According to her biographer Judith Thurman, who writes the introduction, Colette began writing this "investigation into the nature and laws of the erotic life" in 1930, working on it for several years. It was published in 1941 when Colette was sixty-eight. The narrative is a series of sketches of men and women, gay and straight, some of whom have been Colette's own lovers. She acts as a confessional conduit for the tormented and exasperated - lovers solicit her advice and reveal their secrets, jealousies and obsessions to her. There is a lot of world-weariness, narcissim and unhappiness in these pages leading to opium dens, alcholism, anorexia and suicide. One of the only happy portraits is that of the two "Ladies of Llangollen" who ran away from their disapproving families in 1778 to set up house in the Welsh countryside, where they lived in apparent idyllic happiness for fifty years - although as Colette reminds us, we only have the diary entries of one of the couple as proof.
There are veiled references to the French literati of the early 20th century and if I knew more about that period, I would doubtless get more out of this book; I found many of the early profiles left me cold because they were too short and detached to get a real sense of their subjects. But I am glad that I kept reading because the book gets very interesting in the second half when Colette injects more of her own personal observations into the narrative as she muses on the differences between lesbian, gay and heterosexual relationships and what happens when they foolishly mix. And she's very interesting on the societal malaise that hit women in post First World-War Paris:
Despair born of frustration drove women, after the war, to imitate the looks and manners of androgynous young men. They had reckoned on their men being delivered back to them full of frenzied desire. Then, becoming aware that their own apotheosis was not very dazzling, they began wildly to imitate the outward looks of the male tribe that was causing them such heartache. They cropped their hair, squandered a fortune at the shirtmaker's, and drank to excess. And they gained no ground, for they were not disinterested enough.
She also has a very sensual, visceral way with language. Here she is on jealousy:
. . . it is a kind of gymnast's purgatory, where the senses are trained, one by one, and it has the gloom of all training centers. . . The sense of hearing becomes refined, one acquires visual virtuosity, a rapid and hushed step, a sense of smell that can capture the particles deposited in the atmosphere by a head of hair, a scented powder, the passage of a brazenly happy person . . . A body absolutely on the alert becomes weightless, moves with somnambulistic ease, rarely collapses and falls.
In the end, my favourite relationship in the book is not a romantic liaison at all, but the ongoing comic bond between Colette and Madame X - rivals for the attentions of the same lover. The intensity of their mutual antagonism keeps them both going. When Colette stops cursing Madame X for a couple of months because she is absorbed in her writing, a series of mishaps occur that she blames on this inattention; she falls into a ditch, loses a manuscript, three of her kittens die mysteriously. The two eventually become friends when the object of their jealousy has long left the picture and they can look back and laugh about it. I can see why this was considered a daring book of its times and while it's not my favourite NYRB Classic, I'm glad I read it. I will certainly seek out some of Colette's novels for future reading.