French novelist of her epoch, male or female. Although other writers, mostly male, spoke of her as an entirely unconscious writer guided only by her instincts, in fact Colette constantly revised her manuscripts, always searching for an exact, even shocking image.
Perhaps what confused critics was her originality; she claimed, with some justice, that she owed nothing to any preceding writer. In general, French literature from the 17th century on has favored short sentences, a narrow vocabulary of unremarkable words and a strict limit on metaphorical excess. Ironically, however, the two biggest literary figures of the century in France have turned out to be among the least characteristic--Proust and Colette. If Proust wrote extremely long sentences, unparalleled in contemporary French prose, Colette had an equally unidiomatic affection for strange words (her books have the largest vocabulary in modern French) and for highly colored imagery.
Typically, in “The Last of Cheri,” Colette presents a minor character, Desmond, in the period of frantic prosperity that followed World War I:
“Desmond ran a nightclub, and sold antiques to Americans. A gutless wash-out during the whole of the war, when he had carried anything and everything but a rifle--official papers, billy-cans, any dirty hospital receptacle--Desmond had bitten deep into peacetime with a war-like fervor, and rich had been his immediate reward, very much to Cheri’s astonishment. Desmond’s had been started in quite a small way in a private house in the Avenue d’Alma, and now it sheltered frenzied and silent couples behind its heavy ashlar masonry, beneath ceilings decorated with swallows and hawthorn, and hemmed in by the bulrushes and flamingos of its stained-glass windows. They danced at Desmond’s, night and day, as people dance after war: the men, young and old, free from the burden of thinking and being frightened--empty-minded, innocent; the women, given over to a pleasure far greater than any more definite sensual delight, to the company of men: that is to say, to physical contact with them, their smell, their tonic sweat, this certain proof of which tingled in every inch of their bodies--the certainty of being the prey of a man wholly alive and vital, and of succumbing in his arms to rhythms as personal, as intimate as those of sleep.”
Many of the salient elements in Colette’s style are present here--the journalistic thumbnail sketch; the rapid and self-assured notation of dense social detail; the eye for glinting, painterly description (all those bulrushes and flamingos); the constant presence of sensuality; the old-fashioned, almost Balzacian confidence in giving us “universal” rules about how men and women behave; the apt but softly disruptive invocation of sleep, the equivalent to an unexpected dying away of the voice. . . .
What this quotation, however, does not show is Colette’s innovative deployment of fictional form and voice. Along with Proust, Colette experimented with the first-person narrator, someone clearly based on herself but whom she both conceals and reveals in book after book and is always constructing. Like Proust, who used his narrator as a fil conducteur to draw us through his thousands of pages, Colette coquettishly adds and subtracts details about herself in her entire nearly 80-volume oeuvre of fiction, memoirs, journalism and drama.
The French today are slightly shocked by how seriously English-speaking readers take Colette, a writer they think of as someone their grandmothers read under the hair dryer (during her own lifetime she fared much better). Perhaps their undervaluation of Colette is linked to the fact that few women novelists, other than George Sand and Colette, dominated French literature in the long period before Marguerite Yourcenar and Simone de Beauvoir; the French don’t happen to have an equivalent to Jane Austen and George Eliot. Moreover, Colette’s lurid image as one of those seedy old Decadents--friend to Rachilde (author of “Monsieur Venus”), Proust’s mentor Robert de Montesquiou and the grandes cocottes, Liane de Pougy and la Belle Otero, mistresses of kings--clings to her in her land of origin. That in her lifetime she wrote constant articles for the press, posed for photographers as a mummy or a man, was whispered about in gossip columns and even opened a chain of beauty salons (from which her clients emerged looking 15 years older, according to Natalie Barney) all proved to her compatriots that she wasn’t a serious person. Her case was analogous to that of Proust, who was dismissed at first because he had written about society events for Figaro.
In fact, one could make a good case that only foreigners can properly judge a contemporary: Distance gives the objectivity that time will eventually provide even to compatriots. Or, as the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu puts it more elegantly, “Foreign judgments are a little like the judgments of posterity.” Just as the French were the first critics to praise William Faulkner, just as Americans from the first admired Virginia Woolf and ignored her off-putting Bloomsbury connections, in the same way Colette has always been esteemed in the English-speaking world more than at home.
