Judith Thurman’s Secrets Of The Flesh, A Life of Colette is a detailed, academic portrait of the life of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, famous author and public figure of the fin de siècle and beyond. Parts of Thurman’s precisely delineated book are exultant, both in their thoroughness of detail, and in their penetrating analysis of the emotional forces behind Colette’s very famous love affairs. Thurman writes lucidly about Colette’s relationship with her mother, the other Sidonie Colette. In a sustained argument, Thurman describes the dialectical master/slave relationship between the mother and daughter, and the ways in which Colette re-enacted this dialectic in most of her relationships, amorous and otherwise. Of particular note is Thurman’s underlining of Colette’s own description of herself as ‘passive,’ and the apparently amoral behaviours this engendered, such as Colette’s partial collaboration with the Vichy regime, despite the fact that her Jewish husband was interned by the Gestapo. As Thurman has done well to remind us, Colette’s passivity was that of a survivor.
However, Thurman’s book is ultimately frustrating, in that she never fully addresses the issue of Colette’s black-slave ancestors. Colette’s maternal grandfather, according to Colette herself, was a quadroon. As Thurman reveals, Colette often commented on her own ‘negress’s’ body. Early on, Thurman quotes a letter Colette wrote to Francis Jammes: ‘My ancestors also came from a warm island, long ago, like yours, except that mine had to be darker.’ Despite these mentions of Colette’s slave antecedents, however, Thurman never gives the issue the sustained attention she does Colette’s relationship with her mother. While Thurman’s gestural allusion to Colette’s slave ancestry may be intended to spark the thought of the reader, her reticence on the subject seems odd. As over a century of psychoanalytic thought has shown, traumatic experience can be passed down across the generations in a myriad of subtle ways. Thurman’s vivid depiction of Colette’s obsessive enactment of the master/slave dialectic is undermined by her failure to fully address the issue of Colette’s real master/slave lineage. Essentially, my point is that Colette’s apparent ‘passivity’ can be seen as the dissociating survival mechanism of the traumatised, or at least of those who unconsciously imitate the behaviour of the traumatised.
Overall, Judith Thurman has produced, if not a monument, an elaborately constructed portrait of a famously elusive personality. The portrait is so well crafted, in fact, that Colette almost seems to come to life on the page. She doesn’t though, and my abiding impression is that this is because Thurman herself is ambivalent about her subject–one doesn’t feel that she wholly likes Colette, and perhaps this intrusion of the biographer’s personal bias is what holds her back from deeper insights into the psychology of her subject, in a work which purports to be a psychologically oriented study.
Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris