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COLETTE A Passion for Life by Genevieve Dormann; translated by David Macey and Jane Brenton (Abbeville: $39.95; 320 pp., illustrated)

January 05, 1986|Mary Dryden | Dryden is an actress and a free-lance reviewer of books and films. and

There can be few young women such as myself, the recipient of a liberal arts education, who did not have the writings of Colette pressed upon them at some stage of their adolescence. Everyone, of course, has heard of "Gigi"; the more sophisticated among us savored the scandalous "Cheri." Colette's frank sensuality coupled with a childlike, matter-of-fact manner of observation made her writing irresistible to those of us whose sexual awareness was in the process of being awakened.

Recently, I acquired a volume of her collected stories and found much more than the sheer titillation for which she is justly famous. "The Photographer's Wife" and "The Murderer" expose a craft as finely tooled as Flaubert's or Zola's. "Colette: A Passion for Life" provides the rich humus of background that enables the reader more fully to savor the harvest of this woman's extraordinary talent.

Born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in 1873, the young Colette grew up in Burgundy in a pleasant, loving, provincial family. Her relationship with both her parents was excellent, but she positively doted on her lovely, whimsical mother, Sido. They remained the best of friends, even after Colette was shocking the world by appearing on stage partially nude, until Sido's death in 1912. The young Colette was lively, imaginative and anxious to get out of the provinces and into Paris. A family friend, Henry Gauthier-Villars, charmed her with his wit and savoir faire, and at age 19, she married him.

Willy, as he was known to his friends, was brilliant but lazy. At the time of his marriage to Colette, he had published several novels in his own name but which were in fact ghosted by other writers. As he came to know Colette's formidable intelligence better, he deputized her to write down her memoirs of her school days. These memoirs became the basis of the "Claudine" novels which captivated Paris, were wildly successful and were signed "Willy."

Colette and Willy shared more than their literary interests. Both were possessed of enormous appetites for food, intrigue and sex. Willy's infidelities were numerous and flagrant. He also had a fascination for what Colette later referred to as "three part harmony in love." No doubt as a result of these situations, her celebrated period of lesbianism began. Her unashamed love affairs with women gradually wore down even the seemingly unshockable Willy, and they were divorced in 1909.

As a means of making herself financially independent, Colette became a dedicated professional actress. As was consistent with her character, however, she was highly attracted to anything avant-garde, and as a result, her dramatic gifts were often overshadowed by the shocking nature of the material. Furthermore, she disdained any refinement of her coarse native diction, and sophisticated Parisians objected to her stubborn Burgundian accent. Willy, however, in exploiting her memories and imagination, had unlocked a genius, and Colette's writing career flourished.

In 1911, Colette met her second husband, Baron Henry de Jouvenel. Her appreciation of women had by no means diminished her preference for men. She described Jouvenel as having "dark hair, velvety eyes, a superb build, no money and luxurious tastes--irresistible." Again, the marriage was disrupted by philandering and separation. The pattern of her life by this time was well established as she wrote in a letter to a friend, "Content yourself, I beg you, with a passing temptation and give in to it. What can we be certain of, except what we hold in our arms, while we hold it in our arms? We have so few opportunities to own things." Later in her marriage to Jouvenel, Colette seduced her stepson, Bertrand, who still regards the liaison as the great love of his life.

The deterioration of her second marriage and the beginning of her affair with Maurice Goudeket, who was to become her third husband, did little to alter Colette's main interest in life. Her consuming passion for food left her fabulous figure swollen and unattractive. However, this obsession did not detract from her overpowering sexual needs. As late as 1952, while watching the dancers at a ball, though in a wheelchair, Colette saw a beautiful girl in a pink dress and murmured, "I want her."

Her writing became more polished and accepted than ever. Although she claimed to dislike the act of composition, her prose is remarkably enforced. She once said, "I write on air." As she entered her later years, crippling arthritis and a broken hip that mended badly confined her to writing in her bed. Typically, she decked it out with fur coverlets and burned incense to keep her sensory cravings satisfied. A lifelong devotion to animals repaid her with a stalwart coterie of cats and dogs that never left her side until her death.

"Colette: A Passion for Life" is an apt description. The author wisely makes no moral judgments about Colette's unconventional tastes; she is, in fact, deeply sympathetic. The highly readable biographical accounts are highlighted with extensive accompanying photographs and drawings which serve to further illuminate an already glittering story. Most of all, this biography shows in graphic detail how Colette's experience influenced her art. As her devoted friend Jean Cocteau wrote, "And there you have Colette. Playing truant, she won all the prizes. She is the only person who can make soap bubbles out of mud."

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