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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by…

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

by Judith Thurman

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And they say we are the selfish generation. These guys (Colette's friends, enemies, etc.) did what they wanted. Drugs, sex, art--believing it was worth it, not paying attention to the rest of the world, not even to their friends, they were takers. Book gives a good pic of the boho life in Paris at the turn of the century and what it became as the bohos aged. Many not well. But they broke down the corsets and lowered the bloomers forever. I guess that's good. ( )
  kerns222 | May 25, 2018 |
Colette's published works run to nearly 80 volumes. She lived the life of a libertine in fin de siecle France, was active in the first world war, was a showgirl actress and playwright, she lived with her Jewish husband in Paris during the second world war. She had many lovers of both sexes was married three times and at 49 years old she seduced her 16 year old stepson. Towards the end of her life she was the grand dame of French literature and was the first woman to be given a state funeral by the French Republic. Her life is well documented and seven volumes of her letters have been published.

With this wealth of information the would be biographer is spoilt for choice as to how she might slant her book. Perhaps a straight narrative life and times, or perhaps a more risque book that dwells on Colette's sex life, perhaps an in-depth analysis of her published works or a focus on how she was viewed by her contemporaries. Judith Thurman has opted for an all encompassing approach skilfully pulling together all these threads to produce a thoughtful and vivid life of this great French author. Colette's story is told in a lively narrative style with enough details of contemporary events/issues in France to give the story the required perspective and to provide the necessary background for the reader. Her major published works are analysed succinctly as they occur in the narrative and consideration is given as to how they fit into the oeuvre. My fears that the "Secrets of the Flesh" title might be an indication of a salacious romp through Colette's sex life were unfounded. This is a well rounded biography.

If I had to describe the underlying approach to this biography I would sat it was psychoanalytical. Thurman attempts to show how the major influences on Colette's life affected the subject matter of her fiction:

she was dominated too early and too long by exploitative masters-first her mother then her husband-.....The rivalry bred of her primitive anxieties-her fathers indifference, her mothers romance with Achille(her son), her feelings of exclusion- was one of Colette's strongest passions, if not her predominate one; and she couldn't avoid, indeed perversely sought to reconstitute, the original love triangles of her child hood in most of her adult relationships and in all her fiction

Thurman says at one point;

she became a young woman with a weakness for bondage and an old woman with a genius for domination

A biography should leave the reader with an impression of it's subject and this one certainly does. Thurman has an obvious admiration for her subject particularly her literary merit and her energy and her desire to "become herself", but this is no panegyric. Thurman says that her life was a "voyage egoiste" and I would add that she seems to me to have been a supreme egoist, greedy for love, for pleasure and of course for food. Like most people there are contradictions and Colette fought hard to make her way in a world dominated by men and yet there is that famous quote about the suffragette movement:

you know what the feminist deserves - the whip and the harem

This is a well researched book with plenty of notes and sources. Use is made throughout of correspondence and other primary sources. Having read it I am now keen to read more of Colette's fiction. A very good biography which I thoroughly enjoyed ( )
4 vote baswood | Apr 2, 2011 |
I don’t think it is a secret that Collette lead an interesting life. It only stands to reason that her biography would be interesting. I just don’t think it is as interesting as it can be. I couldn’t, with any authority at least, tell you if the facts are all there or a dazzling affair has been omitted. I think it’s all there. What bored and angered me was the attempts to psycho-analyse Collette and when her voice becomes more important then the life of her subject.

I carried on reading because I wanted to know about Colette, not from any joy in reading the biography itself. ( )
  Staramber | Apr 22, 2008 |
my copy is hardcover ( )
  marstokyo | May 20, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345371038, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:38 -0400)

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A portrait of one of the world's great writers and personalities chronicles the colorful life of Colette, from her diverse marriages and affairs with both men and women to her literary success.

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