Colette Chéri (1920)
At the age of forty-nine, Léonie Vallon, called Léa de Lonval, was nearing the end of a successful career as a richly kept courtesan. She was a good creature, and life had spared her the more flattering catastrophes and exalted sufferings. She made a secret of the date of her birth; but willingly admitted – with a look of voluptuous condescension for Chéri’s special benefit – that she was approaching the age when she could indulge in a few creature comforts. She liked order, fine linen, wines in their prime, and carefully planned meals at home. From an idolized young blonde she had become a rich middle-aged demi-mondaine without ever attracting any outrageous publicity.
The year is 1912. Come wallow in luxury and a rather gentle form of vice with Colette's Chéri. Chéri is the young lover of the ageing courtesan Léa; not, of course, that she has allowed herself to age (note to self: rose-silk walls are very flattering to the complexion). But, after six years, a crisis looms: Chéri is to marry, and Léa must face starting over:
‘It serves me right. At my age, one can’t afford to keep a lover six years. Six years! He has ruined all that was left of me. Those six years might have given me two or three quite pleasant little happinesses, instead of one profound regret. A liaison of six years is like following your husband out to the colonies: when you get back again nobody recognizes you and you’ve forgotten how to dress.’
She finds, too, that she loved her young man; and at 49 is she - gasp! - too old to start again, after a vampiric "thirty years devoted to radiant youths and fragile adolescents"?
Chéri (a.k.a. Fred) is a quite unsympathetic character, for all his beauty: he is odiously spoiled by his doting mama (a former showgirl and colleague of Léa: "Chéri had enjoyed the full freedom of a profligate upbringing"); is abundantly aware of his good looks; has a bad temper and no sense of humour.
Every now and again a fleeting glimpse in a glass would remind him that he was wearing a becoming felt hat, pulled down over the right eye, a loose-fitting spring coat, large light-coloured gloves, and a terra-cotta tie. The eyes of women followed his progress with silent homage, the more candid among them bestowing that passing stupefaction which can be neither feigned nor hidden. But Chéri never looked at women in the street. He had just come from his house in the Avenue Henri-Martin, having left various orders with the upholsterers: orders contradicting one another, but thrown out in a tone of authority.
But he too finds that his life is empty without Léa and he is stung by a rare jealousy that she may have moved on to another man without a thought for him. His wife Edmée is in for a bad time, especially given his taste in interior decorating:
‘You simply clutter up your head with all that stuff and nonsense, what’s your name, yes, you, Edmée. An idea for the smoking-room? All right, here’s one: Blue for the walls – a ferocious blue. The carpet purple – a purple that plays second fiddle to the blue of the walls. Against that you needn’t be afraid of using as much black as you like and a splash of gold in the furniture and ornaments.’
‘Yes, you’re right, Fred. But it will be rather drastic with all those strong colours. It’s going to look rather charmless without a lighter note somewhere . . . a white vase or a statue.’
‘Nonsense,’ he interrupted rather sharply. ‘The white vase you want will be me – me, stark naked. And we mustn’t forget a cushion or some thingumabob in pumpkin-red for when I’m running about stark naked in the smoking-room.’
Secretly attracted and at the same time disgusted, she cherished these fanciful ideas for turning their future home into a sort of disreputable palace, a temple to the greater glory of her husband.
Chéri is predominantly set in Paris. Certainly the funniest scenes - between the spiteful ageing courtesans - occur there.
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. Theirs was the friendship of two practical women of the world, both adepts at the money game; but one of them a miser, and the other a sybarite. These bonds count. Rather late in their day, a stronger bond had come to link them more closely: Chéri.
Chéri's mother delivers some of the most wonderfully snappy digs at her son's mother-in-law and at Léa herself (especially at Léa's continued good looks). As she says to Léa:
'Heavens, how good you smell. Have you noticed that as the skin gets less firm, the scent sinks in better and lasts much longer? It’s really very nice.'
An admirable character with a strong sense of fair play, Léa is growing old gracefully as well as disgracefully; not for her the slatternly habits of her former colleagues:
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!'
This is another wonderful book from Colette - so beautiful and witty with wonderful descriptions of lush and opulent Parisian scenes and no nasty moral messages to spoil this gentle dip into a world of such gorgeous depravity. I loved it.