Secrets of the flesh

A Life of Colette

By Judith Thurman

Knopf. 569 pp. $30

As in life, Colette continues to tantalize and vex her many admirers. Even now this great writer eludes easy definition, which may explain why she has been the subject of at least a half-dozen significant biographies over the past 30 years. Yet this one by Judith Thurman will be hard to top, not only because it deftly summarizes the current state of "Colette scholarship" -- how its subject would shudder at that phrase -- but also because its prose is smoothly urbane, at times aphoristic, always captivating. Little wonder that Thurman's previous book, a life of Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales), won a National Book Award. Secrets of the Flesh deserves similar prizes.

Say "Colette" and most readers will probably think of Gigi, the delightful story (later an equally delightful movie) about a young girl brought up to be a courtesan, or of Cheri, the darkly moving tale of the doomed love between a 49-year-old cocotte and a callow boy half her age. To Americans these artful short novels, two parts of an erotic diptych, seem deeply, almost comically Gallic. We Yankees don't quite understand this French obsession with sex.

Marriage or adultery, sure. They're democratic. But the relentless examination of the human heart, careers of sensual pleasure, the often melancholy elucidation of "the mysteries and betrayals and frustrations and surprises of the flesh" -- these are puzzling to us, vaguely troubling. Our puritan heritage and our Protestant work ethic compel us to regard such hedonism as decadent, marginal, all right for jet-setters and gays, maybe, but not for your "normal" American. A job, a family, making millions from computers or litigation, any of these is patently far more important than the pursuit of luscious girls and sullen young men. Right? As Colette's second husband once complained to her, "Can't you write a book that isn't about love, adultery, semi-incestuous couplings, and separation? Aren't there other things in life?"

If nothing else, then, Colette always makes us uneasy. During her 81 years she blithely ignored all the usual boundaries. Just look at her various personae: tomboy, ingenue, wife, kept woman, lesbian, mime, music-hall performer, crime reporter, advice columnist, beautician and one of the chief glories of modern French literature. Her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, exploited her talent and took authorial credit for her first books, four spicy novels about the schoolgirl and young wife Claudine. This quartet still ranks as possibly the best-selling series in French publishing. Willy eventually introduced Colette to Marcel Schwob, Debussy and other figures of the 1890s -- and to threesome sex: To one woman friend she once wrote, "My husband kisses your hands, and myself all the rest." After her marriage soured, Colette turned mime and actress, appearing on stage in Oriental houri costume, exposing her left breast or passionately embracing her cross-dressing lesbian lover, the Marquise de Morny, known as Missy. Around this time she was even glimpsed wearing a slave-bracelet inscribed "I belong to Missy." We are talking, let me remind you, of a novelist admired by Proust and Rilke, interviewed by Walter Benjamin, compared by Francois Mauriac to Racine, a writer judged by her peers (in 1935) to be the finest French stylist alive.

But Colette's transgressions are hardly restricted to her youth. Though feminists have always tried to annex her, she once proclaimed, "You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem." Just before World War I, this sexy vagabond/actress was assiduously courted by Henry de Jouvenel, a leading journalist who later became a major European diplomat. With their marriage the flamboyant social pariah emerged as the Baronne de Jouvenel des Ursins. At 40 she then had a baby daughter named Colette, whom she largely ignored, despite her own paeans in prose to her own mother, Sido. Soon after discovering her charismatic husband's infidelities, this fiftyish woman of letters boldly started a five-year love affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand.

Meanwhile, her novels brought increasing fame. When she covered the trial of Landru, the serial murderer of successive wives (and the inspiration for Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux") recognized her and asked for an autograph. Alas, when she opened a beauty salon, featuring her own brand-name products, she failed dismally: Natalie Barney -- the doyenne of Paris Lesbos -- "noted that her clients came out looking twice as old as they went in."

But Colette was always daring, unfettered in her writing as in life. In The Pure and the Impure, her study of "these pleasures which are lightly called physical" (and her favorite among her books), she opens with a description of a middle-aged woman faking an an orgasm to please her dying young lover. (In a characteristically amusing sidenote, Thurman remarks that one of the novelist's closest friends, Paul Masson, committed suicide just before completing a survey in which he asked various literary folk, "What are the phrases, interjections, or onomatopoeic sounds which most habitually escape your lips at the moment of ecstasy?"). When Colette was given the rosette of the Legion of Honor, she joked that it should have been a G-string. In the end this freest of spirits overcame her mild anti-Semitism to wed Maurice Goudeket, an unsuccessful Jewish businessman, 15 years her junior, who just before their marriage had been reduced to selling used washing machines and deluxe toilet plungers. She called him her best friend. When Colette finally died in 1954, the grande dame of French literature was denied a Catholic burial -- Graham Greene protested -- but was nonetheless granted a lavish state funeral. Thousands threw flowers on her casket, most of them women. Her last coherent word had been, appropriately for one so observant of our sensual world, "Regarde" -- Look!

