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Cheri and the Last of Cheri by Colette

Cheri and the Last of Cheri (1951)

by Colette

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Cheri (omnibus)

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Colette is an unflinching author, both in being honest about the flaws of her characters, and in the sense of writing about taboo subjects, in this case, a young man’s affair with his mother’s friend, an aging courtesan. The liaison ends when he marries a woman closer to his own age, and as this happens after the first few chapters, most of Cheri and all of The Last of Cheri is about dealing with the destructive consequences.

These are not happy tales. The emotions you might imagine - jealousy, sadness, and obsession - are all here, and they feel real. There are memorable scenes, a couple of which I’ll mention (spoiler alert). In the first, Cheri finds himself bored with his new wife and ultimately returns to Lea for a night of passion, but in the morning light, as she’s planning to run away with him, he sees the signs of her aging, and leaves her for good. It’s a brutal end to the first book.

In the second, in The Last of Cheri, years later, as he finds himself listless and bored, his knowing mother quietly arranges for him to meet her again. How French, right? When he does, she’s with a friend, and as his inner emotions rage, they coolly size him up. “From the cold and calculating way she looked him over, Cheri might have been a piece of furniture”. Later “They went on to thrash out the question, weighing up, with a wealth of detail and point by point, every portion of the fore and hind quarters of this expensive animal.” And finally: “He remained where he was, all but snuffed out by the conversation of the two women who had been speaking of him in the past tense, as though he were dead.” Meanwhile Cheri is conflicted; while the memories for him have been at the top of his mind and his feelings for Lea are obviously unresolved, the woman he sees before him has aged considerably and become quite large, such that he keeps hoping the “real Lea” will emerge. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking scene. Later he’s reduced to adoring her pictures and talking to a woman who can tell him stories from Lea’s past; while Lea has accepted her age and her fate, he has never gotten over her.

Throughout the books, the writing is lean, and provides a window into life in Paris before and after WWI. Colette herself was an interesting woman. She was a feminist, writing articles as a journalist that were “lucid and often scathing about the plight of women in brutal marriages and degrading jobs”, and yet also being a dancer on the stage “who was never averse to a skimpy costume”, and in her personal life having a weakness for bondage, so, as one of her friends put it, “Torn between the desires of her two contrary natures, to have a master and not to have one, she always opted for the first solution.”

“Preferring passion to goodness”, and in a case of life imitating art, she seduced her 16-year-old stepson at age 47 to begin a five-year-long affair with him. The young man apparently wanted Colette to write something more uplifting, about which Judith Thurman quips in her introduction “How exquisitely French: a pimply schoolboy who was honing his sexual technique on the body of his father’s wife objected to the absence of any moral feeling in her writing!” Later in life, as an old man, he would say of Colette that “she eagerly picked the fruits of the earth without discriminating those which were forbidden.” Indeed.

On love lost; her view:
“You see, Valerie, how foolish a man can look when reminded of a love which no longer exists? Silly boy, it doesn’t upset me in the least to think about it. I love my past. I love my present. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve had, and I’m not sad because I have it no longer.”

“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.”

His view, regretting all those nights that could have been:
“The apparition of the large, flat, half-veiled moon among the scurrying vaporous clouds, which she seemed to be pursuing and tearing asunder, did not divert him from working out an arithmetical fantasy: he was computing – in years, months, hours and days – the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever.
‘Had I never let her go when I went to see her again that day before the war – then it would have meant three or four years to the good; hundreds and hundreds of days and nights gained and garnered for love.’ He did not fight shy of so big a word.
‘Hundreds of days – a lifetime – life itself. … He seized hold of his past, to squeeze out every remaining drop upon his empty, arid present; bringing back to life, and inventing where necessary, the princely days of his youth, his adolescence shaped and guided by a woman’s strong capable hands – loving hands, ever ready to chastise.”

