Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2017

Chéri, by Colette, translated by Roger Senhouse

The nearest there was to censorship of my reading when I was a girl, was when my mother, murmuring something about saving it for when I was older, discreetly removed the Folio edition of Zola’s Nana from the bookshelves as I worked my way along them, and also when my sister came home from university enthusing about the French author Colette but refused to let me set eyes on whichever one it was that she was reading.  Naturally this provoked my interest, but not enough to make me track them down – there were too many other interesting books for me to read, and besides, the pleasure of reading books was partly talking about them afterwards with my father, something I would not have been able to do if I read clandestine titles…

Today these titles seem tame and I doubt if many parents censor them these days, but still, Colette’s Chéri was a serendipitous library find for Banned Books Week because – as Nicole Moore tells us in The Censor’s LibraryColette was one of many respected authors banned in Australia during the 1930s (even though she was nominated for the Nobel Prize).  As far as I can tell from Moore’s book, Chéri is not one that was banned, and it’s not the title listed for Colette in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012): that one is Claudine’s House, also translated as My Mother’s House.  But Chéri was on display at the library, and of course I’d been meaning to read Colette for decades!

I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast with dear old Balzac as I read this sensuous story of an ageing courtesan confronting the end of her career.  Balzac’s women are always saints or sinners, but he is positively coy about the courtesans who flaunt themselves in La Comedie Humaine.  Chéri is set just before the advent of WW1 when Léa de Lonval is fifty, her handsome but over-indulged lover Fred Peloux a.k.a. Chéri is half her age, and Edmée, the wife selected for him to marry, is nineteen.

Chéri and Léa have been light-hearted lovers for six years, a liaison encouraged by Chéri’s mother, an idle woman who left his upbringing to the servants.  Madame Peloux and Léa have enjoyed a love-hate friendship of many years: they take turns to say spiteful things to one another but are comfortable in each other’s company.  But while Léa is generous, Madame Peloux is miserly, and so it is always understood that Chéri will marry advantageously.  But when the time comes, both Chéri and Léa are surprised by how much they really care for one another.

Colette, who lived to be 80, paints a poignant portrait of an ageing beauty, whose entire life has revolved around her appearance and her attractiveness to men.

… she mused over her future, veering between alarm and resignation.  Her nerves were relaxed, and she slept for a little.  As she sat with one cheek pressed against a cushion, her dreams projected her into her fast-approaching old age.  She saw day follow day with clockwork monotony, and herself beside Charlotte Peloux – their spirited rivalry helping the time to pass.  In this way she would be spared, for many years, 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.  (p.95)

Léa staves off the inevitable with a careful choice of flattering colours and artful display of her best features:

The coloured lining of the white gandoura [a loose gown] she put on was suffused with a vague pink.  She went back to her dressing-table, and combed and tugged at the hairs stiffened by dye, lifting both her arms, and thus framing her tired face.  Her arms were still so beautiful, from the full deep hollow of the armpit up to the rounded wrists, that she sat gazing at them in the looking-glass.

‘What lovely handles for so old a vase.’ (p.100)

So it’s rather sad when the reader sees Léa in an unguarded moment through Chéri’s less charitable eyes:

Not yet powdered, a meagre twist of hair at the back of her head, double chin, and raddled neck, she was exposing herself rashly to the unseen observer.  (p.,111)

Will he divorce his wealthy young wife to be with the one he really loves?  Or is he a shallow creature more concerned with appearances? You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out!

Author: (Sidonie-Gabrielle) Colette
Title: Chéri
Translated by Roger Stenhouse (1951)
Publisher: Vintage, 2001, first published Fayard, Paris, 1920, first English translation, Gollancz 1930
ISBN: 9780099422761
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Cheri  $14.42, and less for secondhand copies, also available free at Project Gutenberg in French.


Responses

  1. You didn’t fancy reading it in French then Lisa? ☺

    I would like to try some more Colette, especially some of her novels.

    • It didn’t occur to me at the time (I’ve got five French novels in my TBR and am slowly reading one of them) but when doing the review (I usually pinch the image covers from there) I followed the Goodreads link to Gutenberg and found the free French one, so I downloaded it to my Kindle, and will hunt around and see what else is there.

  2. Oh, I *really* need to read this again – nobody writes about the problems of love like Colette!

    • I’ve got an ancient copy of a short story collection that I must read too but I’d like to read her famous ones like Gigi as well. What a shame she didn’t get a Nobel, eh?

  3. Lovely review of a very evocative book! I didn’t realise that Colette had appeared on a list of banned books, albeit back in the 1930s. How times have changed…

    • *chuckle* Here in Australia dozens of notable authors were censored, usually in secret and without any need to justify it. If you follow that link to my review of The Censor’s Library, you will see that there was a consistent effort to prevent the Australian public reading Modernism, so they banned everyone from James Joyce and DH Lawrence to Djuna Barnes and Radcliffe Hall. (You can see a little of The Censor’s Library at Google Books, see http://tinyurl.com/ybs872ov).
      I used to chuckle about the American predilection for banning books until I read The Censor’s Library and learned just how much was banned here until reform in the 1970s.

  4. I keep meaning to read more Colette myself. The only one I’ve read is My Mother’s House which was charming. I chuckled to think of your mother hiding away Nana – good thing she didn’t have La Terre around.

    • Yes indeed! But I like the fact that it was just a case of not-now-but-later: she wasn’t a prude, she just thought that at fourteen or so I was a bit young to appreciate it.

  5. Totally understandable that the hair dye is considered more important to hang onto than those uncomfortable stays.

    • Absolutely. Though a bit depressing about the undies …

      • I imagine drawers full of grey, baggy knickers

  6. My mum said, when I was 13 or 14, William, you had better put that book in the bin when you finish it.

    • Ooh, which one was that?

      • Just some lurid paperback, left lying around by one of the teachers probably – we were living in a school house.


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