Chéri

Colette holds a very special place in my heart. To the extent that it makes any sense to love someone you will never meet and never know, I love her. There has always been a particular quality to her work that makes it more than just clever storytelling, something that means her books give the reader an experience of warmth and strength that is almost tangible. It’s been years since I’ve reread her, but just recently I’ve gone back to two of her most famous novels, Chéri and The Last of Chéri, and it has been interesting to read these books as a woman nearing middle-age, rather than a young woman just starting out, a much better age, in fact, to relate to her admirable main character, the wealthy courtesan, Léa de Lonval.

Chéri begins with an iconic scene: in the rosy light of a boudoir one late morning in high summer, the young, handsome, sardonic toy boy, Chéri, is trying on the pearl necklace of his mistress, Léa de Lonval. Chéri is a bit of a brat, in all honesty, pouty, sulky, demanding, impetuous, but he is exquisitely handsome in a very feminine way, all beautiful lines and silky freshness. And he is Léa’s pet project; when he was embarking on a life of teenage dissipation, Léa decided to take him in hand. She travelled to Normandy with him and fed him up on frothy cream and roast chicken. She engaged an old boyfriend to give him boxing lessons, and she became his mistress. The relationship between them is a passionate one, but it has strong overtones of mother and child. Léa is careful to keep her side of it light and playful; she knows that she will have to give him up to a bride one day, and she knows that as she nears fifty, the relationship is bound to come to a natural end. In the meantime, she scolds him tenderly, fusses over him, invests emotionally in his beauty as if it were her possession.

Knowing she will have to give him up is one thing. When it transpires that Chéri’s wedding has been arranged – to a delicately beautiful but insipid young woman – Léa suffers more than she had anticipated. She lets him go with good grace, acting as if she weren’t troubled in the least by the turn of events. But alone she feels physically ill and realises, sensible woman that she is, that she will have to get away from Paris for a while. That night she packs her bags and leaves for a lengthy tour of the South of France. And then Chéri also begins to suffer from a disconcerting malaise, an inability to be alone with his new wife and a nostalgia so intense and overwhelming that he cannot even trace its contours and name it. One evening he goes out with an old friend of his, Desmond, and simply finds himself unable to go home.

I won’t say any more about how the situation develops. In any case, what makes this book is the way that Léa behaves when faced with this double body blow – the loss of a profound emotional attachment, and the end of her time as an attractive and desirable woman. We are never in doubt of the depth of Léa’s suffering, but we watch her do everything in her power to find recompenses, to make her life as comfortable as it can be, to deal pragmatically and justly with the changes she has to face, and with wit and humour, too. Colette’s women all know that good food, a comfortable, well-kept home, stylish clothes, new people and new places can boost the morale, at least until the worst of the emotions has passed. Léa is a magnificent character – no guilt, no blame, no self-recriminations here. Her pragmatic soul would be outraged by such self sabotage, in a world where there is no lack of people wanting to bring you down. Chéri’s mother, the rather ghastly Charlotte Peroux has long been Léa’s frenemy, and Léa knows that her every expression will be scrutinized as Charlotte tries to beadily spot any indication of her suffering. Léa uses this as a source of energy, and excellent motivation to present a carefree face to the world. It quite cheers her up to take on her old adversary and win. A woman character in a difficult situation showing great kindness and wisdom and unshakeable courage – why aren’t there more of these?

Colette, who had traded off her looks and her vitality for most of her career, had long been preparing herself mentally for middle-age. ‘Don’t cry,’ she wrote. ‘don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure.’ When she wrote this, she had spent the entirety of her life as a cherished child-woman. Her mother was the blueprint for a powerful kind of love that chided and scolded and worried relentlessly, and then Colette had had two relationships in which she was the baby who had to be looked after – first with the publishing impresario, Willy, who looked after her very badly, and then, after an ugly, messy divorce, with an aristocratic older woman. When she wrote Chéri, she was married again, to a rich journalist Henry de Jouvenal, and she felt that for the first time in her life, she had produced a book that was not drawn directly from her own experience.

‘It often happens in Colette’s life that what she writes comes to pass,’ says her biographer, Judith Thurman (in a brilliant biography, Secrets of the Flesh). And what happened next was that Colette embarked on a rather disturbing affair with her stepson, Henry’s son from another liaison, the teenage Bertrand de Jouvenal. He became her Chéri; she fattened him up and bullied him and fussed over him, whilst providing him with a sentimental education that would last for the next five years. Léa-like she didn’t tell him she loved him, either, until it was almost the end.

The Last of Chéri, the companion novel to Chéri, she wrote once her own affair was over. In Chéri it looks as if Léa comes off worse from their encounter, but in The Last of Chéri the situation is turned around, and now it’s Léa who has moved on, to a fat and sexless and utterly content old age, and Chéri who can’t find a place in life without his beloved mother figure. What a way to write a relationship out of your life and gain the upper hand! But did Colette heed her own writing and, at 55, settle down to a gentle retirement with her garden and her cats? Of course she didn’t – she married for the third time, and finally found a relationship that seemed to work for her.

