Chéri, by Colette, tr. Senhouse, Vintage 2001(1920), 122pp.
Believing that I had mislaid my copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (when in fact it was just deep in the innards of my knapsack), I spent some time looking for something to read at the Heathrow book shop. Everything seemed too hyped and gimmicky until I saw a slim volume by Colette. Women adore this author, I reflected, and maybe I should read her. Also, as often happens, I thought of an early photo of P pointedly reading Anaïs Nin. Or maybe the idea of a courtesan's big bed just appealed to me before a long plane flight.
I should have found Fred (Chéri) really annoying. He is the spoilt son of of Mme Peloux, who in turn is the colleague in coquetry of the magnificent Léa. Léa, almost as a favor, but with a small shock of passion, takes Cheri to the countryside for a rest cure and they become lovers for nearly 5 years, whereupon he is 25 and she is 49. After this, Mme Peloux arranges a marriage for Fred, and he must leave Léa. The catch is, Léa and Fred find that they were the grand passions of each other's lives. Fred's real feelings for Léa made me like him in the end, even if he thought Léa's pearls looked better on him. Léa herself -- competent, generous, gorgeous, alone -- does the right thing at the poignant end.
I kept telling myself that this was not a novel of a younger man and older woman, though of course it is. But Chéri's situation is not trite -- in a way the age difference is just another kind of Love Problem. Coincidentally (or not), the 2009 movie of Chéri was showing on the plane. I did not watch it on the way out. I suspected that there would be unkind close-ups of Michelle Pfeiffer. But I watched it on the way back, and she looked splendid (on the 8-inch screen). Great hats, too. The movie was very faithful to the text: clearly there are scenes etched on many readers' memories. However, it gives away the ending (in slightly cheesy narration) of the second book, The Last of Chéri.
The writing is good, and there are plenty of flowers and food. It can make your plane flight feel like First Class.
This young man with the lack-lustre eyes, though he knew just how to perform the wearing and difficult duties of a parasite, had just yielded to curiosity and blamed himself for such rashness. Chéri, circumspect and at the same time highly elated, never stopped talking about Léa.
Suggestions for the next work by Colette that I should read are welcome. The Last of Chéri is an obvious choice, but I liked the ending where it was.
John wrote: I read these two books, Cheri and Last of Cheri, at Harvard and loved them. Colette was one of my early passions in the novel arena. I think I found the Last of Cheri unbeliavably poignant at the end--I've never forgotten the ending--so I recommend it.
Giovanni wrote: In addition to The Last of Chéri, I enjoyed Sido and Gigi (really easy French, too, which gave me a sense of accomplishment). Have never read Le Blé en herbe, either, but it has always intrigued me because it is supposedly set somewhere around Cancale and St. Malo. Never read any of the poetry, either, but it is supposed to be good (sort of a French Sappho, I hear).