Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette

by Judith Thurman

Hardcover, 1999




New York : Knopf, 1999.


A dazzling biography of the French literary superstar Colette, who is also the subject of a major motion picture. "A fine and intelligent biography of Colette, with her long tumultuous life and the great body of her work scrupulously considered and presented with style."--The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice) NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST * WINNER OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK AWARD * NOMINATED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD 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 contributed to the pro-Nazi press during the Occupation, 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. Chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by The Village Voice and Newsday "[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 "[An] essential biography by a stylish writer of great sympathetic understanding and intellectual authority."--Philip Roth… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
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
Show More
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
Show Less
LibraryThing member Staramber
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kerns222
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
Show More
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.
Show Less



Page: 0.1216 seconds