Cover image for Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette
Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette
Thurman, Judith, 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.
Physical Description:
xix, 592 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
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Format :


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PQ2605.O28 Z836 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
PQ2605.O28 Z836 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"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, Sidonic-Gabrielle Colette was a profoundly reticent and self-suspicious creature who fiercely resists being known." "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."

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Thurman won the National Book Award for Isak Dinesen (1982), and she has triumphed again with this forthright, commanding, and animated portrait of Colette. Like the felines she adored, Colette, sly and self-involved, lived many lives over the course of her 81 years. A mischievous, striking, and extremely intelligent country girl, she was in over her head when she married the charismatic critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, and entered the epicenter of fin de siecle Paris. Thurman, splendidly descriptive, brings fresh insight into their turbulent relationship and feverish milieu, the crucible within which Colette created Claudine, the young heroine of her first, stunningly successful books. Wounded by her husband's treacheries, Colette declared that "discipline cures everything," and established the regime of hard work and exercise that kept her young, vital, and sexy well into her seventies. She found happiness with women and much younger men (including a stepson), conducted a notoriously risquestage career, and wrote not only her revolutionary fiction but also a voluminous amount of shrewd critical journalism. Thurman presents Colette as the queen of survival and as a daring artist who led literature to new heights of feminine power and sexual candor. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Colette (1873-1954) aficionados can feast on these two well-researched, well-written, captivating biographies of the talented, passionate, and volatile French writer. The authors are all experienced literary biographers: Thurman is a National Book Award winner for Isak Dinesen, and Francis and Gontier are cobiographers of Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. Thurman's work spans Colette's entire life, while Francis and Gontier's second volume of a two-volume work (Creating Colette: Vol. 1, LJ 11/1/98) begins with the death of Colette's mother in 1912 and ends with Colette's death. Both works essentially cover the same territory and rely upon archival sources in Europe and the United States, with each emphasizing some events or stories over others. Thurman also includes information from personal interviews with acquaintances and family members. The most significant difference between the works is organizational; Thurman groups 44 chapters within six parts, whereas Francis and Gontier formulate the material in chapters throughout two volumes with thematic subdivisions. Also, in their first volume, Francis and Gontier emphasize the significance of Colette's African ancestry and maternal family background in understanding her work. Although Thurman's effort tends to be more readable, Colette fans will certainly want to read both biographies despite the duplication. Both titles are highly recommended for academic collections. [Thurman's book was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]ÄJeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Thurman, author of the award-winning Isak Dinesen (CH, Mar'83), spent nine years researching and writing this ambitious biography of Colette, a comprehensive and scholarly study that supersedes Elaine Marks's Colette (1960), Yvonne Mitchell's Colette: A Taste for Life (CH, May'76), and Genevi`eve Dormann's Colette: A Passion for Life (Eng. tr., 1984). Thurman drew on a "rich mine of new documents, candid interviews, and unpublished letters"--many dwelling in detail on the novelist's numerous lesbian and heterosexual affairs, including the seduction of her 16-year-old stepson--to produce a remarkable account that harmoniously intertwines a voluminous literary production that began with the prodigious success of the Claudine titles early in the 20th century. The author also analyzes and discusses at great length other notable fiction: Cheri, The Ripening Seed, Julie de Carneilhan, Gigi, and L'Enfant et les sortil`eges, a two-act libretto written for Ravel. Thanks to Thurman's unforgettable portrait, the elusive Colette will capture the hearts of a host of new readers who are only vaguely familiar with the name of a fascinating, controversial, and contradictory woman (an antisemite married to a Jew), who remains to this day one of the most beloved French "femme de lettres" of the 20th century. Enthusiastically recommended for both academic and public libraries. R. Merker; Grambling State University



