Judith Thurman is the biographer of two of the most remarkable and beguiling women writers of the early twentieth century. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller is the comprehensive account of the Danish woman born Karen Christentze Dinesen, best known as the author of the 1937 memoir Out of Africa. In Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, Thurman’s subject is the French novelist whose first works were published by her first husband as his own, and who later reinvented herself as the flamboyant performer and iconoclast who has been called our first literary superstar.
Thurman began her career as a translator of writers including the seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the sixteenth-century French lyric poet Louise Labé. “Biography and translation are related enterprises,” Thurman has said. “In neither case does a literal transcription produce the most desirable result: it refuses the risks—the deep adventure—of the poetry… When one translates the story of another life—an epic with many ellipses, lost passages, and obscure references—it is always into one’s own sentences, and if the essential question of biography is Who are you?, the only way to hold a steady course toward the answer is to keep asking, at frequent intervals, Who am I?”
Thurman has written dozens of essays about artists and writers who share an extraordinary capacity for self-invention, many of which are collected in Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire. As a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2000, her subjects have included American poets Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, French writers Gustave Flaubert and André Malraux, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, and the Italian hoax-artist Tommaso Debenedetti, whose interviews with prominent writers like Philip Roth and Gore Vidal caused a scandal when they turned out to be completely made-up.
Thurman’s honors include the National Book Award for Isak Dinesen, which has been translated into 12 languages and served as the basis for the Sydney Pollack film Out of Africa. Her biography of Colette won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography and the Salon Book Award for biography.
‘The Writer’s Twin: On Translation & Biography’
Judith Thurman interviewed by Travis Nichols
Thurman on Flaubert for the New Yorker
Thurman on Edna St. Vincent Millay
Thurman on Emily Dickinson
Thurman on André Malraux
Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire (2007)
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (1999)
Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (1983)