Coco Chanel: A Biography
By Axel Madsen
First published in 1990, Axel Madsen's biography of Coco Chanel has been recently reprinted widely, unsurprisingly considering the immense renewed interest in her life, most marked by the release of two films (Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and Coco Après Chanel, both 2009) and one disastrous TV movie (Coco Chanel in 2008) about the legendary designer. Where the TV movie was almost unwatchable, Madsen's narrative was barely readable.
Basics first. The book is poorly written. I seriously doubt whether the editor even read it before sending it off to the presses. Chanel's scintillating and eventful life is conveyed with a tediously unvarying use of language. Most sentences either with a noun, a pronoun, or a definite or indefinite article. Some paragraphs are composed entirely of clichéd sentences, reversing the desired effect of romance to nausea. Bloomsbury should also revise its fonts. This one's hieroglyphic touch was laborious to plough through.
In terms of substance, Madsen tries hard to piece together Chanel's story, and to his credit he doesn't spend too much time trying to figure out which of Chanel's accounts is true. Over her lifetime, Chanel may have given several different versions of an incident or whole episode of her life to different friends or acquaintances. Still, when it comes to narrative, there is little Madsen tells us that we don't already know. If anything Madsen strengthen's clichés we all know about Mlle Chanel, never failing to back up some story with one of her famous, curt sayings. One gets little sense of who Chanel was a person. Perhaps this is impossible to accomplish anyway, since she did not keep a diary, nor wrote letters, was generally quite distrustful of people and hence very secretive. Chanel did not believe that she knew anyone who didn't want anything from her, including her friends. She never let anyone close enough to really know her and hurt her. Madsen refers to Chanel as "Gabrielle" (her birth name), "Coco" and "Chanel" interchangeably throughout the text. While some may find this confusing, it is appropriate considering Chanel's stages of personhood, the ones of the past arguably never leaving her despite her success.
Madsen's book is good for a general sketch of Coco Chanel's life, but it's a stylistically stodgy read, and far from intimate portrait. Don't expect any surprises, either. You won't get any.