Chéri by Colette (tr. by Roger Senhouse)

Today sees my next contribution to August’s Women in Translation month (#WITMonth), a brilliant event hosted by Biblibio: Colette’s Chéri, first published in France in 1920.

In the opening pages of this novella, we are introduced to Léa de Lonval, a courtesan in her late-forties, and her young gigolo, Fred, affectionately known as Chéri.

Chéri Peloux, a rather vain and idle twenty-five-year-old with a penchant for pearls, has been living with Léa, a ‘friend’ and sparring partner of his mother‘s, for six years. Léa has, in many ways, been the making of Chéri, transforming him from an undernourished adolescent into a handsome young lover. But now their situation is about to change. Chéri is to be married to Edmée, the daughter of Marie-Laure (another acquaintance of Léa’s), and this development leaves Léa feeling somewhat concerned about her advancing age and the end of her days as a courtesan:

‘What’s the matter?’ Chéri asked.

She looked at him in astonishment. ‘Nothing, I don’t like the rain, that’s all.’

‘Oh! All right, I thought…’

‘What?’

‘I thought something was wrong.’

She could not help giving a frank laugh. ‘Wrong with me, because you’re getting married? No, listen…you’re…you’re so funny.’

She seldom laughed outright, and her merriment vexed Chéri. He shrugged his shoulders and made the usual grimace while lighting a cigarette, jutting out his chin too far and protruding his lower lip.

‘You oughtn’t to smoke before luncheon,’ Léa said.

He made some impertinent retort she did not hear. She was listening to the sound of her own voice and its daily lectures, echoing away down the past five years. ‘It’s like the endless repetition in opposite looking-glasses,’ she thought. Then, with a slight effort, she returned to reality and cheerfulness.

‘It’s lucky for me that there’ll soon be someone else to stop you smoking on an empty stomach.’

‘Oh! she won’t be allowed to have a say in anything,’ Chéri declared. ‘She’s going to be my wife, isn’t she? Let her kiss the sacred ground I tread on, and thank her lucky starts for the privilege. And that will be that.’

He exaggerated the thrust of his chin, clenched his teeth on his cigarette-holder, parted his lips, and, as he stood there in his white silk pyjamas, succeeded only in looking like an Asiatic prince grown pale in the impenetrable obscurity of palaces. (pgs. 30-31, Vintage Books)

There’s so much in the passage I’ve just quoted: Léa’s inner sadness and resignation at the prospect of Chéri’s forthcoming marriage; her determination, outwardly, to put a brave face on things; Chéri’s vanity and air of self-importance. And there’s Chéri’s comment about the role of his bride-to-be. A wife is expected to serve and attend to her husband’s needs; her own voice and opinions are of little importance in this society. In fact, I didn’t feel I got to know Edmée very well at all during the course of this story, but perhaps that’s the author’s intention?

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As the novella progresses we are treated to some wonderfully comic interplay between the main players, especially the three middle-aged women: Léa, Chéri’s mother (Madame Charlotte Peloux) and Marie-Laure, the mother of Chéri’s young bride. Colette portrays Léa and Charlotte Peloux as friendly adversaries, somehow drawing comfort from one another despite their differences. In this scene, at a gathering at Madame Peloux’s house, the guests discuss Chéri and Edmée’s wedding and the mother of the bride, Marie-Laure:

‘Madame Charlotte told us all about the wedding ceremony,’ bleated Madame Aldonza. ‘The young Madame Peloux was a dream in her wreath of orange blossom!’

‘A madonna! A madonna!’ Madame Peloux corrected at the top of her voice, with a burst of religious fervour. ‘Never, never, has anyone looked so divine. My son was in heaven! In heaven, I tell you! … What a pair they made, what a pair!’

‘You hear that, my passion? Orange blossom!’ Lili murmured. ‘And tell me, Charlotte, what about our mother-in-law, Marie-Laure?’

Madame Peloux’s pitiless eyes sparkled: ‘Oh, her! Out of place, absolutely out of place. In tight-fitting, black, like an eel wriggling out of the water – you could see everything, breasts, stomach – everything!’

‘By Jove!’ muttered the Baroness de la Berche with military gusto.

