“Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette” by Judith Thurman

A superb literary biographer offers a satisfying life of the great French sensualist.

Topics: Books,

"Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette" by Judith Thurman

“Like all those who never use their strength to the limit,” Colette wrote, “I am hostile to those who let life burn them out.” Fiercely disciplined, hugely productive, the author of “Gigi” and “Chiri” lived 80 years and produced nearly 80 volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism and drama. She married three times, had male and female lovers and for a time supported herself as a mime, dancing semi-nude in music halls throughout France. When she died in 1954, she received the first state funeral the French Republic had ever given a woman. And she created the subtlest, most sustained literary examination of love and sex that we have.

An initial reading can be perplexing, though. Colette is a strikingly elusive writer. Packing her books with delicious clothes and furniture and ravishingly attractive people, she delivers pleasures that most “women’s writers” only promise. But her prose is rarely straightforward or transparent, and her characters — captured at the height of their beauty or in beauty’s humiliating decline — maintain a mocking, self-protective reticence.

“Secrets of the Flesh,” Judith Thurman’s superb life of Colette, guides the reader with great assurance through a wealth of complex material. Thurman won a 1983 National Book Award for “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.” A gifted literary biographer, as sure-handed as her subject, she never conflates the life with the work or allows her admiration to interfere with an informed and delicately balanced critique of Colette’s uniqueness.

Colette, Thurman says, was “remarkable among modern writers — perhaps the great women in particular — for a sense of self not vested in her mind.” Maybe female writers have simply had to think harder in order to carve out space within ideologies that would otherwise have shut them out: Witness Doris Lessing’s communism, Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialism. Colette, on the other hand, seems to have missed most of the intellectual action that animated European politics during her lifetime. “There was not an idea that could carry Colette away,” says Thurman, “or a sensation that couldn’t.”

You Might Also Like

She drew inspiration from entertainers, courtesans, an aristocratic Parisian lesbian subculture and the fin de sihcle gay aesthetes whose “fetish worship of human beauty” she shared. She admired the bravery of lives lived on the sexual edge, the consciously chosen tastes and prejudices, the risk of physical danger. Her understanding of gender was far ahead of its time; her treatment of sex between generations can still make us uneasy.

Thurman describes Claudine, the heroine of Colette’s earliest fiction, as “this century’s first teenage girl: rebellious, tough talking, secretive, erotically reckless and disturbed.” Claudine marries a man 25 years older than she in a sensually saturated pulp wishdream of love as eternal childhood. Contemporary fans couldn’t get enough of her: The books and product spinoffs (Claudine cigarettes, chocolates, clothing) were huge sellers. The books are still fun, but their darker themes remain undeveloped. Claudine’s marriage is too much like the long, blissful summer vacation Dolly Haze must have thought she’d be taking with Humbert Humbert.

For Colette’s most powerful examination of cross-generational love one turns to Chiri, the story of an affair between an elegant woman of 49 and a young man of 25. The novel explores a passionate attraction that’s simultaneously selfish and self-sacrificing, controlling and terrified of losing control. Lia’s love for Chiri is both sexual and maternal, a seductive, disturbing combination that leaves both partners incapable of being satisfied by anything simpler.

Courting dissatisfaction in love, Colette’s characters nonetheless do so within one of the most satisfactory physical worlds ever depicted. Dominique Aury (who under the pseudonym Pauline Riage wrote “Story of O”) remarked that Colette never neglects to describe her heroines’ meals or the comforts, grand or shabby, of their bedrooms and bathrooms. Her interiors have the plenitude of gardens, and she writes magnificently of food, flowers and animals — not analytically but, as Thurman says, “from the point of view … of the child first ‘sorting out’ her paradoxical instincts and experience.”

A less happy immaturity was the intellectual and moral passivity that allowed her to publish in pro-Vichy, anti-Semitic journals during the Nazi occupation, even as she fought devotedly (and successfully) to keep her Jewish third husband from being deported. It’s one of the great virtues of Thurman’s biography that she deals unsparingly with Colette’s tin ear for moral principle, locating her complacencies within contemporary French social history and popular opinion.

There’s one point on which I would have liked Thurman to be more complete. It’s a relatively frivolous one, but still, I’d hoped to learn what Colette was actually doing onstage during those pantomimes for which she was so adorably dressed as a faun, a cat or an Egyptian in a jeweled bra. How long were the performances? What part did words and music play? Was anybody doing anything except striking poses, preferably with some clothes torn off? The publicity photos for these shows look pretty awful, and it remains unclear to me what might have prompted a leading aesthete to call Colette’s performance “a day of art at the theater.”

This almost-quibble aside, “Secrets of the Flesh” is a fiercely intelligent and accomplished book and — using the words with all due weight — an immense pleasure.

Pam Rosenthal has previously written for Salon under the pseudonym Molly Weatherfield. A portion of her (pseudonymous) novel "Safe Word" appears in "The Best American Erotica 2000" (Touchstone).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>