Chéri (1920): Colette


It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Apologies again for flitting in and out rather a lot.  I’ve read quite a lot of books recently, but haven’t been doing much else; and I’ve just discovered the fantastic website LibraryThing, which has finally enabled me to catalogue my books and make a definitive record of what I actually own.  Hopefully it’ll enable me to avoid any duplicate purchases…  If you’re like me, and make a beeline for people’s bookcases on visiting their houses, feel free to take a look at my own collection here.

Anyway, cataloguing my books has brought me back into contact with some old favourites I’d forgotten about, as well as inspiring a major thirst for reading in general.  The local library has done very well out of me recently.  I’ve been posting reviews of books as I read them on LibraryThing, but I’d like to put them here too to keep an extra record.  Over the next few days I’ll post my thoughts on some of the other books I’ve been reading, but I wanted to start with the book that I’ve just finished today: Chéri, by Colette.

I hadn’t read anything by Colette before and I was pleasantly surprised by this lively, sumptuous blend of Dorian Gray, Death in Venice and Anaïs Nin.  It must have caused quite a scandal when it was first published in 1920 and I think part of its appeal is that it still feels so modern.  It’s the story of the courtesan Léa, who at the age of fifty is beginning to have to face a few hard facts about her future, despite all the care she has taken of herself. Although she believes herself immune to love affairs, she has spent the last six years indulging and educating the spoiled and selfish son of her friend – this boy is Chéri (when you find out his name is actually Fred, you thank God for romantic nicknames). Chéri is quite a brat; but Léa, blinded by his beauty and by her own pride in being the only woman in his life. Then she finds out that he is due to be married, and she faces the challenge of disentangling herself from him: a task which turns out to be more difficult than she had anticipated.

To be honest, I can understand that some people wouldn’t enjoy the book.  It’s rather languid and self-indulgent, and Chéri himself is profoundly unsympathetic.  The supporting cast of aging courtesans, with their pretensions to gentility and their gossiping, two-faced friendships, feel like the denizens of a Toulouse-Lautrec print.  And yet, despite all this, I did enjoy it.  It’s been quite some time since I’ve sat down with a book which has revelled with so much unalloyed pleasure in the mastery of sensual language. Much of the credit must go to Roger Senhouse for his English translation, which manages to combine bleak humour with breathless elegy.  And there was definitely more than a hint of Oscar Wilde or Thomas Mann about the central relationship between Léa and her gorgeous protégé.  Here again we see the ruinous quality of relationships between the old and the young: the old spoiled by their infatuation, which is really nothing but a struggle to reclaim their own lost youth; and the young spoiled by the attention paid to their outward beauty, which implies that the world doesn’t care about the quality of the soul within.  And Chéri, like Dorian Gray, can be nasty and immature, despite his looks.

Another thing that rather appealed to me was that Colette manages to do something that Germaine Greer, in her book The Boy, couldn’t do convincingly.  Greer wanted to argue that youthful male beauty in the visual arts is testament to the historical importance of the female gaze; by which she means that paintings of pretty boys were created for women to enjoy.  I thoroughly disagree with that notion: you need only a passing acquaintance with the concept of the ‘Florentine vice’ to see that pretty boys appealed to other markets as well.  But Colette gives us an utterly believable version of the female gaze: its subject is this beautiful young man in the prime of life, surrounded by women, brought up by women, commented on by women, and written about by a woman.  And this female gaze turns out to be no less self-deluding and traitorous than Aschenbach’s gaze at the end of Death in Venice.

Colette delves into all the psychological complexity of an older woman infatuated by a beautiful boy, who realises that, in idolising his beauty, she can only judge herself by the same standards.  By the end of Chéri, poor Léa is no longer the robustly self-assured, independent woman she is at its start.  It’s a sad story, but like many sad stories it’s also sublimely beautiful.  I think I need to read more Colette; although I haven’t yet decided whether to risk watching the recent film of Chéri, for fear it might be disappointing after the verdant freshness of the book.  Has anyone else seen it – is it worth a go?

3 thoughts on “Chéri (1920): Colette

  1. Swati says:

    I arrived at this review of Cheri after hunting around a bit. All I saw were summaries of the book. What I wanted was a critical examination. And I loved it. Really enjoyed reading your review. I just finished reading Cheri myself, and am about to write a review of my own. I might just link your review to mine 🙂

  2. annabellabray33 says:

    And of course Colette herself had an affair in her 40’s with a 16 year old so plenty of material to draw on there! Love this book and all her others, although the Claudine series have the taint of her then-husband and arch-manipulator, Willy…ably portrayed by Dominic West in the new film, ‘Colette’ (2018).

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