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CULTURE

The lives and loves of French writer Colette

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

The lives and loves of French writer Colette
French writer Colette in her home at the Palais Royal in Paris in 1952. (Photo by AFP)

A century before #MeToo, French author Colette dumped a sleazy husband who took the credit for her work to throw herself into a life of free love that she fictionalised in groundbreaking novels about the lives of women.

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

Plucked from the Burgundy countryside by her first husband – a literary agent 14 years her senior – he put her to work writing about her schoolgirl fantasies in the wildly popular “Claudine” books that he published under his own name.

Colette went on to cause scandal after scandal writing about hitherto taboo subjects like domestic violence, anorexia and fake orgasms, before becoming a music hall dancer, mime artist and weightlifter.

She was also among the first women to wear trousers and have a facelift in a dizzying life that included three marriages and a multitude of affairs with both men and women.

As the American novelist John Updike said: “In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted 10 rounds with Colette.”

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in a Burgundy village in 1873 and was swept off to Paris at 20 when she married the womanising music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy”.

He introduced her to high society salons frequented by novelist Marcel Proust and composer Claude Debussy, where she was gently mocked for her Burgundy accent and long blonde plaits.

Willy encouraged her to write about her life at school, telling her not to spare “the juicy details”.

Colette’s mother had instilled in her a love of nature that made her fiercely attuned to the senses, and she brought that to the page.

Riot
First, in 1900, came the homoerotic, coming-of-age tale Claudine at School, followed by Claudine and Annie, Claudine in Paris, and Claudine Married. All were instant bestsellers.

After spicing them up, Willy put the books out under his own name.

Colette eventually moved in with her lover, cross-dressing noblewoman Mathilde de Morny, nicknamed “Missy”, and filed for divorce after learning Willy had sold the rights to her books.

In between affairs with other women, Colette learned to dance and took to the stage in 1906, causing scandal wherever she appeared, once flashing her breasts and causing a riot when she kissed her lover Missy at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

Her semi-autobiographical novel The Vagabond, about a divorced music hall dancer was hailed by critics in 1910. Cheri, about an affair with a much younger man, followed in 1920. But her best known work abroad, Gigi, the tale of a young girl being groomed to become a courtesan, did not come until 1944, and later became a Hollywood musical.

Affair

Colette’s second marriage was to a newspaper editor and in 1913 she gave birth to her only daughter, also named Colette, whom she promptly entrusted to a nanny.

Nearing her 50s, she seduced her 17-year-old stepson, with whom she had a five-year affair that ended her marriage.

Her third marriage, to Maurice Goudeket, a businessman and journalist, was happier but their bliss was shattered by World War II when he was among thousands of Jews rounded up in Paris for deportation to the Nazi death camps.

Colette used her connections to secure his release, but in one of the many contradictions of a life lived on her wits, she also wrote for collaborationist magazines.

Despite yearning for the freedom enjoyed by men, she was also scathing about feminists, declaring once: “You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

Bedridden in later years by arthritis, she was the first French woman to be given a state funeral when she died aged 81 in 1954.

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CULTURE

Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.

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