Colette, by Nicole Ward Jouve
One of the tragedies of this book is the way that the author demonstrates the difficulty of moving beyond the dichotomies that are so common in categorizing people. Colette herself as a writer has been subject to a great many of these. And the author is, to her credit, aware of the fact that the sound reader needs to move beyond these dichotomies to reflect the complex nature of the truth, whatever it is, about the subject of the French author and her importance. Unfortunately, while the author seeks to transcend these antagonistic portrayals, she finds herself engaging in the same sort of reasoning herself, especially when she seeks to claim women are truly creative while men have a fake creativity that is hostile to the sort of creativity in the womb that birthed them. This hypocrisy is lamentable, because it allows the author to adopt the typical leftist pose of claiming a hatred for either/or thinking while engaging in the same sort of thinking, and in showing hostility to the agendas of other writers who have come before while engaging in other agendas of her own, such as trying to present Colette as someone whose femininity allowed her greater insight than is possessed by her male critics.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into three parts and eleven chapters. After acknowledgements and abbreviations, the author discusses Colette as a woman writer and some of the problems this involves when one deals with the identity politics of gender and sexuality, both of which are problematic in the case of the book’s subject. After that the author looks at the domestic circle of Colette’s life as it deals with her writing as well as her own personal history (I), with chapters on the domestic view of Colette’s writing (1), the problem of finance (2), the name of the father (3, 5), and the identification of Colette with her father (4). After that there is a discussion of gender and sexuality issues (II), with a look at Colette’s figures of love and desire (6) and her own sexuality as well as her relationship with her mother and her mother’s houses (7). After that the author looks at the recreated bonds in Colette’s life and writing (III), including issues of language (8), currency (9), including the currency of letters, the author’s attempt to de-fetishize writing (10) in the process of writing, as well as autobiographical concerns in Colette’s writing (11), after which the book ends with a conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index.
Ultimately, this book fails in what it sets out to do. If the author was trying to transcend the arguments that Colette’s life and career find themselves in, the author herself is too wedded to certain views of gender and sexuality that make it impossible for her to overcome that difficulty. Yet the author’s failure, even if it is a failure, is not something that makes this book useless. The author’s visible struggle with the tension between critique of the possible autobiographical or observational or imaginative aspects of Colette’s fiction and her desire to praise Colette for certain unconventional aspects of her life and thinking is a reminder that we do not come into a look at the past with anything approaching neutrality. When we look at something that is outside of ourselves, we bring ourselves and our way of thinking into that. And frequently we think of ourselves as being more successful at peeling away our own personal approach and perspective when we analyze something else, only to have other people remind us that we have not been as successful as we have thought. Even so, the author conveys something of the reason why Colette is disputed over and if it is not a successful resolution of those struggles it is at least a testament of them.