There are writers whose essence may be suggested by a single phrase or sentence from their work—Kipling, Hemingway, Eliot for instance. Colette (1873-1934) is another such writer. “Ces plaisirs qu’on nomme, à la légère, physiques“—“these pleasures lightly called physical.” The sentence appears first in her novel of adolescent love, Le Blé en herbe (The Ripening Seed). She took it again as the original title of her study of lesbian affections, Le Pur et l’impur, which, she suggested, mistakenly, “will one day be recognized perhaps as my best book.” I say “mistakenly,” for I do not think it her best book, though it may be her most significant.
Judith Thurman, in her excellent new biography, which follows hard on the detailed two-volume French biography, Creating Colette, by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, says Le Pur et l’impur “comes closer than any other of Colette’s books, memoir or fiction, to revealing the ‘mysterious nature of [her] being’…which she guarded so fiercely, even from her intimates.” Ms. Thurman’s title, Secrets of the Flesh, acknowledges the importance of “these pleasures lightly called physical” for an understanding of her subject.
Colette, uninterested in “general ideas,” as Ms. Thurman puts it, was among the most autobiographical of writers. Yet the nature of her being was “mysterious.” That is the paradox the biographer seeks to explore, with, especially in Ms. Thurman’s case, both art and intelligence. There is a problem from the start. How far can the version of Colette offered by Colette be trusted? Were the character and history she presented to the world conscious artifacts? The problem is not unique; most writers fashion a persona they would have the world accept. Colette is, however, remarkable for the success of her self-portrait.
Here I must make a confession. A dozen or so years ago I wrote a short biography of Colette for a Penguin series, Lives of Modern Women. It lacked objectivity. I was seduced by Colette, by her prose, and also by the girl in the sailor suit and the wise old woman crippled by arthritis but working to the end from her bed (which she called her “raft”). I was captivated by the once-scandalous young woman who in her old age had become, as the English critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, “a national glory, something to enjoy as well as to be proud of, like Chambertin or the Luxembourg Gardens or the Provençal spring.” I do not regret the book, or regret having fallen in love with her, and so having come to find everything she did forgivable; but I recognize that Ms. Thurman’s biography is not only a much fuller book, but a far better one, being more critical. And the same may also be said of the biography by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. Ms. Thurman, like Francis and Gontier, is not in love with Colette. She paints her with all her defects, some of them conspicuous and ugly.
In the authorized version …