Started off OK and then quickly turned into rubbish.
The French writer Colette was indifferent and even hostile to the feminist movement in the early 1900s. But both her writing and the way she lived her life represent a vibrant and radical feminism in tune with the #MeToo spirit of today.
Born in rural Burgundy in 1873, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (the abbreviated pen name came later) belonged to a middle class but unorthodox family. Raised by a mother who was as sceptical of religion as she was of bourgeois respectability, she was 20 when she married Henri Gauthiers-Villars (“Willy”), the 33-year-old charming but dissolute writer son of a family friend.
The marriage was both a good and a bad move for Colette. Willy introduced her to the rich Bohemian culture of the Parisian demimonde, and launched her career by insisting (despite her reluctance) that she write down memories of her schooldays.
But his serial infidelities distressed and depressed her. And as an unscrupulous literary entrepreneur, Willy cheerfully sold his wife’s semi-autobiographical “Claudine” novels under his own name.
The stories of a spirited, tomboyish heroine rapidly became a publishing sensation, with profitable sales of related merchandise including Claudine cigarette holders. But the profits were all Willy’s.
When, in her early 30s, Colette decided to leave the marriage, she had to find a way to support herself. Energetic and resourceful, she began to publish under her own name and took classes in dance and mime. She trained in the gym and went on stage, becoming the only great French author (to my knowledge) to have alternated writing with dancing semi-nude on stages all over France.
She combined her careers, writing both fiction and non-fiction set behind the scenes of the music hall, giving a voice to the underpaid women performers who featured so often from a male perspective in paintings and novels of the time. She also began a passionate affair with a cross-dressing lesbian aristocrat, Missy, and scandalised the nation by sharing a passionate kiss with her on stage.
Director Wash Westmoreland’s recent film about Colette takes us to this point in her colourful career. She would go on to write prolifically as a journalist, novelist, essayist and innovator in the blended genre of “autofiction”.
She would nurse in World War I, marry twice more, bear a daughter at the age of 40, bolster her flagging finances by opening a beauty parlour – and finally become, for the French, “our great Colette”. But a whiff of scandal was still attached to her name, and acceptance of her as a great writer was slow.
The Catholic Church even refused to grant her a religious funeral (although she would have agreed with the Church, for religion formed no part of her passionate love of life.)
Sex and sensuality
Westmoreland’s film, starring the British actor Keira Knightley, shines a deserved spotlight on an important feminist figure. From the Claudine series on, Colette gives us a serenely irreverent perspective on a patriarchal culture.
She reverses the gaze of heterosexual desire to provide sensual, detailed descriptions of male bodies, and writes with equal sensuality and precision of same-sex desire. She writes movingly of romantic love and motherhood but insists, in her novel Break of Day that both are also peripheral to a woman’s life:
Once we’ve left them both behind, we find that all the rest is gay and varied, and that there is plenty of it.
In life, as in writing, she places female friendship centre-stage, sometimes subverting the eternal triangle by making its primary focus the relationship between a man’s wife and his mistress. She often published in women’s magazines, right up to her death in 1954 (Elle serialised her final books), and wrote comically and caustically of trying to make her own robust, food-loving body fit into the willowy fashions of the inter-war years.
In a very public life, as in her fiction, she exemplified financial and social independence and shame-free sexuality – what we would now call “gender fluidity”. She possessed a generous optimism that went against the grain of the angst and despondency which characterised so much male literature of the 20th century.
She remained, throughout, a popular writer. An author read for pleasure, for the sensuality of her prose, the dry note of humour that peppers her eloquence, the lightness of touch that means her seriousness is never heavy or self-important.
One of France’s greatest – and certainly most unconventional – writers, she has been translated – often brilliantly – into other languages. Her appearance on cinema screens should bring her even more readers.
Writings on South African liberation struggle icon Winnie Mandela almost all fall into one of two categories – either hagiography or demonology. These two books – Truth, Lies and Alibis. A Winnie Mandela Story, by Fred Bridgland and Sisonke Msimang’s The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela. A Biography of Survival, try to be more nuanced.
