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The Pure and the Impure

by Colette

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563732,208 (3.65)9
Colette herself considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, "the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography." This guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which Colette was so intimately acquainted begins in the darkness and languor of a fashionable opium den. It continues as a series of unforgettable encounters with men and, especially, women whose lives have been improbably and yet permanently transfigured by the strange power of desire. Lucid and lyrical, The Pure and the Impure stands out as one of modern literature's subtlest reckonings not only with the varieties of sexual experience, but with the always unlikely nature of love.… (more)
1930s (155)

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English (6)  French (1)  All languages (7)
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
I picked up this used copy from the Book Burrow because I'd enjoyed Cheri and The Last of Cheri, and I'd gotten more curious about Colette herself after watching the trailer for her new biopic. I was expecting fiction, but instead got some blend of memoir/journalistic essays or a thinly fictionalized version of the same.

Here Colette (or "Colette?") sets as her subject love/romance/sex and the ways they are intwined with each other -- particularly among those whose romantic/sex lives deviated from the norms of the time. There are peeks into lesbian enclaves, communities of gay men, a conversation with a Don Juan type, a long piece on the Ladies of Llangollen. There is a thrill to get a glimpse at some of the sorts of lives that history has deliberately hidden from us -- but still Colette herself is hardly an impartial observer. She reveals much of herself along the way -- her own opinions on love, sex, and gender -- some of which are radical and liberating and some which a modern reader can't help wondering to what extent were limited by the views of the time. How much of her observations of lesbians, let's say -- is true to the nature of women and/or lesbians, and how much an artifact of how lesbians had to hide themselves and dissemble -- and how that must have shaped their lives even when in the limited communities where they were able to be "free" with themselves?

In short, Colette as a narrator is in turns charming, radically open-minded, empathetic to the point of excusing what seems like very bad behavior, but then sometimes surprisingly conservative. She is resolutely herself -- shaped by her own time in and among the communities she reveals here. And that is deeply intriguing. ( )
  greeniezona | Nov 14, 2020 |
I have no clue why Colette considered this her best work. These random musings on love, drawn mostly from people Colette met in social circles in Paris (or opium dens), were provocative for 1932 because they openly acknowledged homosexuality and androgyny, and that speaks in the book’s favor. However, the book is poorly written, rambling in some places and too vague in others, maybe because Colette was trying to preserve the privacy of her ‘sources’, or because she was too close to the details, knowing them so well she forgot that others may not follow along with how she was telling the story. It may also have been because she was past her prime when she significantly revised the text in 1941. Of course, the fact that she was doing this in occupied Paris, in a climate that was not exactly open to alternative lifestyles, and right before her Jewish husband was put in a concentration camp by the Nazis, is mind-blowing.

In the book she often draws conclusions based on her knowledge collected over the years and her sophistication, but unfortunately, few of these rang true for me. There are a few bright spots, such as the story of the two wellborn Welsh girls who ran away in 1778 to live a long and happy life together (“In short, what did they want? Almost nothing. Everything. They wanted to live together.”), but it’s far too uneven and otherwise cheerless to recommend. ( )
2 vote gbill | Jul 9, 2015 |
The word "pure" has never revealed an intelligible meaning to me. I can only use the word to quench an optical thirst for purity in the transparencies that evoke in it—in bubbles, in a volume of water, and in the imaginary latitudes entrenched, beyond reach...It is a peculiar mood this piece evokes, the kind of "you had to be there, without any knowledge of what the future would bring" sensibility that renders all modern day desire for Victorian Age living both misinformed and masochistic. Said sort of desire implies free time enough to breed such old world nostalgia, as well as the comfortable complacence that discourages any delving deeper into the sordid truth of the matter entire. If you wish to fall in love with such things, stick to the surface tension of vision made beautious by rare circumstance, and refrain from falling in. Should you be anything but white or male and some flavor of heterosexual, there is nothing for you here in full. Here in this work of choreographed fiction, there is not even that, refraining as it does from entitled portraits of one true love.

There, you will find the pretty poetics, the poignant potency, the shadow crystal every so slow by flickers of motion, cries, glittering eyes passing and praying and parsing out individuals for its own particular whims. Sexuality for same and both and every which way for boys and girls, for despite the records glutted with guns and beards and trappings of the masculine fashion, women are perfectly capable of preferring themselves to the opposition. There are simply less hot house institutions for ensuring virulent growth.This is because, with all due deference to the imagination or the error of Marcel Proust, there is no such thing as Gomorrah. Puberty, boarding school, solitude, prisons, aberrations, snobbishness—they are all seedbeds, but too shallow to engender and sustain a vice that could attract a great number or become an established thing that would gain the indispensable solidarity of its votaries.Ah yes. Did I mention that the narrator has several bones to pick with prestigious Proust? Sentences scattered hither and thither that would easily be swallowed up by a single volume of the ponderous ISoLT, but where they strike, they strike true.

In these days, anything deviating from the (man + woman) norm was a sin, so all that is left is the self and a certain aesthetic the encompasses pleasure and pain alike. It is the senses that are at stake here, bounded among the extraneous side effects of emotion, desire, and even a small whiff of morality here and there, but slight. Ever so slight. The stories here are of those who survive until they do not, hiding, revealing, flitting behind their fantasies, every so often exiting forevermore when life has not sufficed. Good and evil have no place amongst these self-proclaimed monsters, self-sanctioning with every breath and act of love that even if not behind closed doors would prove ever so harmless. They reappopriate the glitz and glory of a world that caters only to the dichotomy, all in hopes of finding something along the lines of that Fruit of Knowledge that will never let them go back.

