Who more omnivorous – not to mention lewd – than Colette, the frizzle-headed Cat Woman of 20th-century French writing? Shocking still the sheer salaciousness of the prose, even in the works of her apprenticeship, written in the days when ladies wore bustles and carried parasols. Take the following scene from the autobiographical Claudine à Paris (1901), in which the precocious yet virginal 17-year-old heroine, recently arrived in the capital with her dreamy widower father, is flirting with her ‘uncle’ Renaud, a handsome older friend of the family by whom (though she hasn’t realised it yet) she desperately wants to be fucked. She tells him a titillating story about one of her school-mates in the country village of Montigny:
‘Take Célénie Nauphely, for example …’
‘Aha! Let’s hear what Célénie Nauphely did!’
‘Well, Célénie Nauphely used to stand up – she was a big girl of 14 – at half-past three – half an hour before it was time to go … and say out loud, looking very serious and self-important, “Mademoiselle, can I go, please? I’ve got to go and suck my sister.”’
‘Merciful heavens! Suck her sister?’
‘Yes. Just imagine, her married sister, who was weaning a child, had too much milk and her breasts hurt her. She pretended she used to spit the milk out again but, all the same, she must have swallowed some of it in spite of herself. Well, the girls used to fuss over her with admiring envy, this suckling infant. The first time I heard her telling all about it, I couldn’t eat my next meal. Doesn’t it have any effect on you?’
‘Don’t press the point or I think it most certainly will have an effect on me. You certainly open strange vistas on the Fresnois institutions, Claudine!’
The prurience here, as elsewhere in Colette, is breathtaking: a lasciviousness so direct, rosy and dizzying that even the bantering, ultra-civilised Renaud dissolves into hard quiet jerks of voyeuristic delight. Yet there’s also something upsetting about Colette’s rude daring: something in the very unflinchingness of the primitive association of sexual pleasure with feeding at the breast which disturbs as much as it arouses. We know – but also don’t want to know – how good it feels to suck. Colette, writes her new biographer Judith Thurman, invariably connected human happiness with ‘a voluptuous, feminine pliancy, and with the power of domination – a pleasure that became purer for her with age, and toward which she expresses an infant’s sense of entitlement’. She revelled, in other words, in the frank regressive seizure of the breast – in going after what she wanted without shame or pudeur. To read about her life – the prodigal literary gifts, the fearsome productivity, the exotic lovers (male and female), the emotional gourmandising, the sheer untrammelled aggressiveness of her search for sensual and imaginative fulfilment – can be at once exhausting and unsettling. She’s scary because she challenges us to a kind of psychosexual wrestling match: who will be the one who gets to suck?
For a female biographer – not to mention female reader – the challenge must be especially hot and fierce. Assuming the impossibility of ever pinning Colette herself to the mat, how to wriggle safely out of her protean grasp? How to escape being immobilised and sucked dry? As is the case with so many famous and gifted French people, the sex business alone is enough to give one a mégrim. Colette’s energetic yet intelligent libertinism inevitably puts one’s own, actual or merely mental, in the darkest of dark shades. Like the beautiful-to-raddled leading lady in some fantastical Ages of Woman (she died at an empress-like 81), Colette lived out virtually every sexual permutation known to woman with both gymnastic gusto and a sophisticated bon goût.
There was the Plump and Horny Older Man, of course: the notorious hack writer and journalist, Henri Gauthier-Villars, better known to posterity as ‘Willy’, whom Colette married in 1893 soon after coming to Paris from her native Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. Willy (as his nom de plume suggests) was both comic menace to virgins and magnificent virile gift: he initiated Colette sexually, gave her the obligatory Belle Epoque wives’ case of gonorrhoea, exploited her financially and professionally, but also got her – feverishly and fluently and brilliantly – to write. (All four of the wildly popular Claudine novels were written at Willy’s instigation and published under his name. After a protracted legal battle, Colette regained the copyrights when she divorced him in 1910.) She would ultimately roll over him by becoming, along with her friend Proust, simply the greatest of all 20th-century French novelists. ‘Those girls who dream … of being the erotic masterpiece of an older man,’ she would write coolly after deserting him: ‘It’s an ugly desire which they expiate by fulfilling.’
