Reading books from 1920
Here I share my thoughts on Colette’s Chéri, so naturally, I shall begin by quoting from Chaucer’s The Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale, Canterbury Tales (circa 1387): “For bet than never is late”. Or to express it in more modern parlance: better late than never.
I should explain. This post was due to appear at some point between the 13th and 19th April for Karen and Simon’s 1920 Club. Unfortunately, although I read the book and made copious notes during the designated period, I neglected to write my analysis, until now, almost three weeks after the event. In my defence, I should like to point out that such laxity was partly the result of a coronashutdown-induced writing lethargy (in the fullness of time, this condition will probably be given a snappy medical title and appear in The Lancet), and did not occur because I disliked or was bored by the novel – quite the reverse, I’m pleased to report.
I therefore send a squillion apologies to the fabulous hosts of this popular reading jolly, who have recently revealed their next event, the 1956 Club, will take place from 5th to 11th October 2020.
“…she lunched in solitary bliss, with a smile for the dry Vouvray and for the June strawberries, served with their stalks, on a plate of Rubelles enamel as green as a tree-frog after rain.”
Sidonie‐Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), the French author widely acknowledged as the first literary feminist (though she always insisted on her political antifeminism), based much of her fiction on personal memories. She wrote this novella as she was turning 47 and it is rumoured to be based on her own experiences.
Chéri is the pet name for Fred Peloux, a thoroughly spoiled, petulant and idle 25-year old man-child, described as having “hair with the blue sheen of a blackbird’s plumage” and with a penchant for pearls. His 49-year-old mistress, Léa de Lonval, is a “richly kept courtesan”, still beautiful but nearing the end of her “successful career”.
This absurdly moody playboy is the son of Léa’s friend-cum-rival, Charlotte Peloux, and she has devoted her middle years to furthering his erotic education. Their relationship could hardly be described as romantic in the fluffily over-sentimental sense of the word, and they frequently glare at each other with “open hostility”, but both in their own ways are devoted to each other – she captivated by his youthful ardour and beauty, he beguiled by her passion and worldly sophistication. It appears to me their affection stems from a combination of sexual desire and maternal longing.
After six years together, the time has come for Chéri to commit to an advantageous marriage, leading the lovers to realise how deeply connected they have become. Their relationship must now end but secretly neither one of them wants this to happen. As we follow them through the final few weeks of their affair, it becomes apparent their bonds will not easily be severed.
Chéri is something of cautionary tale in that it exposes the tragedy of self-delusion and the cruelty of time. Colette described it as her most “moral” work, and critics aplenty have declared it a masterpiece – indeed, no one could deny it was one of her most ambitious works. It was, however, considered scandalous in its day.
Penned in Colette’s typically impressionistic style, this opulent Belle Époque-steeped tale depicts the city during one of its most glamourous, culturally exciting periods – an era so far removed from our current life under lockdown, it may as well be set on a different planet. The novel is a witty, sensual, perceptive, and psychologically shrewd account of middle-age indulgence, which transports one to the salons and boudoirs of turn-of-the-century Paris.
Published in France in 1920, my 2001 Vintage edition was translated by Roger Stenhouse. It was followed by a sequel, La Fin de Chéri (The Last of Chéri), in 1926.
“I’ve had other naughty little boys through my hands, more amusing than Chéri, more likeable, too, and more intelligent. But all the same, never one to touch him.”