The Last of Chéri
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
The Last of Chéri (1926)
The post-WWI years find Chéri alienated, first by his wife's devotion to her hospital work. Edmée is infatuated with a Doctor Arnaud but Chéri is indifferent to this, spending his time gravitating to oddballs such as the old Baroness de La Berche with whom he drives around pointlessly. Desmond has become commercially successful and Chéri sees only crassness in his friend. It becomes clear that there is an unspoken arrangement between himself and Edmée where they each ignore the other's affairs. But he isn't having one.
He at last goes to visit his ex-mistress Léa, at first not recognizing her. She has gained excessive weight and has short grey hair now. She is friendly but clearly has removed herself from everything resembling their former life. He is despondent.
Chéri runs into the Pal, another former courtesan who used to run an opium den. He has her set him up in rooms where he can look at photos of Léa pinned to the wall and listen to the Pal reminisce. When the Pal leaves town for a while, Chéri lies in front of the photos and blows his brains out.
The following quotations from the novella are selected to indicate Colette's keen sense of aesthetics, particularly the subtle vulgarity of the post-WWI world.
"'The boudoir will soon come to be known as the study, and no mistake,' he thought" (140; 158).
"He loved silence, and furtiveness, and never knocked at the door of the boudoir, which his wife, since the war, called her study" (147; 168).
"He muttered vague hearty curses, against the Medical Corps in particular, and against all who insisted on wearing uniform in peace-time" (149; 170).
"They danced at Desmond's, night and day, as people dance after war: the men, young and old, free from the burden of thinking and being frightened -- empty-minded, innocent..." (151; 172).
"Desmond was inflated by prosperity and no longer worried about being ugly" (152; 175).
"He knotted his fingers and the knuckle-joints cracked with commercial pride" (154; 176).
"People have got the jitters. And work, and activity, and duty, and women who serve their country -- not half they don't -- and are crazy about oof ... they're such thorough-going business-women that they make you disgusted with the word business. They're such hard workers it's enough to make you loathe the sight of work" (157; 180).
"He felt bored, and consumed by the feeling of weariness that makes a man jib at the serried ranks of masterpieces before him as he is being dragged round a museum.... The noonday hour imposes rest and privacy upon the beasts of the field, and the silence of deep woodland undergrowth upon the birds of the air, but civilized men no longer obey the dictates of the sun" (162; 187).
"'I am listening to you,' he said. 'Even before you speak I know what you're going to say. I know all about this business of yours. It goes by the varying names of company promotion, wheezes, commissions, founders' shares, American blankets, bully-beef, etcetera...'" (175-176; 205).
"Do you really call this a life?" (176; 206).
"No, I do not accept the fact that we are living in splendid times, with a dawn of this, a resurrection of that (177; 207).
"... there's not one who's not a rotter and ... and I don't like it. That's all" (178; 208).
"The plain skirt and the nondescript long jacket ... proclaimed that the wearer had abdicated, was no longer concerned to be a woman, and had acquired a kind of sexless dignity" (183; 215).
"'Are you still pleased with your new flat?'
'It's a dream! Especially since the iron bars were put across the windows. And I've had a steel grid fixed over the pantry fanlight, which I had forgotten about. With my electric bells and my burglar-alarms ... Ouf! It's been long enough before I could feel at all safe!'
'And your old house?'
'Bolted and barred. Up for sale. And the pictures in store.... And no more servants looking like hired assassins. You remember those two footmen? The thought of them still gives me the creeps!'" (187; 220).
"Patient and, on occasion, subtle as she was, it never occurred to Edmée that the feminine appetite for possession tends to emasculate every living conquest, and can reduce a magnificent but inferior male to the status of a courtesan. Her lower-middle-class wisdom made her determined not to relinquish the gains -- money, ease, domestic tyranny, marriage -- acquired in so few years and rendered doubly attractive by the war" (211; 250).
"The servants, as well as Cheri, were frightened of something in Edmée, whom they guessed to be more vulgar than themselves" (214; 254).
"That Company for transporting raw hides they talked about at dinner.... How disgusting it was! And they don't mind discussing it at the top of their voices" (221; 262).
"But why do you never come in your motor?" (237; 283).
"Is there anyone left, now, that I am not ashamed of?" (240; 286).
"I loved you above all other women. You're finished now, you have found your consolation -- and what a disgrace that is!" (246; 295).
This is a difficult matter to grasp, particularly for Americans, and near impossible to articulate. One is apt to sound sexist, elitist, subjective, or arbitrary in trying to convey the sense of aesthetic vulgarity, which is not a matter of smut, nor self-adulation, nor simply objection to ostentation. It's not economic at all either -- an especially difficult mindset to try to extricate oneself from.
"Vulgar" is indeed sending pictures of yourself on vacation, or thinking a photo of your asinine family makes an appropriate holiday gift. Asking someone how much she paid for something is vulgar, even when you think you're being admiring and interested. Hearing about celebrities' pregnancies, labor, and offspring is vulgar. Complaining that although the restaurant was nice you went away not feeling "filled up" is vulgar. Like Léa, to Chéri's horror, women often give up on themselves in terms of grooming at a certain point, often after their children have left home, at which point they chow down on pork roasts, cut their hair, and wear Republican glasses and sweatshirts with teddy bears holding American flags to Wal*Mart and Winco. Suspenders, not as a throwback fashion statement but "to hold my pants up," and overalls is the male equivalent. Proof that this is aesthetic and not economic judgment is the fact that Donald Trump is also vulgar.
Still not grasping the vision here? This example should clear it all up:
Rachael Ray is vulgar.
The contrast is gentility, refinement, and graciousness. Trade in your supersize McMeal for some.
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>.