Michele Roberts on the novels of Colette

Colette has meant a lot to me both because of the books she wrote and the life she led. As a young writer in the 1970s, entering a literary world that was still dominated by masculine precepts and models, I sought for a tradition of fiction-writing that suggested possibilities of writing riskily, authentically, differently. Colette was a major modernist, producing a new sort of novel. I believe that the life she lived helped her to do this.

Colette is a writer beloved of other writers for the excellence of her style. She is beloved of women, in particular, for her courage in raising two fingers to the moral and literary establishments of her time. A female writer could be made to feel, if she wanted to commit herself to art as opposed to producing pretty verses for reciting in drawing rooms, that she was less a real woman than some sort of monster. You could deny these splits or, as a good modernist allowing your work to show the traces of how it was made, let them inspire you, build them into your writing. You could live a male-identified life, making male-defined art, or you could redefine what it meant to be a woman, which is what most of the female modernists did. Bursting out of Victorian conventions of femininity, Jean Rhys, Nathalie Barney, H D, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, to name just a few, belong in this gang. And Colette, bursting out of the misogyny of the belle epoque, belongs with them.

Colette's life, like her art, was transgressive. She invented new forms for the novel, blending fantasy, sensual realism, letters, fictional autobiography and poetry to create not just one masterpiece, but many; and she disobeyed the male rules about being a good woman and a single-minded artist. As well as publishing many novels and short stories, she wrote for film, opera and theatre, was a war correspondent, an arts journalist, founded beauty salons and sold her own recipe face cream, toured in music-hall revues, posed semi-naked for soft-porn tableaux and photos, trained as a gymnast and a mime, and was an excellent pianist. She went in for all sorts of sexual liaisons, including threesomes and an affair with her stepson. She was beautiful, but she was very greedy, too, and didn't care that she ended up extremely fat. She cannot be fixed in one category, either as a person or a writer. She was too contradictory. Judith Thurman, in her recent biography Secrets of the Flesh, notes that Colette would not have wanted a simple Woolfian room of her own; she would have gone for pink villas complete with swimming pools, flash cars and handsome young chauffeurs.

It is easy for the sort of young feminist I was to seek out simple, two-dimensional heroines. With Colette, that was impossible. She denied any interest in feminism, to start with. She denied any vocation to be a novelist, but wrote bestsellers that were acclaimed as great literature. In her early adult life, she had frequent lesbian affairs, but was ambivalent about the value of same-sex love. Despite writing adoringly about her mother, Sido, she proved incapable of loving her own daughter, and effectively abandoned her. She was anti-Semitic, like others of her time, despite adoring her Jewish husband, Maurice Goudeket. That is certainly a troubling flaw in her character.

Colette's earliest experiences of language showed her its teasing ambiguities and capacity for deception. Words could create not truth, but illusion. Throughout her childhood, Colette's charming and handsome father, a former captain in the Zouaves, a disabled war veteran turned tax collector, shut himself away in his study in order to write. After his death, when the family took down his carefully titled manuscript books and reverently opened them, they discovered that every single one was completely blank. When she left home, Colette stopped using her given name, Gabrielle, renamed herself Colette, her father's surname, and filled in his blanks.

It was Sido who dominated her children's lives in their Burgundian paradise in the village of Saint-Sauveur. Years later, Colette wrote about her mother as a fiercely benevolent and independent-minded country goddess, steeped in intuitive wisdom, who took her dog to church and read novels during the sermon, as much a keen thinker as she was an expert in arcane housewifely lore. It all sounds so quaintly rustic, but the family was, in fact, deeply middle class, and kept three servants and a carriage. Under the beautiful surface of the prose in a book such as Break of Day lurk hints of Sido's possessiveness, her capacity for domination, even cruelty. Like Persephone, Colette had to keep tearing herself away from this too-enveloping love and, right to the end of her life, she wrote compulsively about power struggles between lovers.

The first male god who carried Colette away was Willy, the infamous entrepreneur who kept a factory of hacks ghosting his novels and soon put his young wife to work among them. The Claudine novels, based on Colette's Willy-driven fantasy memories of her country childhood, spiced up with a bit of frou-frou naughtiness, took France by storm. They, and the film version of Gigi, starring the creepy Maurice Chevalier, fixed Colette in the popular imagination over here as merely a decadent It Girl. But when you read novels such as Cheri or La Vagabonde, you discover Colette's profundity, compassion, precise observation, huge vocabulary and originality. I learnt from her that, to write about women, you have to make things up in order to tell truths that have not been told before. She knew all about faking it as the pursuit of art.

Michele Roberts's most recent novel is The Looking Glass (Little, Brown, £15.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth