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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Colette had a ravenous appetite for life, a rebel's pursuit of pleasure, and a peasant's hard-eyed take on the world. In many ways, she was the first modern woman, and all her many facets--and faults--are scrutinized in "Secrets of the Flesh." 

Surgeons are the gods of medicine. It's a men's club, but what's it like for a woman to endure the years of training and apply for admission? "The Woman in the Surgeon's Body" is an insider's view of the O.R. 

What is one of the best jazz recordings of 1999? Listen to Wagner Takes the A Train, and you might have the answer. The new paperback, In the Presence of Horses, is a brave and melancholy tale of loss. 


True To Herself

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman 
(Knopf; 592 pages) 

    The French worship their monstres sacres, those larger-than-life deities with voluptuous tastes and careless, punishing actions.  For most of her long life, Colette was in that special pantheon, beginning with her entrance into society as  a daring young provincial who knowingly flirted with convention even as she thrust it aside and lasting through her final years when she was justly acclaimed the nation's most esteemed literary woman. From letters, memoirs, reminiscences, historical accounts and, most important of all, from Colette's own writings, biographer Judith Thurman gives a full-length portrait of  a brilliant, maddening and thoroughly modern woman. Colette was a creature of her time, and what makes this biography so exceptional is the detail with which Thurman sketches the hothouse atmosphere of the fin de siècle, the loosening of moral standards and the changing role of women that Colette helped influence until her death after World War II. 
    Though her many novels and stories are available in translation separately and in collections, the one work most people know is probably Gigi, which was made into a lavish movie musical with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.  Written toward the end of her life, the novella concerns the worldly education of Gigi, a potential coquette, by her aunt Alicia, now retired from the courtesan ranks. At one point, she instructs Gigi on the relative values of the exquisite stones in her jewel box, ticking off the particular merits of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Thurman, whose compelling "Isak Dineson: The Life of a Storyteller" won a National Book Award in 1983, compares the scene with Colette's own prose in her later years, and it is a lovely example of the biographer's art. Colette's writing is like Alicia's gems,  Thurman observes, there's  "Nothing flawed, nothing showily 'artistic,' nothing unworthy'...Colette's artistic feat inspires the same hushed admiration that Gigi feels for the large square-cut emerald her aunt got from a king, and which she slips onto Gigi's finger with the observation that 'only the most beautiful emeralds contain that miracle  of elusive blue.' ''  Thurman then goes on to  note that the aging Alicia knows something Gigi cannot know: that a high price was paid for that gem, a price of  squalor, work, degradation and of passion. Colette's own gift is like that stone "mined from an obscure bed in the earth, acquired cheaply by a speculator with a canny eye and polished by love's abrasion.'' 
   That obscure bed in the earth is the village of Saint-Sauveur, where Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born on January 28, 1973, the last and much-doted-on child of a passive retired military officer and a demanding, possessive mother, also named Sidonie. She grew up sturdy and energetic, rambunctious at school and determined to set herself apart. Among her school friends she insisted on being called, as boys are, by  her last name. Country life ended when on a trip to Paris with her father, the bewitching 16-year-old encountered a rakish man-about-letters named Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy. Then 30, the flamboyant Willy had revolted against his bourgeois family and moved easily in the artistic and bohemian world of the Belle Époque. An author, columnist and reviewer, he had a stable of ghostwriters and a long list of mistresses, but he was smitten by Colette's fresh beauty and vitality and at 20, she  became Mrs.Willy and left the countryside to conquer Paris. Teasing and experimenting with androgyny, she appeared in drawing rooms costumed in a jaunty sailor suit at a time when cross-dressing was forbidden by law except on the stage. Long before Madonna, Colette was inventing a persona, exposing and concealing herself at the same time and daring you to say which was true. 
    In the winter of 1895-96 Colette, who swore she had never intended to become a writer, started to scribble down memories of her school days in the village. The first of her fictional heroines was born: the self-absorbed adolescent and tough little realist Claudine. Willy fine-tuned her writing,  and in 1900 published "Claudine at School" under his name.  It was an astounding success; in two months, 40,000 copies were sold and other Claudine books and a play made the two of them wealthy. Despite this, Willy was never financially secure, and by 30 Colette was tired of writing about the perpetual ingenue and struck off on her own as music critic for a weekly. She began an intense affair with a woman, and entered the world of Lesbos. She and Willy divorced, and Colette began to work as an actress. She needed the money, but as Thurman points out, becoming an actor was "a complex act of revolt, sexual dissidence and self-assertion'' and while Colette's courage and idealism were that of a revolutionary, there was an adolescent's "rage, glee, egotism and puerility.'' 
     Those four qualities remained her hallmark for years, as she moved from scandal to scandal. She bared her breast on stage and performed a lesbian love scene that set off a riot. She was a joyous adulteress, divorced not once but twice.  Married to her second husband Henry de Jouvenal she had a love affair with his son Bertrand, who was a half-brother to her own daughter  Bel-Gazou. During the Nazi Occupation, Colette continued to write for right-wing publications. Without apologizing for Colette's refusal to take a stand or to protest against the persecutions that were going on around her, Thurman explains it as Colette's moral lethargy. 
    Her great qualities, as a writer and a woman, were her tremendous vitality and her attunement to nature. Both of these she inherited from her mother, and Colette returns the favor by fashioning a loving, if not entirely true portrait of her in "Sido" and "My Mother's House." By contrast, Bel-Gazou received neither Colette's full attention nor affection. At every stage of her life, Colette relished the desires of the flesh, from food to sex, and took a peasant's detached and ironic view of lofty and sublime concepts.  In Thurman's sharp observation,   "There was no an idea that could carry Colette away, or a sensation that couldn't.'' 
   Growing old held no fear.  At 36 , an age considered at that time as far from youthful, she chided herself,  "Don't have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure.'' She lived to be 81, and her last years were difficult.  Mostly bed-ridden in her Paris apartment and in constant pain, she was lovingly tended by her third and much younger husband and continued to write, always on her trademark blue paper. Her hair frizzed and hennaed, and her once hardened athletic body soft and corpulent, she was defiant to the end about what she had tried to do in  writing and in life.  An esteemed visitor was told, "Thanks be to God, perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman, without anything moralistic or theoretical without promulgating.''  Her state funeral was the first given a woman by the Republic; 6,000 people, walked by her bier in the  Palais-Royal to pay their respects. Most of them were women. Whether they realized it or not, Colette had in some way influenced the way the dressed, thought and lived. 

