Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chéri and The Last of Chéri

I'm going to be in the minority with what I have to say about Chéri and The Last of Chéri by Colette. The reviews I've seen of these two novellas have been very positive, but I have issues with some things about the story.

Chéri, published in 1920, is the story of Fred Peloux, known to most everyone as Chéri, and Lea de Lonval, his courtesan. Chéri is 25 and Lea is 49 when the story begins. They have been together for six years. Although Chéri was raised by his mother, it is Lea who teaches him about life and love. But Chéri with his good looks and fortune is of an age to marry, and his mother decides upon a young woman named Edmee to be Chéri's wife. The irony is that once Lea and Chéri part, they realize how much they love one another.

Lea leaves Paris for six months, not telling anyone where she is going, not even her household staff. Chéri finds married life tiresome and longs for Lea's love. When he and Lea meet again, they spend a passionate night together. She thinks Chéri has come back to her, and the next morning, she begins to make plans for their new life together. Chéri, on the other hand, decides Lea looks much too old in the light of morning and decides that the age difference is too great.

The sequel, The Last of Chéri, published in 1926, deals primarily with Chéri's story. It is several years later, and Chéri has returned from his experiences in World War I to a very different life in Paris. His mother and Edmée have taken over the financial affairs that he dealt with before the war. Edmée works at a hospital and has little time for him; they co-exist in a loveless marriage. 

Chéri roams aimlessly around Paris. He tries to recapture the past through a visit to Lea and learns she has sold her home that he loved so much. When he finds her, she is living in a smaller house in a more economical way, and Lea is not as he remembered. She looks older with her short, gray hair, and she has gained a considerable amount of weight. Lea has moved on from Chéri and lives a busy life without him. Chéri mourns for his past life, spending his days pouring over old photos of a more youthful Lea, before he kills himself.

Of the two novellas, I liked Chéri the best. Lea's story was the more interesting--how her life had depended upon her looks, how that was starting to change as she got older, and how she made her plans for a future both with and without Chéri. Also, I liked reading about life in Paris toward the end of the Belle Epoque era.

While Chéri was superficial and immature in the first novella, this continues in The Last of Chéri. His inability to move on from the past is a bit frustrating. We are led to believe that he was a hero when he returned from the war, and I couldn't understand how he was unchanged. (Not much is revealed about Chéri's war experiences.) I wanted to be sympathetic to Chéri, but I didn't like his attitude toward women, especially his cruelty toward Edmée. 

Have you read Chéri or The Last of Chéri? What translation do you recommend? 

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