Then there was the Plump and Horny Older Woman: the eccentric Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belboeuf, the aristocratic cross-dresser and she-bachelor with whom Colette had a six-year lesbian affair on leaving Willy. A descendant, thanks to a set of by-blows across the centuries, of Louis XV, the Empress Josephine and Talleyrand, the mannish ‘Missy’ (as she was known to friends) helped to finance the strangest turn in the writer’s early life: her debut on the popular stage. (Colette’s knockabout career in French music hall, vaudeville and pantomime – which lasted from 1906 to 1913 – is unforgettably documented in her wonderful 1910 novel La Vagabonde.) At the height of their liaison Missy and Colette starred together at the Moulin Rouge in an Orientalist panto-concoction entitled Rêve d’Egypte in which Missy played an archaeologist and Colette a beautiful mummy who ‘comes back to life in a jewelled bra, slowly and seductively unwinds her transparent wrappings, and at the climax of the dance, passionately embraces the archaeologist’. Their onstage kiss on the mouth on opening night started a riot, and the show shut down after two performances. A startling publicity photograph from around this time (not alas reproduced in Thurman) shows a bare-navelled Colette being carefully divested of a silk skirt by the ponderous, Dracula-like, astonishingly masculine Missy: surely one of the more peculiar author-consort photos ever.
In the second half of her life, following her marriage in 1912 to the newspaper editor Henry de Jouvenel, the birth of her daughter, Bel-Gazou, and the beginning of her gradual transformation from scandalous cocotte into France’s most celebrated and respected woman writer, Colette moved on to a complicated series of Younger Women and Younger Men. Among the gals: Lily de Rême, the flirty, capricious model for May in the 1913 novel L’Entrave, about a bisexual ménage à trois; Musidora, the early cinema star (and one-time mistress of Willy) who became famous as the kohl-eyed darling of the Surrealists; the promiscuous salonnière Natalie Barney (‘the Pope of Lesbos’); and, when Colette was in her fifties, the travel writer and explorer Renée Hamon, the ‘little corsair’ who wooed Colette by sending her dwarf azaleas and rare tropical plants as ‘discreet emissaries’ of her passion.
The guys ranged from brainless young studs such as Auguste Hériot, playboy heir to the Magasins du Louvre department store fortune (‘a mustachioed Child with an innocent gaze and an erection’ in Thurman’s memorable phrase) to the morphine-addicted Georges Kessel, known as ‘Smoke’. Hériot was undoubtedly one of the models for Colette’s most celebrated male character – Chéri – the beautiful young man adored and repudiated by the middle-aged heroine in the exquisite post-war novels Chéri (1920) and La Fin de Chéri (1926). Even more important to Colette’s imaginative life, however, was her stepson: the shatteringly handsome 16-year-old Bertrand de Jouvenel, her husband’s son by his first marriage, whom Colette promptly seduced when the boy came, Cherubino-like, to pay his respects to her at her seaside house in 1920. Thurman’s arousing vignette of the 46-year-old Colette stalking her young prey among the beach huts like a Jazz Age Phèdre is ingratiating enough to bear quoting in full:
One day, Bertrand was coming back from his regular training run on the beach when he realised Colette had been watching him. She was wearing her bathing costume – one of those tight-fitting black jersey tank suits of the 1920s – and it clung to a body which by modern standards would be called obese. But fat women, when they are fit, are often much sexier half-naked than dressed, and Colette was still limber and superbly muscled, with Venusian breasts and the biceps of a discus-thrower. ‘She passed her arm around my waist,’ he wrote. He trembled ‘uncontrollably’.
Colette’s gesture was a question too delicate or too indecent to be spoken. Bertrand’s flesh gave her the response of which his voice would have been incapable. She rephrased it a few nights later when she intercepted him on the stairs as he was going up to bed. He offered his cheek for a goodnight kiss, but she insisted on his mouth. Again he shook violently and almost dropped a kerosene lamp he was carrying. Colette said nothing except: ‘Hold [it] teady.’
Though the affair with Bertrand soon came to an end – on discovering his wife’s relationship with his son, Henry de Jouvenel made sure that Bertrand was married off to a suitable nearby heiress – the Younger Man remained a staple of Colette’s existence. Her last husband, Maurice Goudeket, whom she met in 1925 and married in 1935 at the age of 62, was 17 years her junior. That Goudeket, a handsome, deracinated, somewhat obscure Jewish dealer in pearls with a ‘subdued fire that bored matrons … found beguiling’, was immediately nicknamed ‘Mr Goodcock’ (by Colette’s friend Paul Valéry) suggests that he too – at least at the outset of the relationship – bore all the requisites of the type.
Demoralising, indeed, these clinging jersey bathing-suits, Venusian breasts and bobbing male appendages. Yet the Colette biographer faces myriad other challenges: hundreds of famous friends to be brought back to life (Marguerite Moreno, Anna de Noailles, Marcel Schwob, Francis Jammes, Renée Vivien, André Gide, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau); a host of gorgeous houses and flats to be described; a small army of doted-on cats and dogs to itemise (Fanchette, Sidi, Kiki-La-Doucette, Saha, Gamelle); and last but not least, the monstrous, labyrinthine, seemingly inexhaustible Colette oeuvre itself, which like a hallucinatory, Art Nouveau life-form continued proliferating new vinous shoots, brusque outgrowths and curling tendrils for more than five decades. As Thurman notes in the introduction to Secrets of the Flesh, by the time of Colette’s death in 1954 she had published ‘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.’ For any ambitious woman writer – not least the one setting out to write her biography – Colette must be a slithery, outrageous, potentially engulfing rival. If she cannot be dominated she must be outwitted – at all costs.
Judith Thurman puts up an extraordinarily good fight – with some of the best (and sexiest) feints, dodges and near-takedowns I have ever seen. We live indeed in a Golden Age of female literary biography. Thurman’s life can easily slide in alongside Hermione Lee’s recent biography of Virginia Woolf as a somewhat unlooked-for end-of-century masterwork, being vital, absorbing, delectably written and psychologically astute beyond anything anyone had any right to expect, especially given the mass of books (many excellent) already devoted to her subject’s life and career. (Thurman’s bibliography lists 23 other Colette biographies published since the 1950s – the most recent in English being Herbert Lottman’s from 1991.) Thurman seems to have a thing, it is true, for scary, sensual, heavily made-up female geniuses. Her first book was a prize-winning life of Isak Dinesen, another fabled monster of maquillage. But she also has the sure sense of self required to meet them head on. Thurman must be considered, above all, the wiliest of Colette biographers: the most adept at playing Colette’s own game, which is all about love, power and the desire to feed off others. ‘Convention,’ she writes at one point, ‘presses against the character of an outsider like the weight of the ocean pressing against a diving bell. It takes an equal presence, a kind of single-mindedness, to resist it.’ She is speaking here of Colette’s rebellious strength of character. But the passage applies equally to Thurman herself. If she does not escape each and every one of her subject’s boa constrictor-like squeezes, or the occasional lift and drop, she comes as close as anyone has – achieving a portrait of quite naked intimacy and emotional honesty in the process.
Many of Thurman’s cagiest gambits are of necessity defensive ones. She is sceptical, even heretical, for example, when it comes to Colette’s own myth-making. Colette is one of the great narcissistic self-fashioners of modern literature, of course, and virtually all of her writing is autobiographical in some degree. (She once wrote that she was unable to ‘invent’ her fictional material in the sense that a gothic novelist might: ‘maybe what I lack is reverie, or a sense of the fantastic.’) She writes always of herself: the oeuvre is the life. But, as Thurman shows, she often engaged in a certain poetic revisionism, if not in outright fantasy-building. Witness the voluptuous memoirs of childhood, La Maison de Claudine (1922), La Naissance du jour (1928) and Sido (1929). In these lush, meditative souvenirs – among the most gorgeous outcroppings of her mature style – Colette describes an idyllic infancy and youth in the Burgundian countryside, ruled over by an adored and adoring mother: the formidable countrywoman and amateur botanist known as ‘Sido’ (1835-1912), whose brisk yet vivifying interest in children, animals, fruits and flowers undoubtedly shaped her daughter’s consciousness in profoundly enriching ways. Reading Colette’s memoirs in a feminist reading group in the late 1970s (ubi sunt etc) I and my T-shirted girl-cronies inevitably sighed longingly over the marvellous Sido, while also complaining that none of us had been blessed with such an all-nourishing Earth Mother of a parent.
