Book Review: Colette’s “Chéri” and “The End of Chéri” — Tales of Love and Morality
By Roberta Silman
A superb new translation in one volume of the two Chéri novellas, regarded as Colette’s masterwork.
Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette, Translated by Rachel Careau. W.W. Norton, 294 pages, $26.95.
Like many female writers of the 20th century, Colette received a real boost during the women’s rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s. One of my most vivid memories of working with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence in the early ’70s (I got my MFA from there in 1975) was hearing her speak with tender affection about My Mother’s House and Sido. And her indignation when we talked about the Claudine books, that “her horrible first husband Willy claimed to have written after he locked her in a room until she had produced a certain number of words every day.” Then how that gutsy Frenchwoman had written about the most mundane details of domestic life, thus making it easier for us to write our domestic tales, as well. Grace also noted the apparently charming whitewash of Colette’s time “on the halls,” both in the 1942 novella Gigi, which had been made into a film, not once but twice. The most recent was the 1958 MGM musical blockbuster starring Leslie Caron.
But, as the years passed and I learned more about Colette, I realized that this feisty woman, adored by so many, especially in France, was much more complicated than she seemed when I was young. She pushed sexual boundaries farther than anyone of her time, and she had an obsessively narcissistic streak — what Angela Carter (whom I trust) described as “an uncompromising zeal for self-exploitation” so that “she must always be on stage.” After she stopped writing fiction and turned to more essays, memoirs, and journalism, Colette continued to be a canny user of other people, perhaps no one more than her third husband, who became her anchor as she grew older and sicker. And her work was not just rooted in a delight for — to the point of nostalgia — a paradisaical childhood.
So when this new translation of Chéri and The End of Chéri by Rachel Careau came along, I was propelled to rethink Colette’s place in the canon.
She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1973 in the Burgundy village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, to Sido and Jules-Joseph Colette, a Zouave who had lost his leg in the Second Italian War of Independence (also called the Franco-Austrian War). He was given the post of tax collector in their small French town as a reward. Sido had been married before and had two older children; then she and Jules had Leopold and Colette. The family led a contented pastoral life etched in Colette’s books about her childhood and adolescence. Her education ended at 17. The reasons why are not clear: Was it because the family’s management of money left something to be desired? Or was a university education not prized?
Paris beckoned. In 1893 Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars, the infamous Willy, who was 14 years older and a famous libertine; he introduced her to intellectuals, artists, and lesbians, thus encouraging her fluid sexuality, which took hold after they parted in 1906. By then he was famous as the author of the Claudine books and held the copyright and received the royalties. She had no money and no education, but she knew, if no one else did, that she could write. For now, though, Colette had to support herself. Between 1906 and 1912 she went onstage as a stripper and actress, sold makeup, and did what she needed to do to survive, which also included journalism and photography and accepting well-off lesbian lovers like Natalie Barney and Mathilde de Morny. It is a life she recreated in her first novel, La Vagabonde, which was published in 1910 under her own name. The book is particularly loved by feminists because it explores the themes of woman’s struggle for independence in a male-dominated society.
Colette made many connections after she and Willy parted. In 1912, when she was 39, she married the aristocrat Henry de Jouvenel, editor of the famous daily newspaper Le Matin. At 40 she had her only child, Colette de Jouvenel, nicknamed Bel-Gazou. Although now settled in far better circumstances, with important ties to the publishing world, Colette was not content to live a bourgeois life. She was an indifferent mother and left Bel-Gazou to the care of others. She was far more interested in writing 1920’s Chéri, which is about the love of an older woman for a younger man. Then, in a bizarre example of life following art, she embarked on an affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bernard de Jouvenel. Her need for sexual adventures may have prompted this craziness, but it also may have been prompted by her husband’s many infidelities. In 1924, she and Henry divorced. In 1925 she married Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior and Jewish (which becomes important later), and who absolutely adored her. He made the promulgation of her books his life’s work while she was alive and after her death.
The ’20s and ’30s saw Colette’s great literary flowering, a sequel to Chéri called The End of Chéri in 1926, The Pure and the Impure, Sido, The Break of Day, La Chatte, Duo, La Second, many short stories, and in 1941 the powerful novel about the complicated Julie de Carneilhan.
By the time the Second World War started, Colette was not well, her mobility increasingly limited by rheumatoid arthritis. She was stuck in her “raft,” which she called the couple’s bed in their Paris apartment, married to a Jewish husband under Vichy rule in France. During this period she wrote some articles for collaborationist publications, including Le Petit Parisien and La Gerbe, and there are some anti-Semitic slurs in Julie. Whether these were attempts to keep her husband safe or her real sentiments is still being debated.
The ’40s saw the popular Gigi and memoirs and more pieces for the newspapers and magazines. She was nominated for the Nobel prize in 1948 and received a state funeral when she died in 1954, the first time a French woman was thus honored. She is buried in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Her work garnered enormous critical praise, to the point of hyperbole — by no stretch of anyone’s imagination is she a greater writer than her near contemporary, Marcel Proust. She has been the subject of several biographies; the most famous in the United States is Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh. On the one hand, her reputation for outrageous sexual behavior is a cardinal fact in her biography; but we are also left with the stubborn reality that she neglected her only child. Despite Goudeket’s attempt in his memoir Close to Colette to imply otherwise, she and Bel-Gazou were never close or even friendly. A puzzling irony, really, when you consider how Colette wrote about her own mother.
Still, here is a writer who left a huge body of work and a mythical reputation that shows no sign of diminishing. And that is why this new translation in one volume of the two Chéri novellas, regarded as Colette’s masterwork, deserves our attention.
