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…’
‘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, not to mention 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?
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, save to say 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 Colette: Lizzi 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 Cat – Gigi 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.