Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette
|Publisher:||Alfred A. Knopf|
A scandalously talented stage performer, a practiced seductress of both men and women, and the flamboyant author of some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, Colette was our first true superstar. Now, in Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh, Colette at last has a biography worthy of her dazzling reputation.
Having spent her childhood in the shadow of an overpowering mother, Colette escaped at age twenty into a turbulent marriage with the sexy, unscrupulous Willy—a literary charlatan who took credit for her bestselling Claudine novels. Weary of Willy’s sexual domination, Colette pursued an extremely public lesbian love affair with a niece of Napoleon’s. At forty, she gave birth to a daughter who bored her, at forty-seven she seduced her teenage stepson, and in her seventies she flirted with the Nazi occupiers of Paris, even though her beloved third husband, a Jew, had been arrested by the Gestapo. And all the while, this incomparable woman poured forth a torrent of masterpieces, including Gigi, Sido, Cheri, and Break of Day.
Judith Thurman, author of the National Book Award-winning biography of Isak Dinesen, portrays Colette as a thoroughly modern woman: frank in her desires, fierce in her passions, forever reinventing herself. Rich with delicious gossip and intimate revelations, shimmering with grace and intelligence, Secrets of the Flesh is one of the great biographies of our time.
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