The day began with an early morning interview with Judith Thurman, the distinguished biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette, and writer for the New Yorker on fashion and books. We begin by talking about Michelle Obama and fashion. Judith speaks of Michelle’s achievement: like Jackie Kennedy, and unlike Princess Diana, she has understood the need to “mount the pedestal, hold your pose, and create a persona,” to fulfil the role of “old-fashioned consort” to the holder of office. Judith thinks that Michelle has been able to speak to different elements of America, including the majority of the population which keeps to a core of puritan, old-fashioned values.
Michelle’s is a “robust glamour,” though, with none of her feisty, opinionated intelligence reined in, and sexy too—a “wholesome marital sexuality,” as Judith puts it. All this explains her consistently high approval ratings (80 per cent) throughout the year, independent of the vicissitudes of her husband’s political life.
I ask Judith whether the eight years she spent on her biography of Colette were a labour of love, to which she replies “definitely not a labour of love, but a labour of literature”. Clearly there is a selfless aspect to biography, she contends, in one’s quest to understand every last detail and strain to another person’s life; but this is also a project about one’s self in which, as perhaps in the practice of Buddhism, one encounters “objections, impasses, antipathies and idealizations” of one’s own along the way.
Some aspects of Colette’s life (1873 – 1954) are plainly disagreeable to Judith: her occasional cruelty, and acute selfishness, and her far from courageous attitude in the second world war (in which she was successful in playing the system during the occupation to ensure her and her husband’s daily survival, but in which she wrote for anti-semitic publications and would, Judith contended, have thrown her lot in with whichever side had won).
We conclude with a conversation about Judith’s career at the New Yorker, a career in part captured in her recent volume of essays Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, the Spanish version of which has just been published in Colombia. Judith speaks of the intensity and vibrancy of life at the publication, and of her devotion to writing, and writing well.
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