(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The words of Jean-Paul Sartre both introduced his famous biography of the enfant-terrible writer Jean Genet, Saint-Genet, Actor and Martyr (1952), and stated the parameters of “existential biography.”To demonstrate that only freedom can account for a person in his totality . . . to prove that genius is not a gift, but rather the way out one invents in desperate situations, to discover the choices which a writer makes of himself, his life, and of his sense of the universe . . . to retrace in detail the history of a liberation.

Founded on a rejection of both psychological and Marxian determinism, the existential biography affirms the possibility of self-determination. It assumes that humans can take the “givens” and fashion from them something radically new. The methodological outcome of this premise is striking: in the biography, chronology may be violated, “facts” may be mixed with portions from the writer’s fictions, certain inner events may take precedence over public, outer happenings. Both the writer and the literature are interpreted in the study of the individual.

Michèle Sarde quotes approvingly from Sartre in her Introduction; her subsequent explanation of her technique makes it abundantly clear that she adheres to Sartre’s program. The raw material for the study is all of Colette’s writing—fiction and nonfiction. Sarde often makes no attempt to distinguish imagined from lived scenes, stating that the “’lying text,’ or the ’fictional text’. . . conceals truths” while other kinds of evidence—“interviews, statistics, dates, critical works—are all merely related data to mislead us.” Colette’s “truth,” the history of her liberation, can only be gained through reading carefully her works. Even this truth will be partial, being based on one individual’s perspective. The whole study’s validity will be provisional, for it will be through Colette’s eyes and Sarde’s interpretation. Sarde’s cognizance of these epistemological issues is very French and very existential. For truth, according to the existentialists, can change; since everything is filtered through individual perspectives, the whole truth is impossible to obtain. This is obviously a profoundly pessimistic view. One grasps what partial truth one can, chooses a course of action or nonaction, and then acts (Sören Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”), understanding that one must accept the consequences of the action. Only in this anxiety producing way can one gain freedom.

On the surface, Colette would seem to be a poor choice for an existential biography. The facts of her life history suggest the determining influences of class (petit-bourgeoisie), education (provincial primary school only), sex (females of Colette’s class had essentially no choice but marriage). Even her “miraculous” transformation into a writer seems determined, her own will having no part. (She always insisted—up to her death—that she had no “vocation” and no love for writing.) Her seventy-odd books and innumerable articles were the result of her realization that here was a craft, a job, a way to earn money. She began writing, one recalls, because her husband literally forced her to, and at first she herself received no money and no credit for the successful Claudine novels. In what sense can Colette be an existential hero, a free person who chooses her own life?

It is to Sarde’s credit that she is able to take the facts of Colette’s life and rework them to give the reader the story of a liberation. For Colette is both “free and fettered”—radically constrained by her birth, upbringing, and marriage, and yet, through a series of clear choices, a self-determining, free person. The essential events are described, but what the biographer makes of these is more important. At every stage of the biography, author Sarde develops her special thesis, and from its perspective interprets, speculates, and postulates. In keeping with her attitude toward “fiction,” Sarde provides the reader evidence from “purely” fictional, as well as journalistic and eyewitness sources. She regards each of these as equally valid wellsprings of information. In Sarde’s explication of the relationship among Colette, Willy, and Polaire (the actress who played Claudine on stage), the reader finds this typical comment: “Whether the trio was in fact a triangle is not too important. We should beware of attempting to distinguish in the texts between what is fiction and what is memory, between what may be only subjective and what her inner censor allowed her to reveal of the actual truth.”

Colette, according to Sarde, spent her life becoming free, becoming herself. This process is symbolized by her successive name changes, and Sarde’s book is structured around the names Colette carried at different stages of her life. Thus “Gabrielle” chronicles her early life—up to the time of her marriage. Only her mother would call her “Gabri” after her marriage. The first section also describes her mother, her background, and the extraordinarily close relationship enjoyed by mother and daughter. According to Sarde, Colette’s mother, Sido, was an unusually strong woman; as such, she functioned as one of the “givens” of Colette’s life, enabling her to become her own person, to become free. “Because of her,” says Sarde, “Gabrielle would live in the harsh female world protected from its pitfalls, she would experience neither pathological depression nor any serious neuroses that would prevent her from living, from producing.”

Each section goes backward and forward in time as well; much of the first section’s material comes from the reminiscences of her mother, entitled Sido, published by Colette when she was fifty. Thus, the view is one tinged with nostalgia. Sarde does not hesitate to refer to later events—such as Colette’s very different relationship with her own daughter—while the interpretation is being made. References are made to the current historical situation—for example, the state of education for women, or the view of Paris from the provinces, or the effects of the Franco-Prussian War—as the picture of Colette’s adolescence is being drawn.

The members of Colette’s family were nonconformist and free thinkers. To the end of her life, Colette was an unbeliever, bearing a deep hatred for all forms of intolerance. The fact that she was non-Catholic may be as important as any other fact of her background. The nineteenth century in France lacks great middle-class women novelists; absent are the likes of Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot (all clergymen’s daughters). The Protestant tradition, speculates Sarde, encouraged women to educate themselves and to work intellectually, even at home. Catholicism, in contrast, set women apart, glorifying them as women. Thus, in Catholic France, only the aristocratic woman had the leisure and freedom to begin a salon and become an intellectual or a writer. For the middle-class Catholic woman, an intellectual life of writing was never desired and therefore never accomplished.

The biography’s second section covers Colette’s marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, “Willy.” She had become Mme. Gauthier-Villars or Mme. Colette Willy. The...

(The entire section is 3005 words.)