Review by Ian Keogh
Born Sidonne Gabriel Colette, Colette was the prototype for the scandalous musical diva known only by the single name, except her notable work was literary. There are also parallels to be drawn between subject and biographer, the late Annie Goetzinger a pioneer for women comic artists in France, and not shy of stirring up hornet’s nests if she thought it necessary.
For The Provocative Colette, she takes a very traditional approach in considering the formative years of Colette’s career, starting with her 1893 marriage to libertine journalist and novelist Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy. He’s captivated by the beauty of a country girl who may be uncultured, but whose provocative intelligence soon has her holding her own in the Parisian salons during the Belle Epoque. Goetzinger brings the period to delicate life, using muted colour, accentuating the practices of parading, ensuring one was seen in the right places and with the right people. Willy, considerably older than Colette, maintains a duplicitous lifestyle, not only by continuing to see other women, but by having others ghost write novels appearing under his name. It’s by writing a series of racy semi-autobiographical tales starring one Claudine that Colette begins to flourish, despite their being published as Willy’s work.
While eventually the making of the woman she became, Colette’s early disappointments have a tragic depth to them, yet Goetziner never really brings this out. Her Colette is serenely beautiful, but rarely displays any emotion or visual personality, gliding through events almost as an observer to her own life. It’s at odds with a woman who lived and wrote with considerable passion. Parts of the writing also puzzle. The skimming stone over water nature of the focus is a necessity of the format, but Goetzinger’s method involves too many stops without enough background detail and strange, disconnected dialogue. Would anyone actually say “Look at this dress I’m wearing. It’s from a famous designer named Germaine Patat, who’s also my husband’s mistress”? In addition to reading awkwardly, it exemplifies lines that serve little purpose and draw attention to the artifice. So do lists of prominent socialites and creatives whose lives intersect with Colette, and while some are given brief biographies at the end of the book, all too many are just dropped names, proving research but of no relevance.
Goetzinger is far better in bringing out just why Colette’s life would scandalise, running through liasons with others to whom she was attracted with no concern about sex or relationship. Colette followed her muse and instincts, and this brings out why she’d be a profound influence in freeing women to believe life needn’t be prescribed. Goetzinger leaves Colette thirty years after she picked her up, finally publishing under the name she’d use until her death almost thirty years after that.
The Provocative Colette is a decoratively illustrated, accessible primer to a gifted and groundbreaking woman, but for the full story you’ll have to look elsewhere.