A trying life, living omitted

Cover of Chéri and The End of Chéri
by Colette, translated by Rachel Careau showing pink roses behind lettering.

Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having not been familiar with the world of courtesans in early twentieth century France, I was somewhat surprised by the premise of the novels Chéri and The End of Chéri, which were published in 1920 and 1926, respectively. Chéri is a young man whose mother is a wealthy, independent courtesan, and the first novel focuses on his affair with his mother’s fellow courtesan, Léa, who, at almost 50, is about twice Chéri’s age. Chéri and Léa lounge about and make love, and Chéri seems like he would be quite happy spending the rest of his life with his face nestled in Léa’s bosom playing with her pearls. He has no direction and very little personality, but, as we are told, he is very beautiful.

Léa is a more interesting and fully-formed character, as are the other courtesans in his mother’s circle, but the focus is on Chéri, who is entering into an arranged marriage with Edmée, a rich young woman who, for reasons that weren’t clear to me, is willing to put up with his nonsense. Chéri is very unhappy about his impending nuptials, and behaves like a spoiled child, bucking against his fate while doing little to open any other options for himself. I found him infuriating, as I’m fairly sure Colette meant him to be. At its core, Chéri depicts how emotionally fraught and destructive this relationship is for both Chéri and Léa, and it is by far the better of the two novels.

The End of Chéri opens after World War I, six years after Chéri and Léa have parted. Chéri has returned from the front a changed man, but this change is apparent to the reader only in that Chéri can’t rally with his usual bravado when he’s down, and that people keep noting his beauty is now tainted with weariness. The novel amounts to an oddly detached portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder–Chéri’s experiences in the war are only alluded to, with the reason for his malaise placed squarely on his lost love with Léa. The book is a trying grind as he wanders aimlessly in a changed society he no longer understands. Colette focuses on the effects of aging and the passing of time, visiting Léa only briefly. I missed her in the novel almost as much as Chéri did. I also never gained any insight into Edmée, who is now presumably finding emotional satisfaction in her nursing work and her own love affairs.

Both of these novels were innovative for their time–the first in depicting the emotional wreckage of an unusual relationship and the second in focusing on a character with PTSD. However, Colette’s narrow spotlight on Chéri, whose emotional distance frustrates both Léa and Edmée, creates a detached, unemotional experience for the reader. While I found the books interesting in an intellectual sense, they weren’t involving. Colette picked her most boring character for her main one. I wish she had gone into the other characters’ heads more, making Chéri an enigma for us to figure out along with them. That would have made for a truly fascinating pair of novels.

Rachel Careau seems to have done a very thorough, careful job with these translations, so if you’re interested in the later Colette novels, I would highly recommend this edition. if you’re not already a fan of Claudine at School and her other better-known works, though, I wouldn’t start here.