Colette herself considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, "the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography." This guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which Colette was so intimately acquainted begins in the darkness and languor of a fashionable opium den. It continues as a series of unforgettable encounters with men and, especially, women whose lives have been improbably and yet permanently transfigured by the strange power of desire. Lucid and lyrical, The Pure and the Impure stands out as one of modern literature's subtlest reckonings not only with the varieties of sexual experience, but with the always unlikely nature of love.
About the Author
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette [1873-1954], was born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, where she led an idyllic childhood. At the age of twenty, she married Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, a Parisian man of letters under whose name she published the Claudine novels. Separated from Willy in 1905, Colette supported herself as an actress before establishing her own reputation as a writer. She was celebrated in later years as one of the great figures of twentieth-century French life and letters, and was the first woman to be accorded a state funeral by the French Republic.
Judith Thurman is the author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette and of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, which won the National Book Award for Biography in 1983. She is a widely published literary critic, cultural journalist, and translator of poetry.
What People are Saying About This
The Pure and the Impure comes closer than any of Colette¹s books, memoir or fiction, to revealing 'the mysterious nature of [her[ being. (Judith Thurman, National-Book-Award-winning author of Passions of the Flesh: A Life of Colette)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Pure and the Impure by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette with introduction by Judith Thurman (Literature/Gay Studies). Recommended. Colette believed The Pure and the Impure was her best work. I can't judge, not having read anything of hers but a few short stories, but this collection of her observations about human attitudes toward relationships and sexuality is insightful and timeless. It is also difficult and obscure at times, perhaps because of the translation and because there is no real structure to such a collection. Thanks to her milieu, her position in it, and her willingness to seek the story, Colette could draw upon the most interesting people of her time¿the givers and the takers. From the older woman who publicly fakes an orgasm while self-pleasuring in an opium house to gladden the heart of her young, sickly lover to the roué who exclaims of women, 'They allow us to be their master in the sex act, but never their equal. That is what I cannot forgive them' to the circle of prominent women who learn the ways of sex from servants, dress as men, and love horses (she calls the most notable of these women 'La Chevalière) to the 'happy,' alcoholic, lesbian poet Renée Vivien to the gay men with whom she seems most comfortable, Colette covers a spectrum of sexuality and combinations¿including those men and women who play their heterosexual and homosexual relations against one another. 'I'm devoted to that boy, with all my heart,' the older woman tells Colette, a stranger to her. 'But what is the heart, madame? It's worth less than people think. It's quite accommodating. It accepts anything. You give it whatever you have, it's not very particular. But the body . . . Ha! That's something else, again.' Thurman believes this sums up Colette's view precisely, the heart as a slave to the body. Although Colette apparently wanted to remain an impartial observer, she cannot mask her own feelings and biases. One senses that she could not quite see a woman-woman partnership as 'whole,' as passionate, as capable of being the source of tragedy in the same way as other types of relationships. (Anaïs Nin will also hint at something similar in her diaries, at the 'incompleteness' of female/female love.) 'What woman would not blush to seek out her amie only for sensual pleasure? In no way is it passion that fosters the devotion of two women, but rather a feeling of kinship.' She is fascinated by the story of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, the 'Ladies of Llangollen,' who elope and spend several decades living together. During this time, Butler will keep an extensive journal about her life with 'My Beloved,' while, to Colette's consternation and fascination, Ponsonby remains a silent partner. Colette so romanticizes the Ladies that she says they run off together as 'young girls,' when in fact Butler was 39 and Ponsonby in her 20s. While there is all kind of detail about their living arrangements, from gardening, sewing, hosting an array of distinguished visitors, and sharing a bedroom and bed, there is nothing known of their emotional or sexual intimacies other than their obvious devotion to one another. They remain a happy, content enigma to Colette and to the present day. The book concludes on a more personal note¿about jealousy, 'the only suffering that we endure without ever becoming used to it.' She maintains that 'a man never belongs to us' and hints at the unique and not unfriendly relationship two female rivals may have¿even rivals who wish to kill one another. When one rival tells Colette all the things that had prevented her from killing Colette in Rambouillet (missed train, stalled car, etc.), Colette says, 'I was not in Rambouillet.' The relationship between her and her rival becomes more interesting, more revealing, more