July 26, 2009

Chéri/The Fall of Chéri - I cannot interest myself in anything that is not life

As I mentioned in my previous blog on Cheri, the release of the film induced me to read the book, which I happen to have in my ever increasing collection of "must-reads". This short story by Colette belonging to the very large pile I never got around to reading. The involvement of Stephen Frears, Christopher Hampton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates in the film project made me grab the book off the shelf. And actually, I am quite glad I was able to read the book before seeing the movie.

"Chéri/The Fall of Chéri" is the version I plugged through in one night. Not excessively long, 246 in total, including the introduction.

Without wanting to give away too much, it is a love story between oddballs on the fringe of polite society. Within their social circle, both Lea and Chéri hold comfortable positions, possessing wealth and a certain command of power that comes with it. In fact, nowadays, I think you`d call them celebrities. And our two protagonists deal with their respective maturing in different ways.

on Chéri: "......his idleness had been so light and varied, with the resonant ring of a flawless, empty glass"

Léa experiencing Chéri:
"The black silky head stirred on her breast, and her sleeping lover moaned in his dream. With a zealous arm, Léa shielded him against nightmares, and rocked him gently so that – without slight, without memory, without plans for the future – he might still resemble that "naughty little boy" never born to her. "

In its structure, it is similar to Wuthering Heights Volume 1 and 2. On the surface, certainly not as bleak and tempestuous as the indelible Cathy and Heathcliff, it's not all froth and laissez-faire in Cheri's and Léa's micro cosmos of turn-of-the-century France.

The first part allows the reader to languish in and savor, taste and smell 1910 Paris. The Paris of demi-mondes, or courtesans and their world, which lingers just this side of polite society, sometimes meeting and mingling, but more often than not remaining where they feel most comfortable. In the love story with the two main characters and in the second part, we experience how the characters deal with life in the aftermath, with the focus on Chéri and his gradual realization that his life is nothing without Léa, his 20-year older former mistress/mentor/teacher/mother-type-figure.

Again, reminders of a Wuthering Heights type fate-against-the-lovers and the Picture of Dorian Gray narcism is immeshed in this particular story. Setting, surroundings are described in voluminous detail and a tangible force. Think a slightly toned down Baz Luhrman's "Moulin Rouge" atmosphere.

I think it is important to note the introduction my version contained: it is a Penguin edition and was translated around 1950. Written by Raymond Mortimer, he elaborates on the difficulties of translating Colette´s prose. How very french and a reflection of her time both her language and description of the epoch was. Certainly, in his opinion, one reason why her works are hardly known in the English-speaking world whereas in France she is hailed as a national treasure. A wonderfully quirky shop on 213 rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, Colette, sums up its namesake's philosophy quite nicely: "always ready to satisfy our addictions and obsessions"

Having read only the English version, my comment would be that possibly, maybe, due to an imperfect translation, I found the read a bit tough, especially, the second half of the book – "The Fall of Chéri. " (my version goes by the name "The Last of Chéri")

The story can and does transcend the period ie has validity to this day in that there are hurdles to overcome when the age difference is as great between the two protagonists in "Chéri. "

To some, it may seem dated as courtesans don't exist today, thereby diminishing the relatability factor. You know, officially "kept mistresses" as an occupation per say. Nowadays, it's all covert and undercover. The mistress bit. Sure there are call girls and escort services. But it's all done on the sly. Back then lovers were accepted and tolerated, even considered gauche if you didn´t have a handsome young lover on your arm to parade on the croissette of Cannes or in the cafes of Deauville.

Going back even further, to Henri II, King of France in the 16th century, his mistress, Diane de Poiters, wielded more power than the queen. Interesting to note, Diane de Poiters was 20 years older than Henri and considered a great beauty of her time, well into her 50`s. Maybe Colette was inspired by this bit of history.

As time went on, polite society became less tolerant of these "mistresses". During Cheri's time, it was on the brink of toppling into the hypocritical abyss.

One could argue that our society is more loosely tied to restrictions than 100 years ago. And that nowadays, no one would blink at the relationship between a 49 year old woman and a young man half her age. I think the contrary is true. Sure, you´ve got Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, to name one of the more spotlighted relationships. Even today though, 10 decades later, older woman-younger man still causes a flurry while vice-versa not so much. Accepted in the world of entertainment as consistent to our possibly more generous tolerance of celebrities "eccentricities".

What I view as the crucial factor in the story is the obsession with age and superficial beauty. Shallowness reigns. Colette devotes long passages of her story, yes, almost obsessively cruel describing in gleeful detail either the freshness or the decay of skin, hair, eyes, depth/amount of wrinkles, clothes, figure, depending on whether it is a young woman or an unlucky aging mistress, well past her prime.

Apparently, outer appearances was an issue back then too. As it's rampant not only amongst celebrities but has reached its tenacles out to choke all of society in this youth crazed not-so-merry-go-round carousel, there are very valid parallels to be drawn between Lea's and Cheri's fate and couples who have this age gap between them.

Colette's style and elements of the story reminded me remotely of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and in fact these two authors were contemporaries. I'd be interested to know if they knew of each others work. Maurice Ravel (whom she did collaborate with), Mata Hari and Henri Toulouse Lautrec were around then too.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette herself, born 1873, led a spectrum of rainbow colored life and certainly rivals that of the characters she created. At the age of 20, married to a writer and critic 15 her senior, he often locked her into a room to force her to write. Her first novels - The Claudine Sequence - were published under her husband's name. Being a smart cookie, she eventually dumped him. After a 6-year interlude on the stage, and various "scandals" with female lovers, she re-married and yes, with the publication of "Chéri" became a successful writer under her own name.

I am glad I read the book, making me even more eager to see the film (and what Frears and Hampton made out of it), as the trailer for the film seems to strike a much more frivolous, positive chord than the book, which has a very melancholy undertone throughout.

Having said that, Colette's own credo: "I cannot interest myself in anything that is not life" is clearly reflected in this book. Reason enough to add more of her works onto my list of "must-reads".

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