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A Life of Colette

Written by Judith ThurmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Judith Thurman


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: March 30, 2011
Pages: 640 | ISBN: 978-0-307-78981-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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A scandalously talented stage performer, a practiced seductress of both men and women, and the flamboyant author of some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, Colette was our first true superstar. Now, in Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh, Colette at last has a biography worthy of her dazzling reputation.

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 flirted with the Nazi occupiers of Paris, 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.

NOTE: This edition does not include a photo insert.


"Biographers generally believe that it is easy to be a 'monster.' It is
even harder than being a saint." -- COLETTE, Lettres à ses pairs

In March of 1900, a forty-one-year-old Parisian man of letters published a novel that purported to be the journal of a sixteen-year-old provincial schoolgirl named Claudine. Henry Gauthier-Villars was best known as an amusingly opinionated music critic who had championed Wagner and insulted Satie. His paunch and top hat had endeared him to the cartoonists of the penny press; and his duels, his puns, and his seductions of women managed to generate almost as much copy as he wrote himself. Gauthier-Villars used his own name for scholarly nonfiction and one of many pseudonyms when a work was light. He and his alter egos--Willy, Jim Smiley, Boris Zichine, Henry Maugis, and the Usherette--had a bibliography which already included a collection of sonnets, another of essays on photog-raphy, several comic almanacs, a monograph on Mark Twain, and a number of salacious popular novels. It was not a very well kept secret that most of these works had been improved by other hands, if not entirely ghostwritten. In an ironic bow to this reputation, Willy claimed that the new manuscript had arrived in the mail tied with a pink ribbon--the literary equivalent of a baby girl delivered by the stork.

Claudine at School was not the first authorial travesty of its kind, and certainly not the last, although Claudine herself was something new. She was the century's first teenage girl: rebellious, tough talking, secretive, erotically reckless and disturbed, by turns beguiled and disgusted at her discovery of what it means to become a woman. In his preface to the book, Willy calls her "a child of nature," a "Tahitian before the advent of the missionaries," and he pays homage to her "innocent perversity" even while regretting "this word 'perversity,' which subverts the idea that I wish to give of . . . Claudine 's special case--for the very reason that I insist one cannot find any conscious vice in this young girl, who is, one might say, less immoral than she is 'amoral.' "

The novel languished for a few months until Willy rallied his influential friends, who duly produced reviews hailing Claudine at School as a masterpiece. By autumn, it had sold some forty thousand copies, becoming--including its four sequels--one of the greatest French bestsellers of all time. There were five Claudines in all, two successful plays, and a range of product spin-offs in the modern sense, including Claudine cigarettes, perfume, chocolates, cosmetics, and clothing. The "author," notorious to begin with, became something of a brand name himself. "I think that only God and maybe Alfred Dreyfus are as famous as [Willy]," said Sacha Guitry.

The man who signed Claudine at School is now best remembered as the "deplorable" first husband of the woman who wrote it. Madame Henry Gauthier-Villars, née Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, was then an athletic beauty of twenty-seven who could pass easily for seventeen. She concealed her feelings and her talent, but she flaunted her rustic accent and a plait of auburn hair as long as she was tall. Her family in Burgundy still called her "Gabri," but in Paris she went by the waifish moniker of Colette Willy. She had rejected her own first name long before she married, insisting that her school friends--rowdy village girls like herself and like Claudine--call one another by their patronyms, comme des garçons. When she married for the second time, Colette Willy became Colette de Jouvenel, and finally, triumphantly, syncretically, just Colette.

Colette began writing in her early twenties, living turbulently and working tirelessly, her powers waxing as she aged. In the course of half a century, she produced 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. Her critics and biographers have been more prolific than she was.

Digesting this colossal banquet was not the greatest of my challenges as her biographer. Colette 's friend Jean Cocteau liked to say: "Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité": I am a lie that always speaks the truth. To which Colette 's American anthologist, Robert Phelps, would add: she is a truth who always speaks a lie. A French critic would note more expansively: "Colette 's art is that of the lie. But the great game she plays with us is, precisely, to stuff her best lies with great flashes of truth. To read her with pleasure thus consists of disentangling, with a deft pair of tweezers, the true from the false." The autobiographical candor of Colette 's best writing is an illusion, just as her celebrated physical immodesty is misleading. She has, as Dominique Aury puts it, "a fierce modesty of sentiment." She actively dis-dains all forms of empathy and resists being known.
Judith Thurman

About Judith Thurman

Judith Thurman - Secrets of the Flesh

Photo © Toshi Otsuki

Judith Thurman lives in New York City.


