COLETTE: A Biography by Michele Sarde

COLETTE: A Biography

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On the basis of the few examples that reach the U.S., the French certainly seem to have an idea of biography far from the level-headed Anglo-American ideal; like Bernard Gavoty's Chopin, this life of Gabrielle Colette--that consummate memoirist hardly in need of any biography at all--is wildly impressionistic, didactic (feminist), and subjective (""the history of a particular subjectivity. . . filtered through another subjectivity, mine""). Moreover, Sarde's major stylistic strategy here is a perilous one: into her own paragraphs she blends words and sentences from Colette's prose, italicized, thus creating not only problems of viewpoint but also typographical mayhem. Still, Colette is never dull copy, and Sarde's effusions are more often intriguing (or amusingly outrageous) than tiresome. Her portrait of Gabrielle's provincial childhood is (complete with reverent quotes from Annie Leclerc and de Beauvoir) a florid celebration of the relationship with free-spirited mother Sido (""The female waters are enclosed; thus, they are fecund"") and a treatise on an 1880s girl's limited choices. ""If she didn't marry she was lost!"" So, dowryless, she married Willy of Paris--a scandal-monger and literary charlatan who put Gabrielle to work on his ghost-writing assembly line and was chronically unfaithful too; in ten years, he turned ""a young and budding woman into a woman in chains."" Booted out, she recovered ""the passion for living"" in two outcast worlds--""the variety stage and Lesbos"" (""only another woman can restore the verdant paradise represented by the mother's body"")--but somehow wound up a mother, now wed to baron-journalist Henry de Jouvenel, ""a clever master who used and abused all a master's prerogatives."" By the 1920s, however, divorced again and an earthily confident writer, she had become Colette: ""Man had finally been shorn of his magical and commanding force."" True, by pressing Colette into a feminist prototype, Sarde does an injustice to this one-of-a-kind personality. And the story, bogged down in dubious sexual psychology and wet rhetoric, progresses soggily. But there's lots of juicy Colette here--the novels, the scandals, the tart tongue; and, though less reliable than Yvonne Mitchell's 1977 bio and less satisfying than Colette's memoirs themselves, this will give steady pleasure to militant feminists and intermittent pleasure to tolerant readers of other persuasions.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1980
Publisher: Morrow