Thurman’s view is more jaded. Though soulful, complex and strong, Sido, she suggests, could also be neglectful, jealous, bossy and occasionally vicious. She left her daughter with both a fierce receptivity to the world and a lifelong horror of intimate attachment. Colette inherited her cruel, epigrammatic, sometimes Nietzschean vein of humour. (After the death of Colette’s father, a retired captain in the Zouaves, Sido described widowhood as ‘a black veil, and underneath a monkey’s smile’. Her daughter would later describe the curtains in a hotel room in which she was staying with Willy as ‘fit for wrapping up foetuses in’.) Colette also absorbed Sido’s basically godless and appalled sense of life as a lethal struggle in which one became either predator or prey. This bleaker side of Sido – whose ‘essential light’ Colette nonetheless both craved and feared all her life – informs one of Thurman’s early and most devastating assessments of Colette’s character:
For Sido’s daughter and Willy’s child-wife, there was no middle ground between her terror of abandonment and her fear of being consumed … The lack of a sympathetic imagination tends to reproduce itself in the next generation, and Colette was a tyrant to her own child. She broke free of her servility through writing, and she eventually outgrew her need for a master, but what she couldn’t transcend was the scenario of domination and submission. There is only one kind of love missing from the exhaustive, wise and often revolutionary exploration of the subject contained in her oeuvre, and that love is mutual.
Sido was an earth mother whose chthonic charm could turn deadly: an off-kilter Ceres. She nourished those who wooed her properly, yet was hostile and unforgiving to those who disobeyed. Her daughter was ultimately the same.
If Sido emerges from Thurman’s account as a far stranger and more nihilistic presence than she does in Colette’s own memoirs, some of the supposed villains and dark horses in Colette’s life story come across as unexpectedly likable and even good. Confronted by her subject’s hypnotic rearrangements of reality, Thurman’s tactic is to deflect and triangulate – to give the missing third party, as it were, a chance to speak in his or her own voice. The chief beneficiaries here are Willy (‘the pudgy erotomane’); Bel-Gazou, the much-abused only child to whom Colette gave birth at the age of 40; and Maurice Goudeket, the husband of Colette’s old age. Thus Willy, whom Colette excoriates in Mes apprentissages (1936) as a fat, vainglorious cheat and liar, addicted to young girls and le vice paternel, whose sexual and financial depredations left her broken in health and near despair before she finally summoned up the courage to leave him, comes across here – if not as entirely harmless – as surprisingly jolly and resplendent. He was funny and Parisian and incorrigible: one can see why the teenage Colette (‘mean and avid for emotions’) fell for him. Before the bloat and the grossness set in, Thurman ventures, Willy was even a bit of hunk. She ponders his appeal in a characteristically frank, slightly kinky moment of sexual connoisseurship:
The naked Willy, or nearly naked Willy, comes as a revelation, and must have been so to his many mistresses. In an album of photographs that belonged to Madeleine de Swarte, Willy’s last companion, there is a snapshot of him on the beach at Cabourg dated August 1890, exactly a year after he met Colette. He is wearing a knitted bathing-suit and a big straw hat. He has his arms crossed over his chest. He’s paunchy, it is true, but he has a virile, confident body – a body all the more surprising because the head on its shoulders looks much older in comparison.
Thirty-five years later, Colette would be photographed on the beach at Saint-Tropez, in a similar pose, in a similar bathing-suit. She was living, at the time, with a lover 15 years her junior. She was quite tremendous. They had the same kind of allure.
In turn Thurman challenges some of the hoariest details in Colette’s monster-bating accounts of him: that Willy supposedly ‘locked her up’, Bluebeard-like, until she produced the various Claudine novels (he probably didn’t); that she was tormented by his many mistresses (she slept with some of them herself); that she had broken with him definitively by 1905 (she continued to ghost-write books and articles for him and seems to have colluded with him behind the scenes during their very public divorce proceedings so that neither would lose too much money by the separation). It would be foolish to try to rehabilitate Willy completely – he was a raunchy old stegosaurus indeed – but Thurman makes us able to enjoy him, both as Fin-de-Siècle type and as an influential source of energy, daring and worldliness in Colette’s early life.
In the case of Bel-Gazou and Goudeket, Thurman’s moral sympathies are quickened. Each suffered from Colette’s casual will-to-power. Bel-Gazou’s story is a shocking one: Colette, the lyrical celebrant of motherhood and Sido’s nurturing power, virtually abandoned her own infant daughter, leaving her first with a series of wet-nurses, and then with a nervy English governess who tyrannised the child mercilessly for a number of years. Bel-Gazou grew up almost feral, a wild, sad, unruly parody of her mother. Like her mother, she became a sexual rebel, living most of her adult life as a lesbian. It is disillusioning to learn that Colette disapproved of this aspect of her daughter’s life – especially in the light of her own sapphic attachments and arresting depictions of female homosexuality in Le Pur et l’impur (1941). (Thurman, it might be noted, is the first Anglo-American biographer to treat Colette’s affairs with women with both an informed sense of period and a civilised respect for their meanings: her snapshots of lesbian life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s have a Brassaï-like clarity and lack of sentiment.) Though in many respects a thwarted personality, Bel-Gazou developed a hook-or-by-crook kind of strength: she later served dangerously and honourably in the Resistance; and one ends up feeling proud of her, even if her mother didn’t.
Goudeket is the secret hero of Thurman’s biography: the last and best husband, the one who put up with his wife’s lovers, intransigence and gradually diminishing range of emotional and physical responses. (The crippling arthritis of Colette’s later years was a special curse, given the buoyant athleticism of her youth, yet coincided with a certain ethical sclerosis as well.) As a Jew he had to absorb Colette’s on-again, off-again anti-semitism – another legacy from Sido. Thurman treads delicately here, but there is much to disturb. Nothing she quotes from Colette’s letters is more repellent than the description of Maria Falconetti, luminous star of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, who was engaged in 1923 to play in a theatrical version of The Vagabond: ‘Falconetti is a pain in the ass. She’s doing her Duse number. No make-up, a horrible old neck … Let her drop dead. She’s now asking a thousand francs for a rehearsal. She must be a sordid old jewess who never washes.’ During the Second World War Colette refused to speak out against the Vichy Government and regularly published stories and articles in leading pro-German journals. Her novel Julie de Carneilhan (1941) contains a virulently anti-semitic portrait of one of its central female characters. Her intention may of course have been to shield Goudeket: he was interned by the Gestapo for seven weeks in the winter of 1941-42, then released after Colette persuaded the French wife of the German Ambassador to convince her husband to let him go. Still, given Goudeket’s gallantry and devotion to Colette throughout the war – he wore the yellow star and refused to leave her despite the extreme personal danger to which such uxoriousness exposed him – it is unsettling to read about her seemingly untroubled contributions to pro-Nazi newspapers such as Combats and La Gerbe, or works like From Joan of Arc to Philippe Pétain, a collection of sickly propagandistic essays on French culture edited by the actor and Vichy yes-man Sacha Guitry.