‘And that look of contempt she has for everybody, that look of having a dose of cyanide up her sleeve and half a pint of chloroform inside her handbag! As I said, out of place – that exactly describes her. She behaved as if she could only open spare us five minutes of her precious time –she’d hardly brushed the kiss off her lips, before she said, “Au revoir, Edmée, au revoir, Fred,” and off she flew.’ (pgs. 43-44)

However, it is the changes in Léa and Chéri’s relationship which form the heart of this book. Léa has had a number of other lovers in the past, but Chéri just might be the love of her life. At one point, he openly admits:

‘What I should have liked, or rather what would have been…fitting…decent…is to be your last [lover].’ (pg. 33)

Alone for the first time in many years, Léa is unable to settle, anxious that her beauty is fading. Which of the old crones at Madame Peloux’s house will Léa resemble in ten years’ time?

She drank some water, got out of bed, bathed her inflamed eyes, put on a little powder, poked the fire, and went back to bed. She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known: grief. She had just said goodbye to thirty years of easy living: years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless. (p. 47)

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, apart from saying that my sympathies were with Léa throughout. Luckily for her, she is financially independent at a time when many women had to marry for financial support and survival.

Chéri was my first experience of Colette, and I’d happily read another at some point. I enjoyed the richness of Colette’s prose and the wonderful evocation of the period.

Other information on ColetteLizzi at These Little Words posted a very interesting piece on Colette (which prompted me to try one of her books), and Max at Pechorin’s Journal has reviewed Gigi and The CatGigi sounds as if it would make a delightful companion piece to Chéri.

My edition of Chéri (tr. by Roger Senhouse) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy.

36 thoughts on “Chéri by Colette (tr. by Roger Senhouse)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Susan. Yes, it’s such a poignant passage, isn’t it? I wonder how Colette’s books would compare to your memories if you revisited one or two of them now? I kind of wish I’d read her in my twenties!

      Reply
  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I couldn’t help but feel that this sounds like a dramatic play and wonder if it was ever produced as such, so much of the story and character description is cleverly put across in dialogue, which the writer seems to excel at.

    I do love how this month of reading #womenintranslation has us searching the shelves for hidden volumes. I am not sure if this one has been on your shelf for long, but it just reminded me of that, and that is why I am reading Simone de Beauvoir first.

    I have not read any of Colette and had the same thought when Claire @Maudie43 mentioned she had read all Simone de Beauvoir’s works in her twenties. If only I had studied literature, I think I actually stopped reading for a while in my 20’s. Making up for it now :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s an interesting point, Claire, and I agree that the dialogue and story would suit a theatrical setting. As far as I’m aware Chéri has never been adapted for the stage, but there are one or two film versions. Unfortunately, the most recent one sounds like a complete dud if The Guardian’s review is anything to go by – it’s one of Peter Bradshaw’s classic one-star reviews.

      Chéri hasn’t been on my shelf for very long, but you’re right, Biblibio’s focus on women in translation has prompted me to seek out a few older classics…so I bought Chéri and Bonjour Tristesse (which I won’t get to in August, but will keep for a dull moment in winter!). It’s so easy to fall into the habit of reading and reviewing the latest ‘buzz’ books/new releases and I’m guilty of doing that myself.

      Simone de Beauvoir – now, there’s another author I’ve yet to read…

      Reply
      1. naomifrisby

        It’s interesting you say that Claire but I did study literature and the bookish people I converse with on Twitter have made me very aware of the many gaps I have in my reading; I’d never heard of Colette until a month ago.

        (I’m about to read my first Simone de Beauuvoir too although it’s The Second Sex – felt like I couldn’t have that gap if I’m going to be writing about gender.)

        Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d like her, Ali, and If you scroll down to Kaggy’s comment, you’ll see that she’s come up with some great suggestions on Colette’s books.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I read everything by Colette in my 20s and absolutely adored her. Although this is one of her most famous works, I don’t necessarily think it’s her best. I get so much more out of something like “Break of Day”, a later, semi-autobiographical novel which is marvellous and evocative. I’d highly recommend her short stories as well – you can get them in a complete volume.

    Reply
  3. erdeaka

    wonderful review, Jacqui. and wonderful story, too. I like it when people questioning about the point of being a woman like what I perceive from your review. it’s very mind-provoking.

    Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I think that as Guy’s comment illustrates, aging courtesans do often pop up in really good literature. Perhaps there is a paradox there that is fascinating.