In March of 1900, a forty-one-year-old Parisian man of letters published a novel that purported to be the journal of a sixteen-year-old provincial schoolgirl named Claudine. Henry Gauthier-Villars was best known as an amusingly opinionated music critic who had championed Wagner and insulted Satie. His paunch and top hat had endeared him to the cartoonists of the penny press; and his duels, his puns, and his seductions of women managed to generate almost as much copy as he wrote himself. Gauthier-Villars used his own name for scholarly non-fiction and one of many pseudonyms when a work was light. He and his alter egos -- Willy, Jim Smiley, Boris Zichine, Henry Maugis, and the Usherette -- had a bibliography which already included a collection of sonnets, another of essays on photography, several comic almanacs, a monograph on Mark Twain, and a number of salacious popular novels. It was not a very well kept secret that most of these works had been improved by other hands, if not entirely ghostwritten. In an ironic bow to this reputation, Willy claimed that the new manuscript had arrived in the mail tied with a pink ribbon -- the literary equivalent of a baby girl delivered by the stork. Claudine at School was not the first authorial travesty of its kind, and certainly not the last, although Claudine herself was something new. She was the century's first teenage girl: rebellious, tough talking, secretive, erotically reckless and disturbed, by turns beguiled and disgusted at her discovery of what it means to become a woman. In his preface to the book, Willy calls her "a child of nature," a "Tahitian before the advent of the missionaries," and he pays homage to her "innocent perversity" even while regretting "this word 'perversity,' which subverts the idea that I wish to give of . . . Claudine's special case -- for the very reason that I insist one cannot find any conscious vice in this young girl, who is, one might say, less immoral than she is 'amoral.' " The novel languished for a few months until Willy rallied his influential friends, who duly produced reviews hailing Claudine at School as a masterpiece. By autumn, it had sold some forty thousand copies, becoming -- including its four sequels -- one of the greatest French best-sellers of all time. There were five Claudines in all, two successful plays, and a range of product spin-offs in the modern sense, including Claudine cigarettes, perfume, chocolates, cosmetics, and clothing. The "author," notorious to begin with, became something of a brand name himself. "I think that only God and maybe Alfred Dreyfus are as famous as [Willy]," said Sacha Guitry. The man who signed Claudine at School is now best remembered as the "deplorable" first husband of the woman who wrote it. Madame Henry Gauthier-Villars, nee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was then an athletic beauty of twenty-seven who could pass easily for seventeen. She concealed her feelings and her talent, but she flaunted her rustic accent and a plait of auburn hair as long as she was tall. Her family in Burgundy still called her "Gabri," but in Paris she went by the waifish moniker of Colette Willy. She had rejected her own first name long before she married, insisting that her school friends -- rowdy village girls like herself and like Claudine -- call one another by their patronyms, comme des garcons. When she married for the second time, Colette Willy became Colette de Jouvenel, and finally, triumphantly, syncretically, just Colette--. Colette accepted Willy's definition of her as "a child of nature," in quotation marks. So, on the whole, did the French literary establishment, without the marks. "Colette, notre plus grand ecrivain naturel," Montherlant calls her -- our greatest natural writer. But beware when the French admire something as natural. It touches on their deepest fear: looking ridiculous. Colette's vitality was in a way too truculent; her speech, as she says herself, too "brutal and familiar"; and her fiction, too popular for the taste of the mandarins. She never dropped her Burgundian accent. She got fat and didn't worry about it. She wrote an advice column for a women's magazine. She was one of the first writers to describe the pathology of an anorexic and the poignance of a faked orgasm. In her sixties, Colette opened a beauty salon, sold her signature products in provincial department stores, and did makeovers in a lab coat. (Natalie Barney noted that her clients came out looking twice as old as they went in.) But that is an image to retain: of female science operating with feigned benevolence on female nature -- Colette the fixer. . . . "There's only one person in this world you can count on, and that's yourself," 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 tremendously compelling, as is all heresy, the more so, perhaps, to modern women torn between their own conflicting devotions. The subject of love was, as Colette puts it, "the bread of my life and pen." But the experience of love aroused her profoundest mistrust, and perhaps that is why the men in her works tend to be weak, or very young, or contemptible except for pleasure. A man really worth loving would be an invitation to perdition, and she doesn't want to put temptation in her own path, even in the form of a character. Mother love was a more dangerous and regressive temptation for Colette than romantic love. Children, herself included, were those "happy, unconscious little vampire[s] who drain the maternal heart." And here I should begin her story. Excerpted from Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
Part 1

p. 1

Part 2

p. 61

Part 3

p. 147

Part 4

p. 241

Part 5

p. 333

Part 6

p. 433

Notes and Sourcesp. 501
Selected Bibliographyp. 563
Acknowledgmentsp. 569
Indexp. 573