The Pure and the Impure has to be the saddest book about sex and love that I’ve ever read and one wouldn’t expect it to be coming from one of the twentieth century’s more infamous sensualists. You think you’ve been bitch-slapped and biker-stomped by romance? Spend a little time chez Colette and you will feel like the most fulfilled being on the planet, even if your only current fuck-buddy runs on batteries and lives in your nightstand.
A hedonist heroine and literary lioness, especially in her native France, Colette (1873 1954) let it all hang out, on the page and in life; and the recently re-released The Pure and the Impure “the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography” is saturated with her libertinism. Any book that opens in a Parisian opium den and climaxes with girl-on-girl action is going to be a sweaty catalog of the sweet forbidden.
Colette lived in Paris in the decadent last years of the nineteenth century, and the equally decadent early years of the twentieth, paddling around the dank demimonde of actors, aesthetes, cross-dressing aristocrats and “inverts” (the self-shaming term for homosexuals Proust, her contemporary, used). As a journalist and novelist who paid the bills for a while as an actress, Colette knew them all and bedded more than a few male and female. Her first husband, who published her first four novels, introduced her to the Parisian demimonde and to the concept of marital infidelity. After ditching the dog, Colette danced bare-breasted to support herself, shacking up with a high-born, cross-dressing lesbian named Missy. She married and divorced again. Bien sur, she had affairs, including a long-term relationship with her sixteen-year-old stepson. And she wrote journalism, novels. Husband number two asked her, “Can’t you write a book that isn’t about love, adultery, semi-incestuous couplings and separation?” Judging by her output, the answer had to be no. She found happiness at last with husband number three, a young man named Maurice, “whose virile constancy disarmed her mistrust” (according to biographer Judith Thurman, who wrote the introduction).
A memoir of sorts, The Pure and the Impure is made up of a series of conversations among the demimondaines, with Colette as a kind of Virgil of the boudoir, providing running commentary on the slippery nature of sexual love. We begin with Charlotte, a courtesan whom Colette meets one smoky night in the aforementioned opium den. Charlotte’s problem is that she gives too much; committing one of feminism’s cardinal sins, she fakes the big O to please her insecure young lover. (Revealingly, Colette doesn’t disapprove of this act of horizontal self-sacrifice; she admire’s Charlotte’s generosity, her belief that it’s more important to please your lover than please yourself.) Her eavesdropping on this performance is the most explicit scene in the book:
Then it’s on to an aging Don Juan, bitter towards the women he’s tossed aside as if they were so many used condoms (“They allow us to be their master in the sex act, but never their equal. That is what I cannot forgive them”); a lesbian poet drained by anorexia, alcoholism and vampiric love affairs; women who love women and dress like men; and a cadre of homosexual men in whose chummy company Colette feels right at home, mostly because they ignore her. “They taught me not only that a man can be amorously satisfied with a man but that one sex can suppress, by forgetting it, the other sex. This I had not learned from the ladies in men’s clothes, who were preoccupied with men, who were always, with suspect bitterness, finding fault with men.”
Colette’s theory about love is that we’re all impure, missing a piece which is to say perverted in one way or another. We stumble from bed to bed, looking for somebody to fill the void or the orifice, play the sadist to our masochist or vice versa. As Judith Thurman lays out in her introduction, “to be pure means to be unhindered by any conscious bonds of need or dependence, or by any conflict between male and female drives.” In other words, unless you’re a really well-adjusted celibate yogi, good luck.
Everybody Colette knows is getting laid. How can people having so much sex be so unsatisfied? What’s truly striking is Colette’s fascination with lesbians, whose proclivities she claims to dislike. (Remember that she batted for both teams.) “Sapphic libertinage is the only unacceptable one,” she writes. So why can’t she stop writing about it? Of one “mannish” set of pants-wearing ladies she comments, “The exciting scent of horses, that so masculine odor, never quite left these women, but lingered on after the ride.” Oh, baby once more into the breeches! Colette, for all her flamboyance, turned out to be guilty and conflicted about her desires to be on top, to make it with women as well as men. From this post-everything feminist perspective, Colette looks less like a fleshpot philosopher and more like a woman who just couldn’t get past the frustrations of her time, place and body. Then again, which of us hasn’t faked it, one way or another, in the saddle?
Jennifer Howard and Nerve.com, Inc.