The Doctor Is In 

The Woman in the Surgeon's Body 
by Joan Cassell (Harvard University Press; 267 pages; $35) 

    Anthropologists are usually to be found in unusual places far from ordinary civilization, tracing the manners and mores of exotic people following ancient ways. That's exactly what Joan Cassell, a research associate in anthropology at Washington University, has done in The Woman in the Surgeon's Body. The antiseptic, blinding bright operating room, with its helpless patient etherized upon the table,  is alien to anything we know, and surgeons are as steeped in ritual and tradition as any dweller hidden away in the remotest jungle. Cassell makes a scrupulous examination of this peculiar tribe, who in their own world of medicine are supreme beings.  Mostly, they are men. But not just ordinary men. They are top guns, macho men, alpha males. Test pilots, rodeo riders, race-car drivers are nothing compared to these scrubbed and masked monarchs. They are the Lords of the Knife, holding, literally, our fragile little bodies and our very lives in their coldly gloved hands. 
    But what happens to a woman on her way to the O.R.? Plenty, as this study of female surgeons shows, and it is not always pretty.  This is a work of scholarship, so there's a smattering of academic references and jargon, but the general reader will find great rewards  in Cassell's observations of 33 women surgeons followed over a three-year period. When a woman enters the surgical ranks---whether student, intern, resident or practicing physician--she embodies a gender learned and "done" since childhood.  How does her body relate to her patients, subordinates and colleagues? asks Cassell. She discovers the answers by looking not at specific incidents but at a pattern of events. She found some women to be brusque, other to be warm, and certainly does not discount the fact that male surgeons are compassionate. But, she argues, men and women are compassionate in different ways. Men are fatherly, women are motherly. 
    Talking about her patients, one surgeon told Cassell, "I think I'm more sensitive to what they're feeling than the men. Or I listen...I will spend a lot of time listening to them and talking to them about things that basically are good for them and a waste of my time. I think a lot of men don't want to do that.'' Cassell also discovered  that women in training are just as likely to enter the "iron-surgeon'' ethos as their male colleagues. It all depends on the kind of mentoring and the attitudes of senior staff members. 
    A surgeon's day is grueling and long and something to be bragged about. Who else stands and works for up to 15 hours in a life-and-death situation? Women--and men--learn to ignore fatigue, hunger, their own illness. Women certainly are not allowed to show weakness. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in surgery.'' More than most other medical specialties, women surgeons feel the pressure of representing their sex and have to be better that merely adequate.  "If I screwed up, I felt everyone was looking,'' a female resident said. Pregnancy is not a natural and welcome outcome of the wish to have a family but "a problem.'' Afraid to acknowledge that being large with child will affect their work, pregnant students and interns work as late as they possibly can into their ninth month, and then return to duty as quickly as they are able. A woman who's tough as a guy is labeled a bitch; the gentle approach results in the woman being perceived a push-over. 
     Most of the surgeons Cassell studied said they would make the same choice again.  A doctor in her 60s was more than enthusiastic, saying, "It's a wonderful field...It's a fun thing todo, and it's exquisitely interesting.'' Cassell relates tales of crude behavior by male colleagues and horror stories about vindictive mentors. One doctor in a Southern school finally got a lawyer to plan a strategy to keep from being forced out of the program. Along the way, too, there are some terrific inside-the-O.R. anecdotes. One tough talker lambasted an anesthesiologist who wasn't paying sufficient attention to his patient: "See the head of the table? That's where you belong. You sit your ass on this stool. Don't you move until you wake the goddam patient up.'' He sat down and  behaved himself after that. She's the kind of doctor anyone--male or female--would want. 

And Consider This


Wagner Takes the A Train
(Elysium; $16.97)

Now in her early 60s, jazz musician Valerie Capers has never had the recognition and fame she deserves. Blind since six, and the first non-sighted graduate of Juilliard, Capers  lives in the Bronx and is a professor of music at Bronx Community College. Capers seamlessly joined an early affinity for jazz -- her ragtime-pianist father was her first teacher -- to a rigorous classical training. On the lead number of this album, she gets Billy Strayhorn and Richard Wagner traveling uptown together on a smooth cool ride. That and the ten other numbers, including works by Gershwin, Ellington, Monk and Capers herself, make up one of the finest jazz recordings of this or any other year. 


In the Presence of Horses by Barbara Dimmick 
(Picador; $14) 

Experienced in the ways of horses, the heroine of this first novel learns from a black horse named Twister the hardest lessons about love and loss. Author Barbara Dimmick was a professional riding teacher, and she is sure-footed around the paddock.  Now in paperback, this is more than the  better female version of "The Horse Whisper", it's a requiem for one woman's past and a moving homage to horses. For any woman who was ever horse crazy as a little girl--and secretly still is--this will give many pleasures and draw more than a tear or two.


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