Judith Thurman's seminal biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, is as unsentimentally frank as its subject -- the French libertine of letters whose last word in 1954 (Look!) was indicative of 81 years indulging a curiosity unsullied by scruples.
I'd been in love with this fiercely articulate pagan since first reading her memoirs of the most basic things: fried potatoes and oranges, her mother's tamed house spider, idiosyncratic siblings and the sensual intimacies of gardening. Until I read Thurman's treatise, I had no idea of the other Colette: chronically unfaithful in marriage, disdainful of her only child, politically indifferent and unsympathetic to her friends' misfortunes. It is a testimony to Thurman's objective writing that I am still enamored with this mythic power whose mystery is hardly disturbed after 500 pages.
"To be a grown-up person," Colette told Truman Capote, "is the one thing none of us can ever be." Born the last child of a middle-aged mother in the rural village of Saint-Sauveur in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was determined to defy the gravity of age or unhappiness through prodigious work and an exhausting litany of lovers of every age and gender. At 64, she attended five opening nights each week and wrote 12 reviews each month in addition to reams of fiction, journalism and screenwriting; in her 70s, she produced eight books.
Her happiest period was her 50s ("To be only 58 ... then I was a happy and passionate woman"), courted by a 27-year-old young woman with rare and expensive flowers, traveling the world and maintaining an athletic but stocky body with a handmade gymnasium. Eminently at home in her skin and the world, she exulted in simple rituals as described by Thurman with Colette-like eloquence: "She got up at sunrise to weed her tomatoes and to wander in the silent woods, trailed by her cats, returning with her espadrilles soaked in dew before a breakfast of wild figs."
Food and sex were dominant themes in Colette's work and life. At her most ascetic, she stuffed herself with garlic sausages and mulled wine every evening. She deplored the new 20th century trend of anorexia and felt only contempt for depression and drug addiction, popular among French aesthetes. "Like all those who never use their strength to the limit," she wrote proudly, "I am hostile to those who let life burn them out."
Of all her attachments, her bond with her mother was the most inscrutable and inexorable. Until her mother's death, they exchanged letters on an almost daily basis. Her mother was described by Colette as "pensively stirring the morning chocolate, her features, unguarded, betraying a look of terrible sadness on the morning" after her wedding at age 20 to a man almost twice her age.
First husband Willy (there would be three spouses) had a penchant for young girls and introduced Colette to sexual variety; it was poetic justice that at about the time he tired of her maturing body, she abandoned him for a female lover. But their relationship importantly introduced the country girl to Paris and its literati, an association necessary to becoming published.
At age 24, she gave Willy her first novel -- 600 pages -- which he derided with: "There's nothing here" before stuffing it into a drawer. Years later he would accidentally rediscover and publish it under his own name; to her last days, and despite 72 other published works, Colette struggled to assert her right of ownership to Claudine at School.
Her novels, shocking at the time, are populated with aging courtesans, opium smokers, lesbian harems, mnage a trois, romantics, waifs and misfits, all seeking deliverance from feeling irremediably alone through union with another. It is a sad fact that Colette's own daughter, Bel-Gazou, grew up in real isolation, living under the same roof with her mother for only the odd summer month. During pregnancy, Colette felt she looked like "a rat dragging a stolen egg" and consigned the infant to the care of wet-nurses, nannies and expensive boarding schools.
Thurman's faithful report of Colette's paradoxical nature gives the book both credibility and intrigue. An example is Colette's seeming hypocrisy when she refutes her grown daughters claim to lesbianism. But then Colette's sexual tastes were anything but clear-cut. She disliked boyish women, agreeing with a friend, "Why try to resemble our enemies?" She embodied and adored voluptuous femininity -- herself a vixen famous for a triangular cat face, tiny mouth, too much eye shadow, frizzy hennaed hair and scarlet toenails protruding from beloved sandals.
Despite libidinal meanderings, Colette's happiest relationship appears to be her marriage at age 62 to Maurice Goudeket, age 45. After a civil ceremony, the couple and a friend were driving home when they were ambushed by a sudden spring snowstorm. Colette insisted they stop the car so she could listen to the whisper of snow on dead leaves, which she described as "the diligent turning of silky pages, and the quiet praying of a crowd."
This was a woman born when French mothers dried violets for infusions and who died after seeing German tanks take Paris; who scorned Hitler, saying "he doesn't seem to like fucking anybody, not even men"; who shooed a stalker from her dressing room with an aggressive campaign of farting; and who prepared herself for the discipline of writing by picking her cat's fleas. Trusting her earthy senses more than head or heart, indifferent to religion or convention, her true loyalty was given to nature and art.
"There is a ripeness to events ... to relations," Colette wrote. "All of them disconnect like a child ready to be born. The child bruises us too, yet it must fall." Somehow, despite Colette's childlike selfishness and proud faults, in spite of this bold book or because of it, so must my heart to her.
-- Rebekah Shardy