If Paris is the city of love, then Colette (Sidione-Gabreelle Colette 1873 to 1954) is the high priestess. For many their image of Paris derives from memories of the movie, Gigi, made from her probably most famous work. Living to almost eighty, she produced eighty volumes of writings of all sorts. When she passed in 1954 she was given the first ever state funeral for a French woman.
My reading of Colette has so far been limited to a few short stories. At least after reading Judith Thurman's marvelous biography The Secrets of the Flesh A Life of Colette I have an idea of her greatest works.
I do not wish to sketch out much of Colette's life. I will just talk about a few aspects of her life that I learned about from the biography, things that struck me.
Of course I goggled her and I saw all the images from her days dancing semi-nude on the stage, working to support herself, performing as a mime. Physically Colette embodied the erotic ideal of the era, as Thurman shows us,she loved the world of the theater. Colette married three times. She was actively involved with a group of aristocratic Parisian lesbians know as "The Amazons".
Thurman goes into great detail concerning the various marriages of Colette, her relationship with her parents and her own daughter. She had many friends and lovers and her life was full of drama. We see her develop as a writer and we marvel at her incredible productivity.
Colette the as not and ideologically driven intellectual like other French writers of the period. She wrote about sex, relationships, food, the theater, the people of Paris. As she gre older she gained a lot of weight but she carried it without shame and attracted long term lovers of both sexes much younger than she was. Colette moved a lot and we get to visit with her all over France.
During the German occupation of Paris she did publish her work in journals and papers that carried virulent anti-Semetic articles. One of her stories was published in a magazine that had an ad for one of Hitler's books. To me and as depicted by Thurman, though not all agree, her actions do not appear to be collaboration, just a largely apolitical woman of the world accepting what seemed like reality of the times. Her husband in this period was Jewish and he was detained for a while by the Gestapo and she worked very hard on achieving his release, which did happen.
Judith Thurman intersperses literary exegesis with the details of Colette's life in a very skillful and interesting fashion. The book is also a rich source of cultural data of the period, especially the world of lesbian and gay Paris, among the upper classes.
The book shows Colette grow old and sick but still powerful.
With Marcel Proust as the greatest French writer of the 20th century, Colette was second. It seems with it dispute she is the greatest female writer in French history, with apologies to George Sand.
This is a first rate biography of a great writer from whom we can all still learn much.