“My poor Chéri . . . It’s strange to think that in our loss—for you of your spent old mistress, for me of my scandalous young lover—we have lost the most honorable thing that we possessed on earth . . .”
It might surprise many English speaking readers to learn that writer, journalist and actress Colette was one of the most important literary figures in twentieth-century France, second only to Proust. Beautiful, resourceful, and sexually liberated, known for her liaisons with women and younger men, her persona may seem to overshadow her talent even though her better known contemporaries held her in very high esteem. And, of course, there is the matter of her gender and the name she ultimately chose to use which, contrary to expectation is not a diminutive but rather her last name. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, would be the first woman elected president of the Académie Goncourt and, upon her death in 1954, she was given a state funeral. Yet if, as Lydia Davis suggests in her Foreword to the recently released edition of Chéri and The End of Chéri, Colette has not generally been afforded the respect she enjoyed in her native country, that may begin to change thanks to Rachel Careau’s brilliant new translation of two of her best loved works.
In her extensive and informative Translator’s Note, Careau discusses the unique qualities of Colette’s language and exposes the challenges of preserving the taut beauty of her prose:
what becomes most apparent to the reader of her work in the original French is its extreme and seemingly effortless economy: it contains no excess, no ornament, nothing beyond the essential. Her sentences can feel skeletal, the flesh carved away to convey their meaning with the fewest possible words. A master of concision, subtraction, condensation, renunciation, she is always trying to do more with less: “You become a great writer,” she states, “as much through what you refuse your pen as through what you grant it.”
This economy is difficult to capture without the temptation to fluff the pillows a little, correct her punctuation, fill in missing conjunctions, relative pronouns and even invent adjectives so as to keep her language from appearing too stiff—a tendency that marred earlier translations. But then one risks losing the spirit that animates her work. At once ornate and lean, her sentences flow unhindered by unnecessary clutter. Fond of ellipses, she paints small details with carefully selected words, side glances and intimations allowed to just drift unfinished into the air. Her ear for dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, is finely tuned, sharp and sharpened with complex emotion and barbed intensity. Chéri and its companion novel, The End of Chéri offer, in Careau’s crystalline translation, a welcome opportunity to fully appreciate the power of Colette’s literary talent.
Chéri, originally published in 1920, famously revolves around the affair of an aging courtesan, Léa, and her lover, affectionately called Chéri, a vain and spoiled young man nearly twenty-five years her junior. Set in the final years of the Belle Epoque, amidst the acquired (and sometimes feigned) luxury of the leisured class—not the uppermost layer of society but the strata composed of courtesans, former prostitutes and dancers—hers is not a work of social commentary. Colette’s tapestry features the intricacy and dynamics of human interaction: affection, obsession, deception, hostility, even tedium. She was a keen observer, not only of people, but of plants and animals. Small dramas play out on the page, but the magic lies not so much in what is happening as in how it is depicted in her precise, spare elegant prose.
Chéri has a languid pace, despite the inevitable romantic dissolution that lies at its core. It opens with the petulant, self-absorbed Chéri, playfully donning Léa’s pearls while she observes him from the depths of her bed. They have, at this point, been together for six years although she has known him since he was a small boy as he is the son of a long-time friend and fellow courtesan. He is twenty-five, while she is nearing her fiftieth birthday. The dynamics of their relationship are dissected, dramatized in intimate detail. Colette zooms in on the hint of a smile, the arch of a brow, the subtle movement of a limb. Repeated images—the cast of light, mirrored reflections, passing aromas—serve to heighten the tensions simmering beneath the surface of every thought or interaction. Chéri is aware of his beauty, terrified of losing it, suspecting perhaps that little lies beneath the surface. Léa is also conscious of the creeping ravages of time but her confidence and security runs deep after a lifetime of carefully leveraging her charms:
She stood up, wrapped herself in a dressing gown, and opened the curtains. The midday sun entered the cheerful, overly decorated pink room whose luxury was dated, double lace panels at the windows, rosebud-pink faille on the walls, gilded woodwork, electric lights veiled in pink and white, and antiques upholstered in modern silks. Léa would not relinquish either this cozy room or her bed, a considerable, indestructible masterpiece of copper and wrought iron, severe to the eye and cruel to the shins.
It has always been inevitable that Chéri would one day be expected to take a suitable bride, but when that day arrives suddenly and sooner than either he or Léa anticipated, neither one is prepared for how it unsettles their personal and emotional equilibrium.
The End of Chéri, conceived of separately and published six years later in 1926, is essentially a companion piece and completion of what can be understood as one work. It is now 1919, six years after the setting of Chéri, and war has changed everything and everyone except, tragically, Chéri himself in spite of his time in the trenches. Still beautiful, his beauty will no longer suffice. His young wife, Edmeé, to whom he was needlessly cruel, is now more than capable of holding her ground. The only character who insists on calling Chéri by his proper name, Fred, she is managing a hospital for wounded soldiers, clearly in love with the head doctor, and together with Chéri’s mother, managing the family fortune. Unable or unwilling to take up any meaningful labour, Chéri drifts through the days, looking for an anchor in past connections and spiraling deeper into depression.
The End of Chéri has a darker, even tighter tone. Physical descriptions can be brutal, grotesque—and often wryly funny—filtered through the thoughts of the characters, revealing more about the viewer than the viewed. Chéri is at once the central and increasingly isolated figure. New power dynamics are revealed, playing out between the many female characters who are strong, independent, even eccentric. Likewise, the fabrics, the colours, the floral displays, the household routines evoke an atmosphere that drives Chéri to become more bitter and defiant. Léa, in their shocking reunion, quickly diagnoses him:
“You have altogether the look of someone who suffers from the sickness of the times. Let me speak! . . . You’re like all your fellow soldiers, you’re looking for paradise, eh, the paradise that’s owed to you, after the war? Your victory, your youth, your beautiful women . . . You’re owed everything, you were promised everything, well, it’s only fair . . . And you find what? A nice ordinary life. So you become nostalgic, spiritless, disappointed, depressed . . . Am I wrong?”
“No,” Chéri said.
Because he thought he would have given a finger off his hand to make her shut up.
The impact of the war is present throughout this novel, but always beneath the surface, a tribute to Colette’s impeccable restraint. The characters, their appearances, conversations and mannerisms hint at how great a shift has occurred. The world will never be the same, and, sadly, some of the most profoundly wounded victims are those who were untouched in battle.
Chéri and The End of Chéri is my first introduction to the work of Colette and I am grateful to have made my acquaintance with her through this attentive and astute translation. I came to know of Rachel Careau through her translations of another very different and yet very distinct French author, Roger Lewinter. With this release, English language readers finally have the opportunity to appreciate the economical beauty of Colette’s prose, her strong, independent female characters and her ability to expose the timeless vulnerabilities and strengths of the human condition.
Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette is translated by Rachel Careau with a Foreword by Lydia Davis and published by W. W. Norton.