Colette: A Life

The thoroughly French writer Colette (the Claudine books, Cheri, Gigi) never wrote a bedroom farce, but she came close to living one. The plot for her life in 1911 goes something like this: Colette is off to the Riviera with her young unloved lover, Auguste, and a new interest named Lily. She abandons them to return to her much-loved older lover, Missy. She abandons Missy to go to Tunisia with Lily but turns down Lily’s plea that they take off for India (”I’d rather drop dead”). Back to Missy. Then to Paris to perform in a sensational play (The Flesh) that requires her to bare her breasts nightly. Then to bed with Henry, whose beautiful mistress, Isabelle (”the Panther”), comes to her apartment to murder her, but Colette escapes through the window. Fortunately, the Panther falls for Auguste and runs off with him to Morocco, where she abandons him for a Foreign Legion officer, leaving Colette with Henry, and Missy extremely annoyed. This book could use a few diagrams.

Colette attributed the success of her marriage with Henry de Jouvenel to their ”extraordinary carnal energy.” The marriage’s failure had the same cause. In 1921, Colette, stout and 48, started an affair with Henry’s 18-year- old son by a previous marriage, and Henry, meanwhile, ran off with a Romanian aristocrat. Amid the commotion of her life she produced 50 volumes, not counting journalism, film scripts, and five letters a day. Clearly not all the energy was carnal. Until she is immobilized by arthritis toward the end of her long life, her biographer has a hard time keeping up with her. The result, Colette: A Life, is a nicely written but somewhat superficial biography in which plot summary substitutes for criticism, and bed-by-bed narration replaces character study.

”Stupidity become genius” is how Jean Cocteau summed up Colette. It’s true she was no intellectual. It’s true she was a naive and awkward girl of 20 when she married her charming, skirt-chasing first husband, Willy, and still naive when she allowed him to claim most of the credit for her first novels. But her books are supple and subtle, full of psychological and sensual illumination. She cleared away conventional sentiments and wrote about the feelings women really have about men, and why they might at times prefer women. If she was ignorant about politics, she had a lucidity that transcended politics. ”Everything would be perfect,” she wrote on the eve of one of this century’s idiotic wars, ”if we didn’t have human folly hovering over our heads.”

Colette: A Life
  • Book