Clearly, Colette's was a life in which, as her biographer notes, "the discipline of work sharpens the savor of pleasure." Throughout these 500 pages Thurman excels in chronicling both the work and the pleasure, and is particularly brilliant at pen portraits. Here she evokes the actress Polaire: "She was the original gamine, a prototype for Piaf and for other tiny, soulful, plebeian French vedettes who have pencilled their brows and belted out their love songs with fists on their haunches; whose memoirs are devoted to their love of lapdogs and thugs; who have been as sentimental about respectability as they were sexually profligate; and who -- having put too much trust in fame and in their managers -- have died broke and disillusioned."

There are similarly superb pages on Willy, who possessed the flair for publicity of a Hollywood producer; on the dashing and adventurous novelist Joseph Kessel, "who lived like a pasha, dividing his favors among a long-suffering wife and several grateful mistresses, each with her own establishment,"; and on the novelist Rachilde who, left in the shadows by her former protegee, once told a would-be novelist that the way to succeed was "to copy Colette and become a whore." At times Thurman's worldly wisdom matches that of her subject: "Her first much younger lover is a revelation no middle-aged woman whose senses have been numbed by rejection can ever forget. It is she who holds the power and maintains the detachment, at least in the beginning, and that novel inequality is as bracing -- and as erotic -- as the passion." "Colette respected those ambitious entrepreneurs of her own sex whose notion of a bottom line would never be Virginia Woolf's five hundred a year and a room of one's own, but fifty thousand a year and a villa of one's own, with a great chef, a big garden, and a pretty boy."

When Proust once started to wax lyrical to Colette about her ethereal spirit, she abruptly interrupted him: "Monsieur, you're delirious. My soul is filled with nothing but red beans and bacon rinds." Colette always remained intensely down-to-earth, professional; she met her deadlines. She used to say, La regle guerit tout: Discipline cures everything. All in all, she composed 60 books (each written out with a Parker pen). Several of the best celebrate her childhood, the love of nature, gardens: My Mother's House, Break of Day, Sido. "Throughout my existence," she told a group of school children, "I have studied flowering more than any other manifestation of life." Indeed, she invariably demonstrated a freshness in her response to all experience, the "beginner's eye," and nothing was ever lost on her. Even her casual travel journalism, gathered together as Prisons and Paradises, could embrace "the gardens of Algeria; the despots and their dancing girls; the craggy splendors of the fjords; the desert and its flowers; reptiles; captive leopard cubs; perfumed dishes; the landscapes of Provence; depressed lions; heat and wind; magicians; roses; hidden springs; young wine; millionaires; white nights; beggars; the scent of dung and lilies; the smell of baked potatoes. . . ." This "sovereign vitality and attunement to nature" are, according to one critic, "the essence of Colette's greatness as a writer."

For Thurman, though, Colette's work is about the search for "an ecstatic experience of reunion, in which the split between two bodies, sexes, and generations is repaired," and she gives searching, if concise analyses of the major books, often drawing on the work of Claude Pichois, the editor of the Pleiade edition of Colette, and frequently crediting insights to other biographers and critics. Thurman also salts her text with apt quotations revealing the sensuousness, elegance and esprit of Colette's prose; when talking of love, the novelist sometime recalls Diderot in his philosophical dialogues or the aphoristic La Rochefoucauld: "Jealousy . . . is the only suffering that we endure without ever becoming used to it." At one point, Thurman does surprise with a highly critical reading of the hitherto much-admired (by me, among others) "Julie de Carneilhan," a short novel about a cast-off wife, a former husband and a scam to blackmail the rich current wife. The biographer convincingly demonstrates that the text, composed during World War II, is marred by a more than implicit anti-Semitism.

As alien as her world of kept women, music halls and Don Juans can seem at times, Colette's novels are, at heart, about the shifting balance between loss and gain, between hurt and self-knowledge, between the wisdom of the old and the vitality of the young. Today, works like The Pure and the Impure, My Mother's House and Break of Day seem astonishingly modern: They dwell in the shadowland between memoir and fiction, play peekaboo with masks and the reversal of gender roles, emphasize the bond between mother and child, examine how a woman should come of age and cope with its consequence. All very contemporary, indeed. Yet, as Auden said, in her steady, clear-eyed understanding of the human heart, Colette most calls to mind only one other novelist: Tolstoy.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.