I have finished reading Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, and I’m looking forward to reading some of Colette’s fiction (at some point in the future — I’m not entirely sure when). I probably should have read more of the fiction to begin with and the biography later because I got a little tired of Thurman’s descriptions of books I hadn’t yet read. This is not a criticism of Thurman’s writing — just an observation of how it felt to read about the books rather than reading the books themselves. I very much like the idea of Kate’s upcoming Virginia Woolf project (briefly mentioned here): reading Woolf’s work chronologically as she reads through Julia Briggs’s biography Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. With Colette that would be a huge undertaking — and I imagine it would be a pretty big undertaking with Woolf also — and one I’m not capable of doing with any author right now. But doesn’t that sound fun? What a sense of the author’s development you’d get, and what interesting dialogue between the work and the biography you’d hear.
As for Colette, she’s a fascinating person. She’s such a different person from me, I’m not sure she could be any more different, and that’s part of why I liked reading about her. I like reading about people I probably wouldn’t like or would be scared of and people who would ignore me or dislike me from the safe distance of the corner of my study. She had amazing energy first of all. She wrote a lot, including essays, memoirs, novels, novellas, stories, reviews, plays, screenplays, journalism. She was an actress and a mime and she toured endlessly. She ran her own business selling beauty products.
And she worked hard to subvert social expectations and norms. She had numerous love affairs with both men and women. She became an actress when this was unacceptable for a woman from her social background. Her great themes of love and sex scandalized some readers. She’s an elusive figure, often exaggerating stories about herself and doing whatever she needed to to tell a good story. I imagine it was very hard to write a biography about her because of these evasions; Thurman was constantly having to second guess and qualify and question Colette’s own claims about herself.
In a way Colette comes across as very selfish. She is known for neglecting her daughter and her mother at times and for failing to take a stand in World War II during the German occupation of France when she published her works alongside Nazi propaganda. Her husband during the war was a Jew, and Colette worked hard to get him out of a detention camp, and yet she seemed oblivious to the resistance movement and to the larger political implications of her actions.
And yet while recognizing her selfishness or whatever we might want to call that troubling quality of hers, we can also see her as a powerful, larger-than-life woman who’s admirable for her energy, her strong will, and her insistance on being exactly who she is and nothing else. And, of course, what will matter in the long run is the writing.
I recently received her novels Cheri and The Last of Cheri in the mail, and I will probably start there when I begin to read her fiction. For those of you interested in her, I read My Mother’s House and Sido recently, both autobiographical works (sort of — as always with Colette one must qualify!) that I recommend highly.