Everything that Colette touched became human. . . . She was a complete sensualist; but she gave herself up to her senses with such delicacy of perception, with such exquisiteness of physical pain as well as physical ecstasy, that she ennobled sensualism to grandeur. -- The Times
Chéri opens with the title character acting grasping and childish: "Give it me, Léa, give me your pearl necklace!" (15). Léa, his older mistress, states that he's been "playing long enough" (15; 3). We're apt to think of Chéri as mercenary, and his frequent observation of pearls seems almost obsessive (87; 92 and 90; 96), but he is wealthy. Colette depicts Chéri, whose real name is Fred Peloux, as an idle, spoiled, petulant but lethargic 25-year-old. Both he and Léa, who is 49 and slightly worried about the end of her life as a courtesan, have in place sturdy defense mechanisms against growing too attached, even though they have been together for roughly six years now. For example, Léa shudders at the mess he leaves in the bathroom after bathing and shaving, and thinks, "I shall simply have to put up with it till [sic] Chéri gets married" (17; 6).
This particular social segment of pre-WWI France enjoys luxury and sensuality.
Chéri and Lea, and their affair, were symbolic of Paris, and its last affair with itself. Chéri moves from pre-war Paris, the very end of a time and place where arts flourished, the pleasures of the flesh were enjoyed freely, where courtesans defined fashion and salons and cafes provided forums for the exchange of ideas. Ideas flowed from painters to writers to composers. Some look back and say it was a time lacking a moral center. Some describe it as a golden age of cultural development, a renaissance. (Fischer)
We sometimes follow Chéri's perspective, sometimes Léa's, but both characters have keen eyes for details of the finer things, and Léa notices most microscopic signs of age among the women: including Charlotte Peloux, Chéri's intense mother, another former courtesan whom Léa has known for 25 years (29; 21). The persistent descriptive details irk some readers, but these vivid observations (e.g., 18, 22, 25, 60) are appropriate to the characters making them, and convey an experience perhaps preferable to the alternative: senses dulled by all except explosive action, minds unable to read subtleties.
Chéri and Léa both tend to objectify themselves (22, 55, 61, 75). Their emotional defenses are so ingrained so as to ensure their urbane detachment that they don't recognize an emotion--love--when it arises (37, 42, 48, 60-61, 73). Léa discovers this only after Chéri marries a younger woman, Edmée. She excuses herself from town for many months, letting others assume she has found a new lover.
Chéri is soon disillusioned with his wife, even paradoxically "shocked" that she is so much younger: eighteen (67; 69). While the two temporarily stay with Charlotte Peloux, an interesting politics of names comes into play: Edmée referring to him jarringly (for us) as Fred (66) or jarringly (for him) as Chéri (71; 74). Charlotte instigates trouble by "accidentally" using Léa's name in place of Edmée's (70; 73). (Note an entire politics of names: 45, 66, 70, 71, 83.) Eventually the couple set up their own home, but Chéri leaves for months, gadding about with an old feckless friend Desmond and chatting up one of Léa's servants.
Léa returns, feels rather like an outsider, and notices some weariness in her preparations to re-enter society. A wreck, Chéri visits, stays the night, and Léa hopes this means that they will remain together. But when she starts sensing that this is not his intent, the defense mechanisms arise and the two part ways. Quelle tragédie!
The following quotations from the novella are selected for speculation and discussion on their potential significance. Many are chosen because they indicate Colette's sense of aesthetics. What often seems like elitist snobbism I think is not classism but a keen sense of aesthetic appreciation (vs. the post-WWI vulgarity one experiences in The Last of Chéri).
"Leave it alone, Chéri! You've been playing long enough with that necklace" (15; 3).
"he would have noticed too often that her throat had thickened and was not nearly so white, with the muscles under its skin growing slack" (18; 7).
"This was apparent from the stables, converted into garages..." (24; 14).
"Their unbuttoned siestas disgusted her. Never once had her young lover caught her untidily dressed, or with her blouse undone, or in her bedroom slippers during the day. 'Naked, if need be,' she would say, 'but squalid, never!'" (28; 20).
"a hand not strictly feminine, yet a trifle prettier than one could have wished; a hand she had kissed a hundred times--not in slavish devotion--but kissed for the pleasure of it, for its scent" (28; 20).
"They had known each other for twenty-five years. Theirs was the hostile intimacy of light women, enriched and then cast aside by one man, ruined by another: the tetchy affection of rivals stalking one another's first wrinkle or white hair" (29; 21).
"I've had other naughty little boys through my hands, more amusing than Chéri, more likeable, too, and more intelligent. But all the same, never one to touch him" (37; 32).
"Why can't I go to sleep? Is there something wrong with me? ... It's not this boy's head on my shoulder--I've held heavier. The weather's wonderful" (38; 33).
"She's ashamed, she says, of a man who works for his living.... 'Anyone'd think', she shouts at me, 'that I'm not in a position to support the man I love!'" (40; 36).
"'Well, you see, my dear girl...'
'Call me Madame or Léa. I'm neither your housemaid nor a pal of your own age'" (45; 42).
Old Lili was "Perhaps seventy years of age, with the corpulence of a eunuch held in by stays..." (56; 56).
"Suddenly she jumped as though shot, racked by a pain so deep that at first she / thought it must be physical, a pain that twisted her lips and dragged from them, in a raucous sob, a single name: 'Chéri!'
Tears followed, beyond all control at first. As soon as she had regained her self-control, she sat up, wiped her face, and turned on the lamp again. 'Ah! That's what it is! Now I understand!'
She took a thermometer from the drawer of her bedside table and put it under her arm. 'My temperature's normal, so it's nothing physical. I see. I'm just unhappy. Something must be done about it'" (60-61; 61-62).
"He put back the mirror: 'You're younger than I am. That shocks me'" (67; 69).
"What you call love ... isn't it possible that it may be, / really, a ... kind ... of alibi?" (75; 79-80).
"Heavens, how hideous people are! The women who had the nerve to give me these! And they think I'm going to put them up in a row on the mantlepiece -- in plated frames or little folding-cases. Tear them all up quick, and straight into the waste-paper basket!" (96; 103).
"She watched the silhouettes of women passing on their way down to the Bois. 'So skirts are changing again,' Léa observed, 'and hats are higher'" (100; 108).
"... the degrading listlessness of women past their prime, who abandon first their stays, then their hair-dye, and who finally no longer bother about the quality of their underclothes" (109; 120-121).
"I can't see myself sitting at a cash-desk; and if one employs a manageress, it's no longer worth while" (113; 125).
"Léa let the curtain fall back into place; but already she had seen Chéri throw back his head, look up at the spring sky and the chestnut trees in flower, and fill his lungs with the fresh air, like a man escaping from prison" (136; 154).
American readers find it easy to disapprove of the characters, but beware on what grounds you defend your hostility. The lot of them is "useless"? Then a human being's worth is gauged on the "use" that person is? The difficulty is even more complex in The Last of Chéri, where the utilitarian world of post-WWI is confronted.
Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle. Chéri and The Last of Chéri. NY: Penguin, 1954.
---. Chéri and The Last of Chéri. 1951. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Fischer, Julia. "Program Note." 15 Head: A Theatre Lab. <http://www.15head.org/archives/cherinotes.htm>.