Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

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9780394588728: Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette
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1999 National Book Award nominee!  In 1900, a provincial beauty best known as the child bride of a famous Parisian rake captivated the Belle Epoque by writing a story that invented the modern teenage girl. It was the first in a series of wildly popular but also critically acclaimed novels that, combined with a flamboyant career on the stage, made this former country girl the first authentic superstar of the century.

But for all her celebrity as one of France's greatest and most notorious novelists and personalities, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a profoundly reticent and self-suspicious creature who fiercely resists being known. Now, following her acclaimed life of Isak Dinesen, winner of the 1983 National Book Award for biography, Judith Thurman gives us an incomparably nuanced and revealing portrait of the elusive woman, the prodigious writer, and the revered but misunderstood idol.

Having spent her village childhood in the shadow of a queenly, possessive mother who taught her the value of resilience, Colette would go on to embody the image of the modern woman. At twenty, she marries the canny but unscrupulous Willy, who not only takes the credit -- and the royalties -- for her best-selling Claudine novels, but also keeps her enthralled in more primal ways. In 1908, she divorces her Pygmalion and pursues the most public of her many affairs with women. At forty, she gives birth to her only and much-neglected child. Her second marriage, to her daughter's father -- a brilliant, predatory, patrician journalist and politician -- falters, then fails. At forty-seven, she seduces her adolescent stepson. At menopause, she rediscovers her mother. At fifty-two, she embarks upon a torrid adventure with a much younger man that blooms -- against all expectations -- into the serene and enduring mutual devotion she has yearned for but has never known. This third husband, Maurice Goudeket, also becomes the source of her worst anguish when he is arrested by the Gestapo during the Occupation.

As Colette redefines the conventions of loving and aging, she continues to live and write with Olympian vitality. Her principal subject is the bonds of love; her one true faith the consoling power of sensual pleasure. She opens a beauty institute and does makeovers in a lab coat; she produces a body of incisive journalism; she writes enchanting gems like Gigi and Sido, and provocative masterpieces like Cheri, Break of Day, The Ripening Seed, and The Pure and the Impure. Her wartime work remains the most controversial part of her legacy, and Thurman addresses the troubling questions it raises with a typically lucid and tenacious intelligence.

Drawing upon a rich mine of new documents, candid interviews, and unpublished letters, Secrets of the Flesh evokes Colette in the fullness of her contradictions.

A work of penetrating psychological insight, historical perspective, and literary discernment, superbly written, it is sure to reanimate our appreciation of its iconic subject.

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Review:

The same keen yet affectionate gaze Judith Thurman trained on Isak Dinesen in her 1983 National Book Award winner, The Life of a Storyteller, distinguishes her robust portrait of the great French writer Colette. In Secrets of the Flesh, Thurman shrewdly disentangles fact from legend during the course of the writer's long and turbulent life (1873-1954), yet she doesn't question Colette's right to mythologize herself. The fictions Colette created about herself were part of a lifelong attempt to make sense, not just of her own experience, but of the "secrets of the flesh" (André Gide's phrase in an admiring letter), the bonds that link women to men, parents to children, in an eternal search for love that is also a struggle for dominance. Chronicling Colette's scandalous life--male and female lovers, a stint in vaudeville, an affair with her stepson, a final happy marriage to a younger man--Thurman makes it clear that the writer's adored yet dominating mother and exploitative first husband made it difficult for her to conceive of amorous equality. Yet she nonetheless created a satisfying, creative existence, firmly rooted in the senses and filled with artistic achievement, from the bestselling Claudine novels to the mature insights of The Vagabond and Chéri. Thurman assesses with equal acuity the bleakness of Colette's world-view and a zest for life that it never seemed to dampen. --Wendy Smith

From the Back Cover:

"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

"IT WILL STAND AS LITERATURE IN ITS OWN RIGHT."
--RICHARD BERNSTEIN
The New York Times

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780345371034: Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

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