If we in America know Colette at all, we know her through Gigi, the 1954 movie starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, and featuring the now problematic little song, Thank Heaven for Little Girls, performed by the inimitable Maurice Chevalier. I like it anyway. After all, the original Gigi was being groomed to be a courtesan. This was just another day in the life for Colette.
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle)
by Judith Thurman, is a stunning biography that travels from Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, the site of
My Mother's House and Sido
, to Paris with her first husband and the Claudines, through her second marriage, to Henri de Jouvenal,
Pure and the Impure
, innumerable affairs, perfomances, friendships, and writing – always writing.
Of The Pure and the Impure, Thurman writes:
The popular Colette, the daughter of Sido/Ceres, is our guide to the earthly paradise. But in The Pure and the Impure she takes us on a tour of a realm with which she, like Proserpine, is on intimate terms. This erotic underworld has no glamour for her, and she knows the prisoners to be quite ordinary poor devils: phantoms I seem always to be losing and finding again, restless ghosts unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef, mysterious and incomprehensible, the human body.
As these ghosts confide the secrets of their flesh (always the flesh) to Colette, a pattern begins to emerge from their confessions. All of them have lived their lives starved for an essential nutrient and unable to renounce the fantasy of meeting the Provider who will fill the “void” once and for all.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was not a feminist and yet she was, in her way, the freest of us all because what she insisted upon most of all was her own freedom. Freedom to love where she would. Freedom to write how she would. Freedom to live as she would. Freedom, above all, to resist political involvement of any kind.
Liane de Pougy, wrote of the set of sexual rebels of whom Colette was one:
We were passionate rebels against a woman’s lot, voluptuous and cerebral, little apostles, rather poetical, fond of illusions and dreams. We loved long hair, pretty breasts, simper, charm, grace, not boyishness. ‘Why try to resemble our enemies?’..
Thurman writes that Colette is "too much of a pagan to judge the fallen for their sins, and too conservative to believe that human nature is capable of reform. What she does [in Bella-Vista (Modern Library Minis) …] is to bear witness to poverty, incest, racism and exploitation and - because she is writing as an artist, not a journalist – to mistrust the witness that she bears."
Even though her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, was a Jew, she found ax murderers, parricides, and serial killers “more interesting than the rise of a peculiar little tyrant in Munich who didn’t eat meat and didn’t seem to like fucking anybody, not even men.”
Maurice was Colette’s most beloved husband. She wrote to him about such ordinary things…dark little things which are like the grains in a mortice which bind the solid volumes...Look at me, abashed to write that I love you. I’m going off to hide my embarrassment in a hot bath. He was several years younger than she, and, while not always faithful, he was always true to her. She was aware of his infidelities and didn’t blame him at all. In her elder years, she was nearly crippled with arthritis. The day comes when one abandons oneself, she wrote. Thurman tells us that "her dependence on Maurice was one [self-abandonment], and the valiance it took, on her side, to conceal the humiliation was matched only by the gallantry, on his, to conceal the burden."
In 1951, according to Thurman, she attended a documentary about her life and afterwards remarked to a journalist, What a beautiful life I’ve had. It’s a pity I didn’t notice it sooner.
We should all, for all of our sins and excesses, have so few regrets.