    I agree that the dialog is so well written. I find that such writing is key to developing great characters.

    Super commentary as always Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, I’m sure they do, although I’m woefully under-read when it comes to these literary classics! In fact, your and Guy’s comments remind me that I really ought to read Les Liaisons Dangereuses at some point. So many novels, so little time…

      Yep, there’s some terrific dialogue here. Thanks for your comments, Brian!

      Reply
  5. naomifrisby

    Great review, Jacqui. Colette’s someone who’s only been mentioned to me recently and that final quotation in your review really makes me want to read her work.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Naomi. I’ve been aware of Colette for many years but had never got around to reading her. Did you see Lizzi’s (These Little Words) post on Colette on month or so ago, the one with the lovely collection of novels borrowed from her mother? I forgot to include a link to her piece, but it prompted me to give Colette a whirl myself. And then a week or so later I saw Chéri going for half price in the Blackwell’s sale, so I snapped it up.

      That final quote’s so poignant, isn’t it? It seems to capture the essence of one of the novel’s key themes. I’m sure you’d like Colette, and I imagine she’d fit right in with your forthcoming studies too.

      Reply
  6. Scott W.

    Funny, I just picked up Colette this past weekend (Chance Acquaintances and Julie de Carneilhan), and reading her again was like washing up on a welcome shore after a long time at sea. Her perceptions of people and their varying degrees of relationship are so acute and generous. I haven’t read the Cheri books; everything else I’ve read by her, though, has been rewarding.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      How funny – what a coincidence, Scott. There’s something quite comforting about returning to a familiar author after a long break.

      I feel I’m a bit of a latecomer as far as Colette’s concerned, but better late than never. That’s a great point about her perceptiveness; the society scenes in Chéri are very acutely observed. Good to hear that you’ve enjoyed some of her other books, too.

      Reply
  7. Fleur in her World

    I read Colette very young, and I really must go back because I am sure I would appreciate her far more now. But I have a book I didn’t read back then – Missou – that I found in a charity shop last week, and I’m hoping to find time for it before the month ends.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’ll be interesting to see how you find Colette now, Fleur. That sounds like a good choice for Women in Translation month if you can get to it before August slips through our fingers.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Lizzi. I should include a link to your Colette post – would that be okay with you? Sorry, I should have mentioned this before now!

      I hope you enjoy Chéri; it feels so evocative of the period.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I read Colette’s two novellas Gigi, and The Cat (published in one volume, review back at mine) last year. I loved Gigi, didn’t take to The Cat. I’ve been looking at this one for a while unsure whether to get it or not given I had a 50/50 hit rate with Colette, but this sounds squarely on the Gigi side quality-wise and an absolute delight. Nice review as ever and I’ll pick a copy up hopefully before the year’s out.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ooh, I’ll head over to yours for a read of your thoughts on Gigi and The Cat. I enjoyed this one, Max. Loved Léa’s character and the society scenes, although Chéri himself does come across as a bit of a drama queen at times!

      I haven’t read any de Maupassant, but this sounds great especially in light of the moral questions and tensions at play. Thanks for that link, Max.

      Reply
  9. Elena

    I have to admit I have never read Colette, and I know I should. I have to. However – and this is in no way an excuse – I watched the movie adaptation for Cherie and I quite enjoyed it. As I was reading your review I could help but to picture Léa as Michelle Pfeiffer. Have you watched it? Maybe you won’t like it, it’s a Hollywood adaptation after all, but I was curious.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I’m quite open to film adaptations, even Hollywood ones, as long as they’re good (or if they bring something new/different to the party). I haven’t seen the recent Chéri one, but I can imagine Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Léa – glad you enjoyed it, Elena! Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I really enjoyed you review. In reference to some of the comments above, when I was in my twenties I had a female friend* who loved Colette and I always meant to read her. I still haven’t and feel even worse about that now!
    *I really wanted to say ‘knew a girl’ but my 17 year old students recently laughed at me for calling them girls!

    Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, isn’t it? You know, it’s funny…I rarely see Colette’s books on display in bookshops these days. She seems to have fallen out of fashion, unjustly so in my opinion.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I bet your gran had some lovely editions. My mum had a few of her novels, but I fear they’ve all but disappeared over the course of various house moves.

          Reply

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