On lust:
“When she saw him half-naked, she asked, with a note of sadness: ‘Do you really want to? … Do you? …’
He did not answer, carried away by the thought of his approaching pleasure and the consuming desire to take her again. She gave way and served her young lover like a good mistress, with devout solicitude. Nevertheless, she anticipated with a sort of terror the moment of her own undoing; she endured Cheri as she might a torture, warding him off with strengthless hands, and holding him fast between strong knees. Finally, she seized him by the arm, uttered a feeble cry and foundered in the deep abyss, whence love emerges pale and in silence, regretful of death.”

And this one, actually Cheri’s wife, who begins an affair of her own:
“Once again she fingered the lace round the neck of her bodice, inhaled the warmth and fragrance that rose up from between her breasts, and as she bent down her head she saw the precious twin pink and mauve discs through the material of her dress. She blushed with carnal pleasure, and dedicated the scent and the mauve shadows to the skillful, condescending, red-haired man whom she would be meeting again in an hour’s time.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Jun 7, 2015 |
What is it with me and anthologies all of the sudden? At least this is only two books. After the Philip K. Dick anthology I was struggling with feelings of degradation and oppression. I needed something that was the opposite of dystopian American sci-fi, and what better could I find on my shelves than classical French literature by a female author? Plus, it is on my TBR pile challenge list, so extra points!

I must admit my interest was piqued by watching previews for the movie version of Cheri (which I have not yet seen, but want to!) And that preview meant that I could hardly imagine any face but Michelle Pfeifer's for Lea, but what a perfect face to have in mind!

Alright, I really had all of these thoughts that I wanted to assemble about how many wildly glamorous or cutthroat books were written about courtesans before this book wrote about the lives of aging courtesans, and how they might fight to hold onto their power, or not, and how growing up amongst women who had experienced the world in that way would affect a young man. But after sitting with my journal, staring off into space for ages without those thoughts ever coming together, I finally decided to abandon them and move on.

Both books, Cheri and The Last of Cheri were beautifully written and thoroughly entrancing. After reading the first book entirely from the point of view of Lea, it was fascinating in the second to get into Cheri's head. Though I do still wish I could have ever understood what Cheri's wife was thinking.

All in all, a lovely summer read. ( )
  greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
An almost favourite for me but alas I am donating this one to clear my bookshelves. Will likely buy a digital edition (this one is hardback). ( )
  anissaannalise | Jan 1, 2014 |
This book is really blowing my mind. Sad I never had to read it in college. An amazing book! ( )
  mjennings26 | Apr 3, 2013 |
Only partially read it ... set in France ... it was alright.
  ValNewHope | Aug 21, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Coletteprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Arborio Mella, GiuliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bassan Levi, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Senhouse, RogerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thurman, JudithIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Canonical title
Original title
Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
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Awards and honors
First words
"Give it to me, Lea, give me your pearl necklace!
Cheri closed the iron gate of the little garden behind him and sniffed the night air: "Ah! it's nice out here!"
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This edition contains both Cheri and its sequel, The Last of Cheri (not to be confused with Cheri). Do not add/combine with editions that exclude either one.
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English


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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374528012, Paperback)

Two volumes of Colette's most beloved works, with a new Introduction by Judith Thurman.

Chéri, together with The Last of Chéri, is a classic story of a love affair between a very young man and a charming older woman. The amour between Fred Peloux, the beautiful gigolo known as Chéri, and the courtesan Léa de Lonval tenderly depicts the devotion that stems from desire, and is an honest account of the most human preoccupations of youth and middle age. With compassionate insight Colette paints a full-length double portrait using an impressionistic style all her own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:50 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Cheri, together with The Last of Cheri, is a classic story of a love affair between a very young man and a charming older woman. In describing the relationship between Fred Peloux, the beautiful gigolo known as Cheri, and the courtesan Lea de Lonval, Colette tenderly depicts the devotion that stems from desire and provides an honest account of the most human preoccupations of youth and middle age. With compassionate insight she paints a full-length double portrait, using an impressionistic style all her own. In Cheri, Colette achieved a peak in her earthy, sensuous, and utterly individual art."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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