For us, Colette is not only a perverse, sometimes stern sensualist, she is also the great nature writer who brings cats, dogs, plants, even the soil sharply into focus. And she is, in spite of herself, a feminist in the only way that makes sense in fiction: She shows a huge variety of women, victimized and monstrous, abject and proud, dependent and supremely resourceful. Even militant feminists have shown less of the range of female experience. Finally, she is the author of half a dozen masterpieces: “Cheri” and “The Last of Cheri,” “The Pure and the Impure,” “Break of Day,” “My Mother’s House” and “Sido"--and the libretto for Ravel’s exquisite one-act opera, “L’Enfant et les sortileges.”
Colette--or to give her her full name, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette--was born on Jan. 28, 1873, in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-on-Puisaye. Her mother, known as “Sido” or Sidonie, was a freethinker and atheist (Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier in “Creating Colette” make a strong case for the influence on Sido of the philosopher Charles Fourier’s doctrine of voluptuousness), not the usual French villager of the period. Her mother had married a rich madman known in the region as “the Ape.” After his death, she married a second time for love, an amiable but spendthrift Capt. Colette, who gradually dissipated the fortune she’d inherited from the Ape. The captain was as kindly as he was impractical; his leg had been amputated in 1859 after a war wound, and in his later years he had what amounted to a sinecure: He was the tax collector of Saint-Sauveur.
But the family had its secrets. Sido’s ancestors had converted to Protestantism in the 17th century and emigrated to Martinique, where they’d acquired slaves. Their children were biracial, a fact the family back in France hid by faking identity papers. Like Aleksander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas, Colette turns out to be of mixed African descent. Colette herself was proud of her heritage and frequently referred to it in letters to friends.
In the summer of 1889, when she was 16, Colette fell in love with a 30-year-old writer and man-about-Paris, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as “Willy.” He can be called a “writer” only in an honorary sense, given that he had a terrible life long writer’s block, got the most famous composers of the day to pen his columns as a music critic and hired a team of ghostwriters to churn out his many novels. He married the provocative, pretty and wildly clever Colette and soon enough set her to work ghosting “his” most famous novels, the Claudine series.
Years later, when she was in her 60s and still nursing a grudge against her first husband, Colette claimed in her memoir, “My Apprenticeships,” that she had never been so unhappy as with Willy, but her letters of the period belie her subsequent statements. Even she admitted that Willy had edited her work brilliantly; and from him she must have learned a lot about gender-bending, which would become her great subject. As Judith Thurman puts it in “Secrets of the Flesh,” “Colette’s early work is a fascinating and baroque form of transvestism. She is a woman writing as a man, who poses as a boyish girl, Claudine, who marries a ‘feminized’ man, the aging Renaud, who pushes her into the arms of a female lover, Rezi, with whom she takes the virile role.”
One aspect of Colette’s life is how modern it sounds to today’s reader. She ate sushi at the turn of the century, had a face-lift in the 1920s, hired an acupuncturist, kept her wild hair permed her whole life, rejected religion, flouted most of society’s rules--and ate with such relish and so little guilt that she ended up weighing 180 pounds. (Once, recovering from food poisoning, Colette soothed her stomach by downing a stuffed cabbage and currant tart.) She announced that slimness was dangerously “masculinizing” women. She loved perfumes and sprayed each room with a different scent, attuned to its decor. She was one of the first serious writers to turn to the silent movies and devise scenarios that were neither novelistic nor theatrical but purely cinematic. She was obviously open to anything and everything; once when she had some painful dental work, she asked, “Why can’t one simply have one’s teeth all pulled and replace them with green jade?”
Colette’s second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, was a baron, the editor in chief of Le Matin and, after World War I, France’s chief delegate to the League of Nations. He was also the father to Colette’s only child, Colette Renee de Jouvenel, who was born July 3, 1913, when Colette was 40. Colette gave the baby the Provencal nickname her own father had given her--Bel-Gazou. Not for a moment did Colette let her child distract her from her work; as Colette observed with pride (forgetting her objections to masculine women), “My strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author.” Not that Colette wasn’t fiercely possessive of her daughter; once when the child fell and hurt herself, her mother slapped her and shouted, “I’ll teach you to ruin what I made.” A friend once had to tear a whip out of Colette’s hand as she was about to lash her daughter.
The daughter, of course, was the one who had to pay the price for her mother’s fierce, complex feelings. Bel-Gazou grew up to be her mother’s greatest disappointment: a spoiled brat, a bad student, later incapable of settling down in a career, chronically indecisive. Bel-Gazou announced she wanted to convert to Judaism because she’d observed that Jews love their children. When she eventually decided that she was a lesbian, her mother radiated disapproval (but who, incidentally, had lived 10 years with another woman, the Marquise de Belbeuf, a transvestite better known as “Missy”). According to Colette’s friend, the novelist Michel del Castillo, “To be gay, in her view, showed a kind of sexual irresponsibility.”
After Colette’s death, Bel-Gazou fought for years with her mother’s last husband, Maurice Goudeket (who had been 16 years younger than his wife), to gain control over the literary estate. Despite Colette’s perfectly explicit preference for Maurice in her will, the daughter won--and turned herself into a high priestess of the cult of Colette. When she was 60, eight years before her death, Bel-Gazou recalled that her mother had been a font of a “tenderness and warmth that made me radiant with happiness. And nothing that later came to torment or frustrate me could tarnish that magic.”
Both of these biographies are major accomplishments. Francis and Gontier have done impressive research into Colette’s African ancestry, the details of her childhood and the exact nature of her marriage with “Willy,” a far more benign and liberating relationship than Colette ever led her readers to believe. In the second volume, they have documented with great care how Colette cleaned up her act as the Baroness de Jouvenel and turned herself into a lady of letters, someone who at her death would receive a state funeral, the first ever granted to a woman writer.
Yet Francis and Gontier (who translated their text into English) sometimes fill up page after page with breathless (and finally monotonous) narration in which sentence length is never varied. Perhaps their native language is English (I know nothing about them), but the tightly packed prose certainly sounds translated (“Colette not only wrote but openly lived according to her beliefs”). Then there are all the little mistakes--"flaunted” to mean “flouted"--and the typos (“Toulouse-Latrec,” “Apprentessages” and the curiously bland word choices (“She related to the twentieth century in its total complexity”).
Thurman’s book is a lot more fun. If biography is all too often the revenge of little people on big ones, in the case of “Secrets of the Flesh” (a deliberately archaic-sounding title, a tribute to Colette’s Decadent beginnings) the biographer is as sophisticated as her subject. None of Colette’s appalling moral flaws is minimized, but none freezes Thurman’s sympathy for her subject--almost as if she’d remembered Rilke’s observation that “perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants help from us.” Thurman’s frequent critical remarks are always apt and illuminating: “Whatever the story, and however frivolous or anecdotal its surface, Colette reminds us of that lost age at which we had not yet categorized desire into good and bad, male and female, real and imagined, passive and aggressive. She writes from the point of view not of the analytic adult but of the child first ‘sorting out’ her paradoxical instincts and experience.”
Thurman is equally good on the psychology of writers. When Colette daydreams about becoming an assistant to a famous dress designer, Thurman writes, “Nothing came of this impetuous offer, although it expresses the longing which so many writers feel to do something worldlier, more thrilling and lucrative than slaving at a desk.” Or Thurman gracefully and trenchantly makes a distinction between English mothers who counsel their daughters to be chaste and French culture, which “ultimately prizes and respects sexual appetite and daring in woman and, as these women age, values their prowess and wisdom--one reason Colette would become a national treasure.”
There have been many books about Colette, but this is the only one in which the writing is as inventive and lively as that of the great novelist. Thurman (who learned Danish in order to write her prize-winning biography of Isak Dinesen) has turned herself into a turn-of-the-century Frenchwoman--with all her seductive sparkle, dazzling conversation, taste for beauty and sensitivity to erotic nuance--in order to write the life of Colette. This is a life lived from the inside out.