Colette through her own words; Colette, a Biography, by Michele Sarde. New York: William Morrow & Co. $12.95.

For many readers, the name Colette is enough to evoke the early years of 20 th-century France. Both in her own life, and through her, for the times, outrageously frank novels, Colette epitomized the Belle epoque in Paris.

Michele Sarde's extraordinary book goes beyond biography, weaving Colette's writing seamlessly into the story of her own life and letting her speak for herself. As Sarde tells it, Colette's is the tale of a freedom-seeking woman in an age of male domination, a journey to liberation. She anchors her subject brilliantly, re-creating the age and its spirit -- the Parisian literary world, the Dreyfus affair, two world wars.

Gabrielle Colette grew up in paradise -- her loving mother's house in the Burgundy countryside. Colette was a child of nature, running wild in the garden and woods.

At 20 she married the aristocratic, tyrannical, misery rake-about-town Henri Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy), 14 years her senior, and went to Paris. There the provincial girl, paralyzed with shyness before all the luminaries of the day -- Proust, Anatole France, Debussy, Oscar Wilde -- trailed around miserably with her husband, living, a "dull bohemian life" and suffering his innumerable infidelities.

Willy had made himself a literary celebrity without ever writing a word. He had a stable of ghost writers, all ignorant of each other's existence, who turned out novels and articles for him. Before long he put his wife to work in his factory. He locked her up for hours every day, forcing her to write her childhood memories. "Claudine a L'Ecole" was published under his name, and became the talk of Paris. Three more Claudine books followed and continued to delight the public with their titillating episodes (suggested by Willy) and thinly disguised references to Parisian society.

When Colette was 33, Willy showed her the door, and she sheltered for a while under the protection of the Marquise de Barbeuf, her lesbian friend. She turned to vaudeville to earn a living, and this demimondainm life appeared later in the Cheri books. She married again and became a baroness. Her husband Henri de Jouvenel was an influential editor of the newspaper Le Matin, but as much of a Don Juan as Willy had been.

And so on. At 40, she gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter. Another divorce, another marriage, money troubles. Through it all Colette had the courage to ignore society's opinion. She kept a pet panther, cut her hair, wore men's clothes if she felt like it, and refused to lose her provincial accent.

Colette always claimed she had no vocation for writing, and did not regard her craft as sacrosanct. Without Willy, she might have written nothing. Yet she became an established femme de lettres:m literary editor of Le Matin, drama critic, columnist, and novelist. She was the first woman elected to the Academie Concourt, and was made commanders of the Legion d'Honneur. She wrote to the end. At 71, she published "gigi."

Colette's work was criticized for not being "intellectual," for portraying "mere life." But it still speaks to us through its freshness and immediacy, through its evocation of the light and the earth. In her work, her human warmth is ever present. "One writes, but the only good thing is living," she once said. This is a faschinating study of her life.

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