"THE MOST IMPRESSIVE AND FASCINATING BOOK OF THE . . . SEASON. NO NOVEL, NO MEMOIR, NO OTHER BIOGRAPHY DISPLAYS SUCH INSIGHT AND VITALITY. . . . Through deft observation, research, and beautiful writing, Thurman brings alive one of the most astonishing writers and women ever to stride this earth."
--USA Today

"[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

   The New York Times
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How does Thurman's choice of title work as both epithet and paradox? What balance exists between the physical and the cerebral in Colette's life? How does the balance shift throughout her life? Which tends to havethe upper hand? Why?

2. Colette's life challenges our notions of seeing the world in opposites: emo-tion and reason, work and play, love and lust, flight and confrontation, confession and concealment, and, even, male and female. Provide exam-ples
of the way Colette blurs and transcends these opposites.

3. Discuss the ways in which Thurman illustrates the relationship among place, historical moment, and character. How did Colette both embody and subvert the zeitgeist?

4. What connection exists between the sex Colette performed between the bedsheets and that which she committed to the sheets of paper? Where does the abstractness of writing intersect with the physicality and immediacy of sex for her? Why?

5. In Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, one character, daunted by the con-stancy of change, laments, "I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me." To what extent did Colette's charac-ter depend on the company she kept? Who "made and remade" her? What in her character remains constant throughout her life? Provide examples.

6. Discuss the role of Willy in Colette's writing life. How did he wittingly or unwittingly catalyze it? How did moving out of his shadow both give form to and unsettle the self Colette would construct in prose?

7. Writing fiction served myriad roles in Colette's life. Discuss some of its pri-mary functions. Did she write to rewrite her past? As a cathartic gesture? To escape as well as confront trial and temptation? Did fifty-plus years of writ-ing undo the line between memory as faithful recollection and invention?

8. Colette's best fiction is an act of transformation charged with imagination.
What is lost or gained in such an approach? How would such work be
received in today's confessional climate? Would it be construed as evasive
or as something else?

9. The pursuit of a "master" characterizes Colette's sex life early on; later she becomes one. Explain the transition. Why did Colette maintain a deep interest in the domination-submission dynamic throughout her days?

10. Colette's life and writings prefigured today's gender debates. What evi-dence does her life provide for undermining traditional notions of male and female? In what is her iconoclasm rooted?

11. In her introduction to Sex, Art, and American Culture, Camille Paglia expresses the need for a new feminism, "one that stresses personal respon-sibility and is open to art and sex in all their dark, unconsoling mysteries." How did Colette, a century ago, embody and challenge such a definition
of feminism? What lies at the heart of her exclaiming, "You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem."

12. Sido casts a long shadow over Colette's life, provoking hatred, ambiva-lence, acceptance, and celebration. What lies behind these shifts in Colette's attitude toward her mother? How did her experiences as a daughter shape her own approach to motherhood?

13. How can Colette be a woman of the flesh in myriad ways yet fear the touch of her daughter? What prevented Colette from accepting her daughter's lesbianism?

14. What are the shared qualities and shortcomings among the men in Colette's life? Which relationships muted her character and which gave it full play? With whom was she able to make the fewest compromises?

15. What do Colette's relationships with Missy and, later, Bertrand reveal about her? Do they strike you as anomalous or revelatory? Why?

16. What did sex most often mean to Colette? Expression, rebellion, escape, freedom, narcissism, wholeness, pleasure--something else?

17. What does Colette's life teach us about the differences between European and American moralities? Could United States culture have embraced such a figure a century ago? Today?

18. Colette, like Thurman, relished the well-turned aphorism. Discuss the following epigrams from the kindred spirit Oscar Wilde in relation to Colette's life.
--Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only
person who is never serious.
--If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.
--Pleasure is the only thing one should live for. Nothing ages like
--Those who see any difference between body and soul have neither.
--To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

19. Prolific by any standard, Colette seemed to draw from an inexhaustible well of material. Most of the roles in her life--novelist, actress, journalist, playwright, critic, scriptwriter--were all about expression. What drove her ineluctable need to express herself? What replenished the well? Dis-cuss the relationship between her art and her life. Did one feed the other,
or not?

20. What weight does Thurman give to Colette's fiction in anatomizing her life? What does she find in Colette's fabrications that she does not find in her letters, journalism, or criticism? Where do all of these types of writing intersect for Colette? Are language and memory, for her or Thurman, too unsteady to present anything as fact?

21. Thurman's biography has been lauded by critics for deftly using many of the devices we associate with the novel. Provide examples of the novel's conventions at work in Secrets of the Flesh. What are the perils and possi-bilities of such an approach for a biographer?

22. Acknowledging Secrets of the Flesh as a work of dispassionate, spirited scholarship, does the work, nonetheless, convey a moral tone or particu-lar ethos? What themes does Thurman use as motifs in the book? What impressions linger? Why?

23. What secrets of the flesh persist despite Thurman's thorough biography?

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