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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Resurrection of a Woman Both Scorned and Beloved : RAGE AND FIRE: A Life of Louise Colet--Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse by Francine du Plessix Gray ; Simon and Schuster, $25, 381 pages

March 24, 1994|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Francine du Plessix Gray begins her resurrection of Louise Colet, a minor 19th-Century French writer now known mainly as Flaubert's lover and literary correspondent, with two dramatic scenes.

The first describes their last meeting. Colet furiously berates Flaubert for infidelity, kicking him rhythmically in the shins to make her points, while he fantasizes about braining her with a fireplace log.

In the second scene, toward the end of his life, he burns great batches of correspondence. One packet of letters contains a slipper, a rose and a lace handkerchief; Flaubert kisses them sorrowfully before consigning them to the flames.

Each scene has its source. The first is a friend's account of what Flaubert told him; the second, a memoir by Guy de Maupassant, who was present at the burning. Each has the flavor of a tale, as well; in different ways, both Flaubert and De Maupassant came to regard life mainly as material for literary transformation.

Du Plessix Gray, another writer, does her own transforming.

The anonymous rose, slipper, handkerchief and letters, she believes, were Louise Colet's. "That is why I have written this book," she tells us. "To reinstate a colleague into the annals of her time. To do her justice. To resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men."

The result is "Rage and Fire" or (this is the reviewer's own bit of transforming) "Louise: The Miniseries." The dramatic parting and the infinite regret, years later, are mood-setting shots. Then, in flashback, comes the story, punctuated by the surges of Du Plessix Gray's background music. She has chosen to write her biography in the style of a flamboyant romantic novel--old-fashioned in its rhetorical sentiment, modern in its insertion of practical sexual detail--perhaps a tribute to Colet's own effusive writing.

Born in 1811 to a conservative but indulgent bourgeois father and a mother whose own father was both a minor aristocrat and a revolutionary, Colet was encouraged to read books and write poetry. She married a musician with a small post at the Paris Conservatory, and arrived in the capital determined to make her literary mark. When she sent out a book of poems for blurbs, the writer Chateaubriand returned a polite refusal. Colet used the refusal for its politeness, and sent copies to prospective patrons. She found one in Victor Cousin, president of the Sorbonne and a leading member of the Academy. He became her lover and protector, got her a stipend and her husband a promotion, and furnished her Thursday salons with other Academicians.

Large, blond, blue-eyed and expansive, she acquired lovers, friends and enemies among all the important literary figures of the day. Flaubert was her great passion; he returned the passion sporadically and complained that she was excessively demanding.

He also wrote her remarkable letters telling of his struggles to write "Madame Bovary." The tempestuous affair has been much written of; Du Plessix Gray tells it with flamboyant partisanship which, nevertheless, allows us to glimpse Flaubert's discomfort.

Colet was a devout Romantic and political radical, a prominent hostess--though sometimes financially compelled to re-use the tea leaves--and a prolific producer of poetry, novels and journalism. She wrote to support herself and to be noticed, and more or less succeeded at both. Contemporaries praised or mocked her febrile style approximately in the degree that they liked her, or not. Ever since, her writings have alternated between obscurity and an occasional mild reappraisal.

Du Plessix Gray's literary appraisal is mild, as well. Her interest is in Colet as a woman who struggled gallantly to fulfill herself--artistically, sexually, socially--in a time of gross sexual inequality and intellectual discrimination; as an early feminist, in other words. Her success is spotty.

For one thing, though she respects what facts exist, there are some real gaps. Colet seems to have saved the letters of most of the famous people she was involved with; not as many seem to have saved hers. Which does, in a way, provide a basis for Du Plessix Gray's resurrecting mission: abuse and intellectual hostility apart, 19th-Century male French intellectuals simply did not take women seriously. On the other hand, there may not have been much to save.

The contrast with George Sand--the two did not get along--is overwhelming. Sand was a far better writer even if, like Colet, she wrote too much. More to the point, perhaps, she was a brilliantly perceptive and immensely humane figure; her correspondence--notably with Flaubert--demonstrates it.

The Colet memoirs and letters that Du Plessix Gray quotes from are vehement, angry and exalted by turns, and they can occasionally be moving. Essentially, though, they are empty. Little that Colet says in her own right, little that anyone else in this book is recorded as saying about her and--finally--little that Du Plessix Gray writes, can display much beyond need and courage. This is a lot, perhaps, but it is not enough to establish a memorable or even interesting mind and spirit.

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