A few words, first, though, about previous translations. Careau explains it best in her excellent Translator’s Note when she talks about how notoriously hard Colette is to translate. One must pay attention, because:
Her sentences can feel skeletal, the flesh carved away to convey their meaning with the fewest possible words. A master of concision, subtraction, condensation, renunciation, she is always trying to do more with less: “You become a great writer,” she states, “as much through what you refuse your pen as through what you grant it.”
Some illustrations are: “She lowered her eyes, met Chéri’s, smiled.” or “He was about to slip away, he turned around,” which eschew the usual transitional adverbs, like “as” or “while,” and even “and” and “but.” Careau goes on, “All these choices tend to make her writing a bit jagged and syncopated, the transitions a bit abrupt.” This is important because that abruptness has led translators to take it upon themselves to “embellish” or “correct” (Careau’s words) Colette’s prose, producing far-fetched sentences that affect the meaning as well as being stylistically off. The result is that the Chéri books seem more dated than they actually are. That is why Careau’s respect for Colette’s text is so vital.
For here we get not only a story about the power politics of love, but also a story about morality, about values. Colette knew this and said to a friend, “It seems to me that I’ve never written anything so moral as Chéri.”
The setup is simple: We are plunged into the claustrophobic world of courtesans and their customers, a transactional world in which love rarely appears. But in this narrative Lea, a courtesan of almost 50, has been having an affair for the last six years with the son of one of her colleagues, the remarkably beautiful, empty-headed 25-year-old Chéri. The affair has exceeded all of Lea’s past experiences or expectations. Now, though, Chéri is about to enter into a marriage arranged by his mother Charlotte with Edmée, the passive daughter of another prostitute. The motive is money. Both Lea and Edmée’s mother are wealthy, Charlotte considerably less so. So the lovers part, Chéri marries, is unhappy with Edmée and, haunted by his memories of Lea and their perfect life together, leaves Edmée, seeks out some former friends, wanders around Paris trying to find comfort with other women and drink and drugs. To no avail. Although he finally returns to Edmée he knows he has to see Lea once more (she has finally returned to Paris from the country where she went to lick her wounds), and they have a final goodbye in one of the great scenes in Colette’s oeuvre –a scene that reveals exactly what Colette said: that this novel is not merely her take on a May-December romance akin to Der Rosenkavalier, which was first performed in 1911, but a morality play.
When Chéri tells Lea about his time away from her, Lea resorts to shallowness and cliché. Then Chéri reminds Lea of the time before he married, when she cautioned him not to be cruel or cause pain to the young wife whom he did not love, warning him that his marriage “feels almost as if we are abandoning a doe to a greyhound…” Now he is seeking that good person he so admired; he is also seeking the beauty he loved so much instead of “this ruin” before him.
“And you discover an old woman,” Lea repeated. “What are you afraid of then, kid?”
She wrapped her arms around Chéri’s shoulders, felt the stiffening, the resistance of this body that was suffering because she had been hurt.
“Come now, Chéri darling…. What are you so afraid of? Of having upset me? Don’t cry, my beauty…. I’m so grateful to you, on the contrary …”
He let out a groan of protest and struggled feebly. She leaned her cheek onto his tangled black hair.
“You said all that, you thought all that, about me? So I was that beautiful, then, in your eyes, was I? That good? At an age when so many women have stopped living, to you I was the most beautiful, the best of women, and you loved me? I’m so grateful to you, my darling…. The kindest, you said?… Poor little thing…”
He sank and she caught him in her arms.
“If I had been the kindest, I would have made a man of you, instead of thinking only of your body’s pleasure, and my own. The kindest, no no, I wasn’t that, my darling, since I held on to you. And it’s too late…”
“What vanity, eh! … You who will miss me, I would ask you, when you feel close to verifying the doe who is your possession, who is your responsibility, to restrain yourself, and to imagine, at those moments, everything I didn’t teach you…. I never spoke to you about the future. Forgive me, Chéri: I loved you as if we were both meant to die in the next hour. Because I was born twenty-four years before you, I was condemned, and I dragged you down with me…
Lea understands how she fell short and knows that when he leaves, Chéri will be gone forever. Still, she can’t help hoping and thinks, for a second, like a madwoman, that he will return. But then she sees him “lifting his head toward the spring sky and the chestnut trees heaving with flowers, and filling his lungs with the fresh air as he walked, like an escapee.” Thus ends the first part.
Lea knows that their kind of love is not enough, but Chéri does not have the emotional intelligence to recognize that as fact and move on. In The End of Chéri it is six years later and he comes back from the First World War a broken man. Lea is a bulky gray-haired woman getting on with her life. This second part is painful to read; Chéri finds Edmée capable, seeking new experiences, unfaithful, and much stronger than when he left her. The world has changed after the war: everyone is moving forward, except Chéri. He has lost too much and, in the end, memory has the power to kill, as Angela Carter put it. The experience of having had an amazing, though utterly selfish, carnal love is not enough to sustain poor Chéri. He simply doesn’t have the maturity to comprehend what has happened to him.
As she tells this ultimately cruel story, Colette raises all kinds of questions about power, hedonism, the nature of both sexual and familial love, betrayal, courage, respect, and the need for what our mothers used to call “inner resources.” Chéri never developed: he had been brought up in an extended circle of Parisian whores where his sensibilities were so stunted he could not even absorb the lessons of war. And now, in this beautifully translated work that makes Paris of the early 1900s so acutely alive and raises questions so relevant to our lives today, Rachel Careau has given us the gift Colette intended us to have.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest novel, Summer Lightning, will be released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book on October 6. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.