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Secrets of the Flesh


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About the Author

Judith Thurman is the author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, and Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire. A staff writer at The New Yorker, she lives in New York City.


In May 1945, the elderly Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, long known by her surname, became only the second woman to be inducted into France's staid but extremely prestigious Acad‚mie Goncourt. At 72, she had become but a shadow of the androgynous sexpot novelist who had flouted convention in the early years of the century (even to the point of taking, when nearly 50, her teenage stepson as a lover). She had become respectable, the acclaimed author of the Claudine novels, The Last of Ch‚ri and Gigi. Thurman's biography comes on the heels of the final installment of Francis and Gontier's multivolume life, and it triumphantly withstands the comparison. Elegantly written and handily appearing in one substantial volume, Thurman's book has fewer personal details than the French duo's, but it is more effective at setting the morally subversive Colette in the social milieu of early-20th-century Paris. Despite much legwork on her own, Thurman does lean upon Colette's many recent French biographers. And her account of the Nazi occupation of France is sometimes hard to follow. But the book is impressive. Thurman (whose Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, won the National Book Award in 1982) does not hesitate to expose the dishonest, selfish, exploitive facets of the feminist icon who wrote articles for Occupation newspapers and sometimes behaved heartlessly toward lovers. Nevertheless, her Colette comes off as an appealing, even heroic, figure, quoted memorably as saying, "What more can one be sure of than that which one holds in one's arms, at the moment one holds it in one's arms." 24 pages of provocative photographs. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

"A fine and intelligent biography of Colette, with her long tumultuous life and the great body of her work scrupulously considered and presented with style."-The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

"[Colette] has been the subject of . . . a half-dozen significant biographies over the past thirty years. Yet this one by Judith Thurman will be hard to top. . . . Its prose is smoothly urbane, at times aphoristic, always captivating."-The Washington Post Book World

"It will stand as literature in its own right."-Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"[An] essential biography by a stylish writer of great sympathetic understanding and intellectual authority."-Philip Roth

"Colette's last word was regarde, and this is what Judith Thurman has done so well. She has taken all the pieces of this difficult and fascinating life, and shown it to us whole."-The Times (London)

"Vastly entertaining reading . . . An exhaustive, elegantly written, complex, and subtle study . . . through which Colette emerges as resilient and vulnerable in equal measure, spurred on by phenomenal resources of energy and an exuberant joy in life. . . . Certainly the extraordinary, rebellious, extravagant spirit that was Colette continues to fascinate and to inspire. . . . Her life [was] a unique drama, retold with sensitivity, depth, and authority in Judith Thurman's magnificent biography."-Newsday

"[A] near-perfect biography . . . If anyone ever wondered whether nonfiction could be art, then they should read the work of Judith Thurman."-The Sunday Telegraph

"As poetic a work of art as anything her subject, the brilliant French writer, could have penned. . . . Secrets reads as smoothly as a novel, and Thurman's technique is flawless."-Time Out New York

"Thurman's account, informed by a penetrating intelligence and written with seductive elegance, is the latest of many, but it is good enough to become the last word. Astringently clear-headed in its arguments, vividly evocative of the varied milieus that Colette in her socially adventurous life frequented, it is as richly enjoyable as a good old-fashioned realist novel, with a huge cast of characters . . . sumptuous and diverse locations . . . and a heroine whose personality was as singular and as splendidly outrageous as her trademark purple hair."
-The Sunday Times (London)

"A biography that oozes intelligence, affection, and skepticism in all the right dosages. . . . Secrets of the Flesh not only dissects Collette's personal life but also seduces the reader into exploring her body of work."-Village Voice Literary Supplement

"There is a grandeur to [Colette's] long life to which Thurman, in this splendid volume, does ample justice. She is perceptive about the contradictions which make Colette such a troubling figure, especially her habit of expressing extremely conservative opinions while living entirely at odds with them. . . . She emerges from Thurman's biography as a radical reactionary, a paradox who fascinates and repels in equal measure."-Financial Times

Colette has always delighted us, but have we really known her? We certainly do now, with Thurman's exhaustively detailed, exquisitely handled new work, which takes us from Colette's innocent girlhood through several rambunctious marriages and affairs to the heart of a great writer. Colette and her world come alive here. (LJ 10/1/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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