Not only does Thurman, in such malign passes, successfully defend against the coiling, morally ambiguous Colette persona, she also manages throughout her study to maintain her own elegant counter-offensive – through a sensuous (sometimes comic) mobilisation of style. What she says of her subject might once again apply to herself. Colette’s ability to compose exquisite prose, she writes, never faltered: even with the morbid Julie de Carneilhan, it’s not the writing that dismays, Thurman argues, for ‘by now Colette could beat an old carpet and make it shed gold dust.’ Thurman is herself a mistress of style, and game enough to challenge Colette in her best and deepest place. One reads Secrets of the Flesh, above all, as a ravishing exercice de style – an experiment, at points (yes) almost rivalling Colette’s own, in the fruitful, titivating and ultimately profound arrangement of words.
Like the caperings of a precocious child, some of Thurman’s rhetorical ploys can, it’s true, be irritating – until one just gives in and says, laughingly: Okay! You win! I’m impressed! A favourite device is the blatantly anachronistic turn of phrase. Describing Colette’s life in the 1890s, Thurman frequently uses hip urban slang – Manhattan/ LA variety – to wrench her subject straight into the late 1990s. Thus Colette, visiting her native village six years after her marriage to Willy and the scandalous success of the Claudine novels, is described, somewhat goofily, as a naughty ‘homegirl’. Lesbians are edgily yet affectionately referred to as ‘dykes’, as in the ironic synopsis of Jean Lorrain’s ‘comic horror story’ Ame de boue, ‘in which a sinister dyke poses as a corpse to inspire the pity of a former girlfriend’. The decadent Fin-de-Siècle novelist Rachilde – partial in her old age to ‘nightclubbing in flamboyant dress with a band of beautiful and predominantly gay young protégés who resembled the characters in her novels’ – is dubbed a ‘geriatric clubrat’. In Thurman’s sometimes Starbucks-fuelled account of life in the Belle Epoque, Colette and Willy come across as the quintessential latte-quaffing, bad-girl-bad-boy urban couple: she’s got a home gym where she works out and checks her ‘muscle tone’ when she’s not screwing around; he, like Warhol, has a ‘factory’ of ‘groupies, wannabes and druggies’ around him – all the various assistants, ghost-writers and hangers-on who help him churn out ‘product’ and feed his vanity. Unlike Andy, though, Willy prefers compulsive ‘girlising’ to cruising cute boys.
Such moments are funny, and one of the ways Thurman flexes her own authorial muscle against Colette’s: I’m alive now and you’re not. But she challenges her on other fronts as well. Colette-as-sexual-philosopher comes in for sly and insistent parody. Aphorisms – about love and eros especially – are a Thurman speciality:
Physical disgust can’t be compromised with, but neither can its opposite, the coup de foudre. A woman still privately shuddering at an unwelcome sexual advance is all the more susceptible to an electric mutual attraction.
It is certainly dangerous to take the word or trust the memory of anyone about the character of a former spouse. Indignation matures slowly, and sometimes the fruit is ripe only when the tree is dead.
Her first much younger lover is a revelation no middle-aged woman whose senses have been numbed by rejection can ever forget.
If the enjoyment of an exciting sex life has never been incompatible with the production of a distinguished oeuvre, motherhood is a different matter.
It was love, it was France, so everybody was lying.
At times Thurman’s fondness for the aperçu leads to comic pomposity, as when she twice quotes admiringly a French biographer’s description of Colette’s father (who lost a leg fighting in Italy for Napoleon III) as ‘a droll man with the melancholy gaiety of amputees and Southerners’. This is the sort of thing one might find in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (‘Amputees: Known for their melancholy gaiety’). Yes, Judith, it’s my wrinkly leg-stump that gives me my moody charm! Oh, those sexy amputees! Still, we forgive her in the end: the writing is so alive and goes so far towards illuminating Colette’s own mercurial life-turns.
