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Cheri and the Last of Cheri Paperback – October 10, 2001
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“Everything that Colette touched became human . . . She was a complete sensualist; but she gave herself up to her senses with such delicacy of perception, with such exquisiteness of physical pain as well as physical ecstasy, that she ennobled sensualism to grandeur.” ―The Times
“Chéri is her masterpiece.” ―Michael Straight, The New Republic
“Dramatic and moving . . . [Chéri] endears itself to the reader partly because of its subject, but more because of the manner of its telling.” ―The New York Times
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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The reader is faced with a dilemna: are Lea and Cheri unlovable to us because of their selfishness and stubborness, or are they tragic figures caught in a world, sadly, of their own making, a world that eventually destroys both. Is Lea at fault for ruining Cheri for a real world? Did she sacrifice herself by letting him go? Was she wrong in doing so after molding him into a useless toy. Is Cheri's mother the villain for allowing her son to be corrupted from puberty on by her friend? Possibly not, in Colette's world. Colette was sympathetic to the plight of women and celebrated those who gained some control over their lives--as Lea and Charlotte did. Is the destruction of Cheri Lea's and Charlotte's fault, or is he so spoiled and rigid that he insists on his own unhappiness if he cannot have what (Lea) he wants. In spite of his many faults, I sympathize with Cheri, rather than Lea. He is the victim, petted, protected, indulged, spoiled, until he knows only one way to view himself, as a toy, nothing but a toy. Without Lea he could possibly carry on, but he has a mother and a wife who alienate him and lead their own lives, ignoring his isolation and desperation. In fact, desperation is a word that describes both Lea and Cheri. One wonders what might have been if. . . .
Colette's Cheri and the Last of Cheri delve into a world of people who exist on their surface qualities and measure life in terms of what wealth can buy. While focusing all of your attentions on what people are on the outside, you are subtly directed to appreciate the existence of deeper human needs. I am new to Colette, and I wonder why she is so much ignored in mandatory reading lists and in lists of modern writers. Whatever the quality of the translation what comes through is mostly primary colors and hard talking people, who may not be what they project. This is literature and deserves more prominence.
Cheri is a neglected, spoiled over indulged son of a professional "kept woman" Another of her generation and profession Lea had originally acted as a parent to Cheri, the boy and by default they become lovers. Book one ends with Mme. Peloux, Cheri's mother arranging a marriage for her boy to an equally wealthy and more respectable daughter of society.
In the second Novella, Cheri is a veteran of the just ended WWI. He now lives as an observer. His wife and circle of friends give themselves to what may be noble or greedy post war causes while he begins to react to his shallow and emotionless life.
From the beginning we see Cheri (real name Fred Peloux) as more like an animal than a human. He is fascinated by comforting objects. The real pearl necklace of his lover Lea has always worn will become something of a running theme and telltale for judging other characters. Lea's Shoulder<?> is for him a symbol of safety and warmth.
Certain themes will exist throughout the first book. Lea is always seen as in the last stages of her exceptional beauty but both the objects around her and her circle of friends will always be described as decayed, worn and having lost their looks and command of style. Everyone has money and money buys security but no protection from time. Cheri is mostly described as an animal. He is cunning; possessed of the survival skills he learned from the hired help. He has enough looks and money to be arrogant and hard to please. Never are we witness to his capacity for any of the nobler human traits. He can wound but he is the one who get mollified.
In the second novella, Cheri dominates the narrative. He continues to prowl Paris and reacts to the surfaces, smells and physical traits of a world that is becoming too small. His wife could have become a love match for him, but she is absorbed in a world past him. She may have a lover, but she is still open to the possibility of marital sex in what has become a sexless marriage.
The dedicated sensualist that was Cheri in book one has come to the end of his interest in things sensual. What he lacks is a vocabulary or an ability to understand anything beyond surfaces. His struggle with this problem is the conflict that will bring us to the end of these books.
Colette is a master writer. That she chose to write about naughty people and without judging them as naughty may make her work unacceptable for middle or high school reading lists. In these two novellas sex is never graphic and language is never raw. My recommendation is that Colette deserves a higher place in western literature. I will read more of her books.
The book arrived quickly and in good condition. I am happy with it.