For here, there is the unnerving:For instance, a mere boy, issuing from the distant times when good and evil, mingled like two liqueurs, made one, gave an account of his last night at the Élysée Palace-Hôtel:
"He made me feel afraid, that big man, in his bedroom..I opened the little knife, I put one arm over my eyes, and with my other hand holding the knife, I went like this at the fat man, into his stomach...And I ran away quick!"
He was radiant with beauty, with roguishness, with a kind of incipient madness. His listeners were tactful and cautious. No one exclaimed. Only my old friend C., after a moment, casually said, "What a child!" and then changed the subject.
There is the delight:On my way, I would rap on the window of the garden flat where Robert d'Humières lived, and he would open his window and hold out an immaculate treasure, an armful of snow, that is to say, his blue-eyed white cat, Lanka, saying, "To you I entrust my most precious possession."And above all, there is Colette, her thoughts, her memories, where her talents and sensibilities led her and what she has deemed suitable to be performed in prose. Take her hand, stay a while. Time has long left her worded world far behind, and there is as little hope of capturing it now as there was then. But a taste? That is guaranteed. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Feb 26, 2014 |
Colette was pretty ambivalent about lesbians, in spite of her androgyny. It shows. But it's interesting to hang out in her world a while. ( )
  astrologerjenny | Apr 24, 2013 |
"But what is the heart, madame? It's worth less than people think. It’s quite accommodating, it accepts anything. You give it whatever you have, it's not very particular. But the body... Ha! That's something else again! It has a cultivated taste, as they say, it knows what it wants. A heart doesn't choose, and one always ends up by loving."

Colette writings were on my wish list as long as I can remember. Her life and ideas of sexual liberation enthralled me with the very thought of it being played in the early 19th century. To pine for such independence, moreover live it to the fullest fancies me as even today in this post-modernization era sexual taboos thrive with the strongest clout.

Colette’s writings are a bit peculiar and candid without being mechanically strategize to create a pre-planned ambience. The exceptional quality can be observed in this book. Colette focuses on the eternal pursuit of jouissance, an extreme pleasure to pacify the bodily hunger with a prevailing element of love. She questions the legitimacy of love when engulfed with sexual bliss develops into an expression of narcissism or self-obsessed endeavor. All her characters in this novel are in a never ending pursuit of love defining their own rules yet never seem to have a happy ending. The several protagonists varying from:-

Charlotte:- a 45 yr old woman who tries her best to hide her true feelings from her ravishing young lover.
Renee Vivien:- Seek for acceptance and love in her several lesbian relationships, ultimately rendering to commit suicide with a lonely heart.
Lady Eleanor:- who live a quaint and indiscernible life with her companion Sarah for 53 years.
Pepe:- A Spaniard of nobility who was in love with rugged men in blue overalls.

All of them are chained in sexual inhibitions and failing miserably in achieving self- satisfaction over sought after pleasures. Colette’s notion of the quest to attain pure jouissance brings rejection and vacant contentment solidifying the “impurity” of any relationship.

Colette’s scripts are not strictly feminist or homosexual values; it is a novel implicating the idea of women flouting societal norms of conventional sex, power and love, by discovering their sexuality. Her open acknowledgement of homosexuality as a legitimate and external character and androgynous women delineates her rebellious temperament in a sexually repressed era. Colette’s callous abnegation for “normal” people is reflected in the following excerpt:-

"The viewpoint of "normal" people is not so very different. I have said that what I particularly liked in the world of my "monsters" where I moved in that distant time was the atmosphere that banished women, and I called it "pure."
"O monsters, do not leave me alone. . . I do not confide in you except to tell you about my fear of being alone, you are the most human people I know, the most reassuring in the world. If I call you monsters, then what name can I give to the so-called normal conditions that were foisted upon me? Look there, on the wall, the shadow of that frightful shoulder, the expression of that vast back and the neck swollen with blood. . . O monsters do not leave me alone. . ."

The book reveals the restless soul of disgruntled relationships, similar to what Colette experienced in her personal life. With two failed marriages and feral affairs she constantly longed for approval and love just like her characters. Thus, I wonder whether ‘love’ is the purity of pleasurable impurity.
( )
1 vote Praj05 | Apr 5, 2013 |
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First words
The door that opened to me on the top floor of a new building gave access to a big, glass-roofed studio, as vast as a covered market.
I enjoyed seeing Damien fixed in his error - as we call any faith that is not ours.
That man always comes into our lives more than once. His second apparition is less frightening, for we had thought him unique in the art of pleasing and destroying; by reappearing, he loses stature.
They appreciated my silence, for I was faithful to their concept of me as a nice piece of furniture and I listened to them as if I were an expert.
I heard on their lips the language of passion, of betrayal and jealously, and sometimes of despair - languages with which I was all to familiar, I had heard them elsewhere and spoke them fluently to myself.
I have had occasion to descend to the very depths of jealously, have settled into it and thought about it at great length. It is not an unendurable sojourn, although in my writings in bygone days I believe I compared it, as everyone does, to a sojourn in hell, and I trust that the word will be put down to my poetic exaggeration.
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titre original : Ces plaisirs, titre qui fut définitivement changé en Le pur et l'impur, 1941
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Colette herself considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, "the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography." This guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which Colette was so intimately acquainted begins in the darkness and languor of a fashionable opium den. It continues as a series of unforgettable encounters with men and, especially, women whose lives have been improbably and yet permanently transfigured by the strange power of desire. Lucid and lyrical, The Pure and the Impure stands out as one of modern literature's subtlest reckonings not only with the varieties of sexual experience, but with the always unlikely nature of love.

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