Colette’s Chéri opens in 1912, in pre-World War I Paris, yet given the setting and the characters, we could be in a 19th century novel. Chéri, whose unglamorous real name is Fred, is the only son of a former courtesan, Charlotte Peloux. Chéri was raised in the demi-monde world of women, which probably goes a long way to explaining his behaviour. When the novel opens, Chéri is in the bedroom of yet another retired courtesan, Léa. Unlike the usual fate of the tragic, worn out courtesan, Léa has done very well for herself. She lives in luxury. Chéri is in Léa’s boudoir, playing with, and demanding her pearl necklace as “it looks just as good on me as it does on you, even better!”
In front of the rose-colored curtains suffused with sunlight, he was dancing, all black, like a graceful devil with an inferno at his back. When he drew away toward the bed, he turned all white again from his silk pajamas to his doeskin babouches. […]
He stood, facing a full-length mirror that was mounted on the wall between the two windows, and gazed at his image: that of a very beautiful, very young man, neither tall nor short, his hair tinged with blue like the plumage of a blackbird. He opened his pajama top to reveal an olive-hued, firmly muscled chest, rounded like a shield, and an identical pink spark played on his teeth, on the whites of his dark eyes, and on the pearl of the necklace.
At this point, he seems like a gigolo, fresh flesh for Léa, “a well-heeled courtesan,” whose work days, at age 49, are over. Chéri certainly acts like a gigolo, a boy-toy, lounging around in an opulent boudoir. He’s spoiled, bores easily, playing with, and demanding jewels, but there’s more to Chéri than meets the eye. He’s intelligent, has a slight miserly touch and has invested his money wisely.
Six years ago, Léa ‘saved’ Chéri. She scraped him up from a wastrel life of debauchery, fed him, petted him, recuperated his health through training with a boxer, and gradually his health returned They’ve had an “affair” or as Léa calls it “an adoption” since then. Léa, sharing her life and her bed with Chéri, is the envy of all of her female friends.
Chéri and Léa’s lives are about to change dramatically, and so the book’s opening scene between Léa and Chéri is a sort of farewell. Chéri is be married in an arranged match to Edmée, the 18-year-old daughter of yet another one of Chéri‘s mother’s circle. There’s a meeting at the Peloux house with Chéri, his mother, Edmée and her mother, and, curiously, Léa in attendance. Edmée has led a sheltered life, and she seems terrified yet resigned as she looks with “unaffected dread” at the mention of the wedding. “Léa wasn’t the least but mistaken about the bewildered, defeated look” in Edmée’s eyes. But just as Chéri has hidden depths so does Edmée. She knows just how to handle Chéri, mainly by shrinking and minimizing his role in her life.
These two short novels follow the life of Chéri and his relationships. Chéri and Léa were inseparable for 6 years, but once Chéri leaves for his honeymoon, Léa’s supposed to smile and sail on. All her female friends are watching her with the acid hope that she will collapse with grief and that of course will spoil her well-preserved looks.
At first I expected a sort of love story, but no, this is a tale of finding one’s place in the world, having purpose and adjusting to change. The second novel, The End of Chéri, finds Chéri a WWI veteran who returns to find a world in which he is superfluous. Everyone, even Léa has adapted to the change.
Review copy. Translated by Paul Eprile.
You must be logged in to post a comment.