Monday, July 28, 2014

Colette's Life

I have just read Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Besides many details of Colette's life that I had never learned before, the book was full of wonderful historic, cultural, and social background about Paris, the two World Wars, and the artistic environment in which Colette lived.

Especially interesting was that each of her three husbands came from a different social and political stratum of French life, and each influenced her writing and her choices in a different way. Her liaisons with many prominent lesbians of the era were also an influence, and her early dependence (on husbands, lovers, and her mother) and her eventual attainment of independence were portrayed in a fascinating way. Thurman wrote quite early in the book that Colette was an entrepreneur "whose notion of a bottom line would never be Virginia Woolf's five hundred a year and a room of one's own, but fifty thousand a year and a villa of one's own, with a great chef, a big garden, and a pretty boy."

I had known that Willy, her first husband, married her when she was a girl and then managed to get her to write the Claudine books, which he published as his own. Willy was connected to a number of prominent literary people in Paris in the 1890s and pre-war era, and enjoyed a strong but entirely undeserved reputation, as almost everything published in his name was ghost-written by some other author. He at most edited these works; in the case of the Claudine books, he influenced Colette a lot at first, but she found her own voice. By the end of her marriage, she wanted independence and recognition, and no longer needed his help.

Her second husband, Henri de Jouvenel, had a much higher social position than she did or than her first husband did. He was a prominent editor and became a politician who held various national offices in French legislative and diplomatic circles. She did little to assist him in his political activities: though she sometimes appeared at official social functions, she resented the time away from her writing.

Her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, was much younger than Colette, and was a caregiver and gatekeeper, protecting her from journalists, fans, and curiosity seekers in her old age. During the Nazi occupation, because he was Jewish, he was sent to a concentration camp. He was released from custody, then exiled to unoccupied France, and eventually lived in hiding in Paris in order to be near her. All during this time Colette was writing for pro-Nazi journals and was ignoring what was going on. A very sad story, but she chose to be blind to many unpleasant and repugnant things going on around her. Thurman's treatment of her life and attitudes is extremely penetrating and was totally revealing to me, as I had little idea of the details of the betrayal of many intellectuals in Paris in those years, only a general idea.

About Colette's reaction during the occupation, Thurman writes: "Colette's reluctance to take any sort of stand, even privately, or to voice any sentiment of outrage at the persecutions, even in her letters, is a symptom of that moral lethargy she admits so candidly.... 'I was born under the sign of passivity,' she writes then." (p. 456)

I chose this book because of my my current research project about food writer and molecular biologist Edouard de Pomiane. I've read several books of social and culinary history and several memoirs about life in Paris during his lifetime: the lifetime of both Colette and Pomiane (born in 1873 and 1875).

The number of different intellectual and political currents of the time, the interactions and cross-pollinations of the era are amazing. Here are two of the huge number of examples of connections between Colette and contemporary figures that I learned from Thurman's book:
  • Food writer Curnonsky (pseudonym of Frenchman Maurice Edmond Sailland), became famous in the 1920s, first for guidebooks to regional French food and later as elected "Prince of Gourmands." Earlier in his life, he was one of the many young writers who ghost-wrote books for Willy, Colette's first husband. Later Willy, Colette, and Curnonsky were all members of a group called "The Farm," which included Alfred Jarry, Sarah Bernhardt, and a number of other creative Paris people.
  • Cookbook author and chef Raymond Oliver was chef of Le Grand Véfour restaurant in the Palais Royal in the 1940s. Colette, at the end of her life, lived in an apartment upstairs; she was ill and unable to go out often. Thurman writes that Oliver: "made Colette's favorite dishes -- cassoulet, blanquette a l'ancienne, colibiac of salmon -- and he would often have a portion of something special, such as a lark pie or a pot of apricot jam, sent up to her. On dark winter afternoons, in the lull between lunch and dinner, Oliver himself would come to visit, uncorking a bottle of old champagne and a store of equally fresh gossip." (p. 490)


Paulita said...

I didn't have any knowledge about Colette and her fascinating life, but this book definitely sounds like it's full of intrigue. Thanks for playing along with Dreaming of France and for sharing this book. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
Colette's life has always been on my list of research projects. I'm delighted to see you have included her in your research Mae. The one tidbit of information that has managed to stick in my head about her is that she and Gaston Lenôtre owned a restaurant together.

Thanks so much for this post, Mae...

Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

Very interesting ! This is a book I will read....thanks for the review!

Brona Joy said...

Fascinating post - I love this period of history, but have read more on Coco Chanel than Colette so far. She also had a very hazy/ambiguous relationship to Nazi Paris.