It’s such an intriguing relationship between literature and life, the one we find underlying Colette’s novels. What looks marvellous on the page doesn’t always look so great when acted out in reality. Plus those admirable qualities in her female characters, resilience, tenacity, a chameleon-like ability to re-invent the self, are portrayed sympathetically in her novels, when in life they can equally well be put to the service of what look like mistakes and wrong turnings. Or maybe Colette was such a natural born writer, that she could not help but embellish reality in her mind until it looked like a novel, and the powerful storylines in her novels made her compulsively curious to experience them in real life. Or maybe Colette was just deeply tuned in to the torments that afflict women in their love relationships, partly because she lived them and partly because she wrote about them. She was certainly greedy for it all, was Colette, for all the richness of meaning and sensation that experience could bring her, whether good or bad, and that, at heart, is the message of all her novels: make the very best of what you’ve got and live with all your senses. At 79, when she first tried to keep a diary, she wrote:

‘I should indeed like:

1) To begin again…

2) To begin again…

3) To begin again…’

13 thoughts on “Chéri

  1. I have read very little of Colette –only The Cat, Gigi and Ripening Seed. I saw the film of Cheri recently — it was very disappointing, and rather put me off reading it. But you make it sound wonderful so now I want to. Thanks.

  2. Such a lovely review, Litlove. I have also seen the movie and thought it was one of the best I have seen in a long time. Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic and the pain of the aging beauty and the abandoned lover is palpable. The movie combines both books and we see her have the upper hand in the end as well. I don’t know why Harriet did not like it. I know you are not much into movies but it would interesting to hear your thoughts.
    I have not read it yet but will certainly do so. I savour her books very slowly. I think what I associate the most with Colette is authenticity. I think she is one of those rare writers whose life was as interesting as her books. Maybe not all is true but truly felt.

  3. I have not read much Colette but what I have read I have enjoyed. Cheri, I have not read but I see that I will have to as Lea sounds like a woman I would appreciate even in real life. Lovely review as usual Litlove!

  4. I must, must, must read Colette! Did indeed her real life turn around and become exactly like her book? Is that really truly what happened? Because I have heard so many authors talk about having that happen, that something they wrote in their books came true in real life later. Which…makes me nervous for the things I write myself.

  5. I really loved this when I read it–so glad you recommended it to read first and you write about it in a way I think Colette would have to be pleased. As this has been such a weird year for me I was actually thinking of Lea–not that my situation is anything like hers, but I liked her attitude even if it isn’t one that would necessarily translate into good advice for real living. I sort of like how Colette seemed to reinvent herself over and over–a little dose of that might actually be good.

  6. Lola- oh do try her! I think she is someone special. I’d love to know what you make of her work.

    Nivedita – really, thank you so much for that. This is a new way of writing for me and I feel very inexperienced. I’m so grateful for the encouragement!

    Harriet – definitely you should have a go at Cheri. For you, I’d even suggest trying her hardest but arguably her best work, The Pure and the Impure. Plus her short stories are marvellous. Okay, I’ll stop now.🙂

    Caroline – I do so agree with you – Colette is to be savoured, and I do think that the way her life and work intertwine is fascinating. I had no idea there even WAS a film of Cheri! And I generally like Michelle Pfeiffer. Given that nothing ever could spoil the book for me, I’d have no worries about watching a screen adaptation – I’m curious!

    Karen – I really love her work. She has this way of writing that brings feelings and sensations alive. Often not much happens in her stories, but it doesn’t matter, because you get bathed in a particular world, and one that is especially pleasant to be in.

    Stefanie – I never saw that the first time around, but now I’m older and wiser, I realised how the character of Lea is someone you can’t help but love. Colette had a big tendency to idealise, but with Lea she gets it so right – you see her pain, and her emotional strength. I’d love to know what you think of the book!

    Jenny – yes indeed, it really did happen. But never fear some sort of animistic power of premonition in writing. If her life followed her art it was because Colette decided that it would. Believe me! She was no one’s victim – she went into that affair with her eyes wide open.

    Rebecca – (I will eventually get used to calling you that!) I would so love to know what you think about Colette’s writing. She rewards the patient reader who savours her writing, which I would say matched your profile exactly!

    Danielle – I realise just how inspirational Colette has been for me. She is wonderful at offering instant moral fiber, and I think that Lea really does show how best to go about recovering from a profound emotional injury. I think what happened with Colette was that she couldn’t always live up to the incredible wisdom of her stories, but then that’s just being human (plus she had several major emotional disasters in her life – far worse than you or I could ever dream of doing as she loved bucking convention). Books can do things on paper that we poor flesh and blood creatures can’t. But as good guidelines, you can’t fault her. I can see exactly why you’d think of Lea, and if Lea existed, I think she would be more than ready to be an untiring friend and support!

    Susan – oh thank you, really, I feel a novice at this sort of writing and am really grateful for the encouragement!

  7. I’ve never read any Colette, and this isn’t the first time you’ve made me feel like I need to do so. Cheri sounds like a great place to start, so does the biography. BTW, has anyone ever told you that (based on this portrait of her and photos I’ve seen of you, anyway) that you look quite like her?

  8. I absolutely adore Colette. I think her short stories are perfect gems, and her autobiographical pieces like Sido are so beautiful — like eating a ripe peach. Thanks for this gorgeous review.

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