OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS, Colette has emerged as an increasingly potent truth-teller, guide to judgment, sage. Her image, like her prose, is intensely narcissistic, though narcissistic in a gracious, self-revealing sense, autobiographical in essence, richly self-mythicized. And on every page that prose thinks out loud about how to live. "Be happy," the phrases rise up like maxims, "it is a way of being wise."
This revival has been inspired partly by feminism's ransacking of the past for models -- model heroines, thinkers, fighters, victims -- an essentially biographical enterprise enriched by the sense that these discoveries are being devoured by readers involved in a general transvaluation of consciousness. Virginia Woolf is an obvious example of this kind of model; so too is the exemplary failure -- think of Zelda Fitzgerald as described by Nancy Milford. But there has thus far been no biography of Colette, in either French or English, that meets anything like modern scholarly standards. The time is right -- it is perfect -- for the big book: the thumping, intensively researched, last biographical word.
Colette: Free and Fettered is not that book. To be sure, it is big: It goes on and on. But it is not even passably researched -- I can detect no significant new material at all. It is anything but thorough, only garrulous. And if its views become normative, Colette's reputation will have suffered a horrible setback.
The book is built on one frail notion which the author turns into a kind of ideological pump. Page after page the thing keeps dredging up its intellectual sludge. It claims to be feminist, though it serves neither feminism nor Colette. It is at least simple: Mem oppress, women seek freedom. Heterosexual women therefore are in trouble. On this, the author builds an ideology that is less feminist than a new version of a standard neo-primitivism and anti-intellectualism old as the dreary Rousseauistic hills. Men oppress, you see, because they are socialized, allienated from sensuality, and (horrible dictu!) intellectual. They therefore are obsessed with ego, power and control. Women, on the other hand, are rooted in a luscious, deep, autonomous sensuality anterior to mere mind. This gives them a liberty and fullness of being which the threatened half-dead male must repress.
It is, in short, the Noble Savage repackaged as Woman. How serious feminist thinkers will deal with this chestnut I cannot imagine, but feminism apart, it is perennial occasion for bad thinking, paranoia and falsehood. Not to mention insult. The male is senseless; the female, mindless. One hardly knows which sex is here the more affronted and demeaned.
Unluckily for her, Collete looks like the ideal patsy for such a view. She is a great woman whose prose is highly sensuous and nowhere rigorously discursive. Better, her life involved a very visible saga of self-definition within the struggle of the sexes. This, of course, has the author's attention, at the expense of everything else.
Colette was indeed oppressed (though launched) by marriage at 20 to a celebrated hack journalist and all-round literary fraud of the belle epoque named Willy, who got Colette to write her first books, the Claudine series, and when they proved commercial, signed them with his own name. After 12 years, Colette escaped, later proved the books' true authorship, and eventually wrote a hardheaded, just, by no means joyless book about it: My Apprenticeships. After leaving Willy, she settled into a consoling period of lesbian respite with a noted aristocrat, the Marquise de Belbeuf -- or, as she was known "Missy" -- which ended when Colette married Henry de Jouvenel, an editor and politician, with whom she had her single daughter. (She bore the child at 40, nine months exactly after her own mother's death.) The marriage ended in divorce; he was unfaithful, their careers, both going into high gear, drew them apart. Colette's last marriage was to a dutiful journalist named Maurice Goudeket. It proved tranquil and permanent.
Telling this story, Michele Sarde betrays Colette in a depressing manner. For her, Colette must be a victim. She must be forever oppressed, hurt, degraded. A high culture Pauline forever in peril from male mustache-twirlers. Victimization is the point of defining interest for her, and when she looks at some aspects of her life where victimization cannot be found or invented, Sarde's interest simply clicks off like a light.
Now, the real Colette seems to have had a genuinely virulent allergy to the victim role. It is one of the most invigorating things about her. The whole game bored, angered her. Her style is uninflected with self-pity; faced with perfectly real oppressions she bided her time, stayed tough, vital, and was ultimately successful. Like the cats she loved, she knew how to land on her feet. The sloppy luxuries of failure disgusted her. And though she could love and suffer, she maintained a remarkably clear view of -- if I may be blunt -- number one.
I would have thought this would be the desired focus for a feminist study: Colette's strength. On the contrary. Every distortion and scholarly evasion is used to keep Colette forever abused, and not just sexually: she is also variously seen as a social outcast, as financially oppressed, her achievement ignored, her spirit defiled.
Now, most of this is simply untrue. The real Colette was socially remarkably well placed, launched by Willy into the region of upper bohemia that touches cafe society and high society, where she remained, except for steps up in prestige, until the day she died. Financially, she lived very expensively, and like many high rollers, she was forever pressed for cash. Like certain admirable near contemporaries -- Virginia Woolf and Eleanor Roosevelt come to mind -- she insisted on making her own money, even when, in a relationship or marriage, she did not "have" to. And she was for decades the highest paid serious writer in France.
As for recognition, she had, almost from the beginning, the enthusiastic support and admiration of the best literary minds of her time, from Proust to Valery to Cocteau. She was an editor and journalist of considerable power. A member of the Belgian Academy and Academy Goncourt, she herself squelched a move to make her the first woman member of the French Academy. She never ceased to be a celebrity, photographed, interviewed, filmed, admired. And when she died she was given a nationally publicized state funeral with half the cultural establishment of France in respectful attendance.
Not exactly the life of a literary outcast. What supports the view of it as persecuted is often simply bad scholarship. An example, chosen almost at random. Reminiscing in old age about her novel Cheri, Colette remarked that "men were very hard on it," and that it had been admired most by the women who served as models for its heroine, Lea. Sarde cites as one such model Liane de Pougy, a noted courtesan and dilettante, and seizes on this remark: proof of Colette's insight into women, and of the "almost delirium of hatred" the book provoked in men. The facts are quite different. The published diaries of Liane de Pougy reveal that the real woman absolutely loathed Cheri, and complained with special bitterness about the novel's all but unanimously positive critical response.
And indeed the record is replete with enthusiastic comment, public and private. This kind of distortion is strewn everywhere.
It is part of a larger distortion. Colette was an omnipresent figure in French letters for 50 years. In fact, Sarde seems oddly indifferent to this whole massive lifework, except as it touches on the troubles in her relations with men. Imagine the life of Virginia Woolf narrated exclusively in terms of her relations with George Duckworth, Lytton Strachey and her husband. Imagine any major male writer's life told exclusively in terms of his relation to women. There is something appalling in a book so blandly indifferent to what Colette did with her life. Meanwhile, the book flatters its own distortions, and shoddy scholarship, and moral self-indulgence with the fantasy that all this somehow serves the angels. In fact, it is a performance that would never be tolerated if its author had not proclaimed herself a "feminist." Or if its subject had been a man.