And by the end, Thurman achieves something quite special – a transformation of the wrestling match, that all-girl fight to the death, into a kind of witty erotic dance. For despite its rivalrous energies, this is a deeply sympathetic and engaged portrait of its subject. Granted, Cocteau’s observation that ‘everything in art is monstrous’ and ‘Madame Colette does not escape this rule’ is taken on board and judged correct, but Thurman never lets mere monstrosity get in the way of her sense of what is fine, human and profound about Colette’s achievement. It is clear how much she relishes that emotional intelligence born out of honesty and vulnerability, and she is appreciative of those who bravely espouse it. She has words of praise for Bertrand de Jouvenel – who later himself became a distinguished man of letters – precisely, one suspects, because his humane understanding of psychological conflict, evidenced in an ability to absorb contradictions in others without panic, so exactly mirrors her own. (The stunning compliment Thurman pays the grown-up Bertrand: ‘An unusual capacity for transgression in a conscientious personality seems to be a prerequisite for those who, like Bertrand de Jouvenel, achieve some form of greatness.’) ‘Love,’ Jouvenel wrote in a memoir of his famous stepmother, ‘has two faces, agape and eros, a deep understanding and appreciation of the lovable, and a petulant wilfulness to seize it. It is not easy to divorce them. Colette was immensely rich in the former, and therein resides her greatness; for the latter, she suffered ample retribution.’
However painful Colette’s inability to separate the ‘two faces’ of love in her own life, Thurman persuades us that her subject grasped her limitations consciously and courageously – and by way of such awareness was able to turn them to magical account. Even as Colette failed (perhaps) in the real-life task, in the work, Thurman suggests, she bore plangent and ennobling witness to a lifelong effort to resolve her own most anguishing psychic contradictions. The problem of intimacy is central in Colette’s writing, and the fraught influence of Sido on her affective life cannot be ignored. Excruciating indeed to anyone with a heart must be that stage direction included in her libretto for L’Enfant et les sortilèges, the opera she wrote with Ravel in 1915, in which she called for ‘a ballet of little figures who express, in their dance, the grief of being unable to unite’.
Yet Thurman is fierce in her defence of Colette against those who would accuse her of either soullessness or solipsism. Her ‘body-bound characters’, Thurman writes, struggle ‘to preserve “the capacity for excited love” in the face of inhibitions from without, and fears of ruthlessness and aggression toward the beloved object from within’. The struggle is a primordial one:
It is not that Colette’s characters lack an inner life: they suffer, if anything, from having too much interiority. Her work preserves the legacy of a child’s earliest thinking about self and other – self and mother in particular – whether the mother is absent, like Claudine’s, or all too present, like Léa or Sido. Whatever the story, and however frivolous or anecdotal its surface, Colette reminds us of that lost age at which we had not yet categorised desire into good or bad, male and female, real and imagined, passive and aggressive. She writes from the point of view not of the analytic adult but of the child first ‘sorting out’ her paradoxical interests and experience.
‘A coherent personality,’ Thurman writes, ‘aspires, like a work of art, to contain its conflicts without resolving them dogmatically.’ And certainly her own portrait of the artist is as far from dogmatic as it is possible to be. Colette’s contradictions are acknowledged, but always with a sense of the exorbitant creative gift they made possible. Thus even as she registers Colette’s ‘ancient and guiltless instinct for survival’ – that rampant authorial will to seize at the breast and suck – Thurman is acutely aware of how, in the paradoxical coils of desire, someone who puts her own pleasure first can also bring exquisite delight to another: ‘Insatiable and untrusting, she sees to her own nourishment and becomes a glutton for but also an inspired dispenser of warmth, fullness, beauty and pleasure.’ If it feels good to suck, it also feels good to be sucked, and like a mother cat voluptuously yielding to her kittens, Colette surrenders everything to us in the work. Sex – that ‘mysterious despair that I seek and fear’ – may have driven her towards promiscuity in life, but it also provided her with an imagery for that miraculous conjunction of body and soul, and self and other, which is the core vision of her art. As Thurman notes in one of her own lyric Colettean turns, such clarifying hedonism was in the end equivalent to an ethics: ‘a credo without a god, or an afterlife, but with the power of all true faith to inspire ecstasy, and reverence for creation, and to console’.