Bridgland was a correspondent for Britain’s leading right-wing newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. For years, he dispatched empathetic reports on an anti-communist hero of the cold war, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement, which were at war with Angola’s ruling MPLA – an ally of the ANC.
Readers might take it for granted that anything he writes would be hostile to the ANC. So Bridgland makes a point of prefacing his book on Winnie Mandela by first placing on record that Savimbi became paranoiac, and committed massacres of entire families of his leading officials. Bridgland is currently writing up these atrocities; in effect he attempts to so show his even-handedness.
Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, has also written articles for the New York Times, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera. She writes near the start of her biography: “I will not pretend otherwise: I am interested in redeeming Ma Winnie”.
But towards the end, she writes: “It is deeply uncomfortable to acknowledge Winnie’s involvement in Stompie’s death, and in the disappearances of Lolo Sono and Sibuniso Tshabalala, while also holding her up as a hero.
She qualifies her views further:
In a perfect world, her place is not on a pedestal… I am prepared to raise her up in the hopes that, one day, South Africans might ethically and in good conscience take her down.(p.157)
Msimang also writes in her conclusion that she’s even prepared to say give up her admiration for the complicated Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. “I cannot do so, however, without a few conditions … The past must be opened up not just to grief, but to the structural nature of racism.” She means the class exploitation coloured by colonialism and finally apartheid.
This review needs to start with three disclosures. This reviewer is a member of the African National Congress. He is also a friend of the Horst Kleinschmidt mentioned in Bridgland’s book. And he has, in the company of others, briefly met Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zindi Mandela, and Nelson Mandela.
The issues these two biographies raise, of liberators’ wartime actions, are not unique to South Africa. For example, post-WW2 readers, with their knowledge of the holocaust of six million Jews and three million Christian Poles, also have to debate Bomber Harris’ saturation bombing of German residential downtown areas and suburbs.
In chapter two Bridgland summarises the South African police’s Special Branch’s persecution of her. The remaining 27 chapters and epilogue summarise Madikizela-Mandela’s persecution of others. The overwhelming majority of facts in his book were published two decades ago – and never refuted.
His book also flags the issue of those who lobbied the then Chief Justice Corbett about Winnie’s pending trial. This included the then Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee, the then head of the National Intelligence Service Neil Barnard, and the then British ambassador Robin Renwick. He evidently didn’t rebuke any of them.
Msimang’s most persuasive arguments are when she points out the sexist double-standards in much of the condemnation of Zanyiwe Madikizela, better known as Winnie Mandela. She emphasises that it’s strange to perceive Winnie’s actions as motivated by psychiatric reasons rather than political.
She highlights that Winnie was not a radical outlier, but that during 1985-86 many ANC leaders and Radio Freedom, the then banned ANC’s underground radio station, made similar statements about insurrection, killing informers, and necklaces:
Winnie was not the only ANC leader who traded in recklessness and fiery rhetoric. But she was the only woman who was visibly doing so. (p.13)
Msimang also points out that Harry Gwala and other ANC warlords were committing in substance the same actions as Winnie Mandela, but with far less condemnation.
The same double-standards also apply to men and women political leaders having adulterous affairs:
If the roles had been reversed and you had been imprisoned, things would have been very different. Nelson would have remarried and you would have languished forgotten on the island, and it would have been no reflection on him. Men have needs. Women sacrifice.
Unsurprisingly, two such contrasting biographies also differ over the facts. Bridgland writes that the two hit men who assassinated Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat – the Black consciousness exponent and doctor who tended to Stompie after his brutally assault to which Madikizela-Mandela was part – gave statements that Winnie Mandela had offered them R20 000 to kill him. Msimang writes that these were merely “rumours” and “No link has ever been established between Dr. Asvat’s death and Winnie Mandela.”
The controversy continues in death as in life.