Before and after

I'm a big fan of Colette. I've always loved her writing. The Claudine novels escorted me on a trip round Europe, and even now re-reading them brings back the feeling of being young. That's not just because of my reading them as a young 20-something, but they have a wonderful youthful joie-de-vivre about them. Colette's writing is beautiful, she's sparing with her words, and yet can create a moment so evocatively (great tribute to her translators too, who do a wonderful job).

A couple of her novels though I've had for years but have never got around to reading, so it was time to dip into Cheri and The last of Cheri. I found both novels very unexpected. Unlike the other novels of Colette's that I had read, these were not such easy reading; and you really wouldn't want to be feeling down when reading The last of Cheri.

Both novels centre around Cheri, the pet-name for a spoilt young man, who is the son of a courtesan. Cheri is at the heart of Paris's demi-monde, where he is the pampered pet of his mother's friends. Determined to bring Cheri up as a proper member of society, his mother hands him over to Lea de Lonval, a fellow courtesan of her own age, to continue his sentimental and sexual education. What seems like a casual and extremely happy relationship becomes more serious when Cheri marries the daughter of another courtesan. At which point both Cheri and Lea realise that they are in love with each other. They avoid each other on Lea's advice in an attempt to make the marriage work, but after 6 months Cheri returns to Lea, only to finally realise that she is much older than him, at which point he leaves her and goes back to his young wife leaving Lea devastated even though in her heart she had always known that at some point this would happen.

The last of Cheri moves forward several years. Cheri has survived the First World War. Embittered by the experience, he's back in Paris with a wife with whom he has nothing in common. Realising that his wife is happiest without him and has started having affairs, he returns to Lea, but she is greatly changed, and in any case doesn't want to rekindle the relationship. (Lea in the latter novel is an oddly insubstantial character, so different from the earlier vibrant woman of Cheri). Throughout Cheri, I, at least, was convinced that Lea genuinely loved Cheri. In The last of Cheri this is not so clear - did Lea really love him, or was she just fulfilling her expected role? In a fit of nihilism Cheri decides to commit suicide.

I found these novels oddly difficult to read. The first novel is in many ways Colette at her most luminous. There is some beautiful writing. Cheri is a sweet, if pampered, boy, and Lea is just wonderfully written - a vibrant, lovable woman with an element of tragedy at her core. You know that Lea will never be happy in love, but you desperately want life to be kind to her. In an odd way you want life to be kind to Cheri too, exasperating as he is, as he blunders his way into marriage.

The second novel though is as cold as the iciest circle of Hell. I believe that this was Colette's own commentary on the inheritance of the First World War. Cheri wants to get as far away as possible from his wartime experiences, but Paris is still over-run by members of the American military, a constant reminder of a horrible time; while society women, such as his mother and his wife, are obsessed with hospital fund-raisers and rehabilitating wounded soldiers. Cheri, who has survived the war physically intact (though I would suspect that a modern-day Cheri would have been diagnosed with PTSD) becomes an onlooker, unable to escape his life as a soldier mentally and trapped in a Paris swarming with reminders of his own personal suffering.

Desperate to reclaim his lost happiness Cheri distances himself from his family and friends as he loses his grip on society. It is a devastatingly sad book which draws you in and holds the reader. Like most Colette it is well written, but I missed the sunny Colette that I love. And although I admired the writing, there is something curiously unlikeable about Cheri, though I loved the Lea of the first novel.

Well written, at times devastating, for any fan of Colette the Cheri sequence is essential reading, but keep a large glass of brandy to hand!


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