Colette is the sort of writer it is easy to feel one has grown out of – that one already knows her too well, that one long ago took from her all that one could. Perhaps because something about her inevitably conjures up the embarrassing daydreams of youth – all those thoughts of love and France and food and being sophisticated and not oneself (those books! those billets-doux! that blue lampshade!) – it is easy to assume she has no new news to impart. Yet one finishes reading Thurman’s life impatient to go back to her: to commit oneself yet again to her strange, witty embrace and swirling, florid gravitas. (Even in English the prose staggers: Colette has always been blessed with magnificent translations.) And when one does, the ancient feline magic is instantly revivified. Has there ever been any more slangy and free and wickedly comic rendering of the female adolescent psyche than Claudine à l’école? Any more lavishly botanical rendering of what it’s like to kiss – yes you, sweetheart – than the following passage from La Vagabonde?
I move my head imperceptibly because of his moustache which brushes against my nostrils with a scent of vanilla and honeyed tobacco. Oh! … suddenly my mouth, in spite of itself, lets itself be opened, opens of itself as irresistibly as a ripe plum splits in the sun. And once more is born that exacting pain that spreads from my lips all the way down to my flanks to my knees, that swelling as of a wound that wants to open once more and overflow – the voluptuous pleasure I had forgotten … his mouth tastes of mine now, and has the faint scent of my powder. Experienced as it is, I can feel that it is trying to invent something new, to vary the caress still further. But already I am bold enough to indicate my preference for a long, drowsy kiss that is almost motionless – the slow crushing, one against the other, of two flowers in which nothing vibrates but the palpitation of two coupled pistils.
My favourite Colette book when I was young was her most homosexual – the ravishing tome first published as Ces plaisirs in 1932, then retitled Le Pur et l’impur in 1941. (She has something for everyone.) It’s a weird one: a drifting memoir of various Sapphists and she-men known in the early Willy-days – from the tormented expatriate poetess Renée Vivien, all absinthe and Baudelaire and masochistic sex, to the handsome young invert, ‘ghost-secretary to Monsieur Willy’, who visited the young Colette in her flat and regaled her with tales of the boxers and Paris firemen with whom he consorted. As narrator, Colette keeps a discreet, dispassionate, retrospective distance, though one of the characters recollected is her own former lover, the cross-dressing Missy, here disguised as the noble yet wistful Chevalière:
The seduction emanating from a person of uncertain or dissimulated sex is powerful. Those who have never experienced it liken it to the banal attraction of the love that evicts the male element. This is a gross misconception. Anxious and veiled, never exposed to the light of day, the androgynous creature wanders, wonders, and implores in a whisper … There especially remains for the androgynous creature the right, even the obligation, never to be happy. If jovial, the androgynous creature is a monster. But it trails irrevocably among us its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears. It goes from a tender inclination to maternal adoption … As I write this, I am thinking of La Chevalière. It was she who most often bruised herself in a collision with a woman – a woman, that whispering guide, presumptuous, strangely explicit, who took her by the hand and said: ‘Come, I will help you find yourself …’
‘I am neither that nor anything else, alas,’ said La Chevalière, dropping the vicious little hand. ‘What I lack cannot be found by searching for it.’
One might moon over such passages endlessly (and did) while waiting for life to begin. Yet perusing the book now, in the same tattered old paperback of daydreams past, I find my eye caught by the last paragraph. While I know whole swatches of this book by heart, I have no memory of it at all. Colette is describing a conversation with an unnamed older woman, who has lost her female companion of many years. The woman tells Colette, ‘we were joined in an infinity so pure that I never thought of death.’
As that word ‘pure’ fell from her lips, I heard the trembling of the plaintive ‘u’, the icy limpidity of the ‘r’, and the sound aroused nothing in me but the need to hear again its unique resonance, its echo of a drop that trickles out, breaks off, and falls somewhere with a plash. 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 it – in bubbles, in a volume of water, and in the imaginary latitudes entrenched, beyond reach, at the very centre of a dense crystal.
Faced with such perfect, lapidary and truth-bearing sentences, one’s only appropriate response is to fall to one’s knees in surrender. About the ‘secrets of the flesh’, as Judith Thurman reminds us so well, Colette still seems to say it all.