Catalogue


Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette /
Judith Thurman.
edition
1st Ballantine Books ed.
imprint
New York : Ballantine Books, 2000, c1999.
description
xix, 592 p. : ill., ports. ; 25 cm.
ISBN
0345371038
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
New York : Ballantine Books, 2000, c1999.
isbn
0345371038
catalogue key
4804788
 
Includes bibliographical references (p. 563-567) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Judith Thurman won the National Book Award in 1983 for Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. She lives in New York City
Excerpts
Excerpt from Book
"Biographers generally believe that it is easy to be a 'monster.' It is even harder than being a saint." -- COLETTE,Lettres a ses pairs 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 nonfiction 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 photog-raphy, 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 Schoolwas 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 hailingClaudine at Schoolas a masterpiece. By autumn, it had sold some forty thousand copies, becoming--including its four sequels--one of the greatest French bestsellers 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 signedClaudine at Schoolis 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 began writing in her early twenties, living turbulently and working tirelessly, her powers waxing as she aged. In the course of half a century, she produced nearly eighty volumes of fiction, mem
First Chapter
"Biographers generally believe that it is easy to be a 'monster.' It is
even harder than being a saint." -- COLETTE, Lettres à ses pairs

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 nonfiction 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 photog-raphy, 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 bestsellers 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, née 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 garçons. When she married for the second time, Colette Willy became Colette de Jouvenel, and finally, triumphantly, syncretically, just Colette.

Colette began writing in her early twenties, living turbulently and working tirelessly, her powers waxing as she aged. In the course of half a century, she produced nearly eighty volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism, and drama of the highest quality. Her published correspondence fills seven volumes, and at least three important collections of letters remain unedited. Her critics and biographers have been more prolific than she was.

Digesting this colossal banquet was not the greatest of my challenges as her biographer. Colette 's friend Jean Cocteau liked to say: "Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité": I am a lie that always speaks the truth. To which Colette 's American anthologist, Robert Phelps, would add: she is a truth who always speaks a lie. A French critic would note more expansively: "Colette 's art is that of the lie. But the great game she plays with us is, precisely, to stuff her best lies with great flashes of truth. To read her with pleasure thus consists of disentangling, with a deft pair of tweezers, the true from the false." The autobiographical candor of Colette 's best writing is an illusion, just as her celebrated physical immodesty is misleading. She has, as Dominique Aury puts it, "a fierce modesty of sentiment." She actively dis-dains all forms of empathy and resists being known.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2000-05-01:
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
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-09-06:
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
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-10-01:
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.
Reviews
Review Quotes
"THE MOST IMPRESSIVE AND FASCINATING BOOK OF THE . . . SEASON. NO NOVEL, NO MEMOIR, NO OTHER BIOGRAPHY DISPLAYS SUCH INSIGHT AND VITALITY. . . . Through deft observation, research, and beautiful writing, Thurman brings alive one of the most astonishing writers and women ever to stride this earth." --USA Today "[Colette] has been the subject of . . . a half-dozen significant biographies over the past thirty years. Yet this one by Judith Thurman will be hard to top. . . . Its prose is smoothly urbane, at times aphoristic, always captivating." --The Washington Post Book World "IT WILL STAND AS LITERATURE IN ITS OWN RIGHT." --RICHARD BERNSTEIN The New York Times
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Summaries
Main Description
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.
Table of Contents
Introductionp. xi
p. 1
p. 61
p. 147
p. 241
p. 333
p. 433
Notes and Sourcesp. 501
Selected Bibliographyp. 563
Acknowledgmentsp. 569
Indexp. 573
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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