Antonomasia's Reviews > Chéri

Chéri by Colette
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Dec 29, 14

bookshelves: 2006, france, 2012, novella, decade-1920s
Read from January 26 to 27, 2012

2.5

What a frustrating book. It isn't badly written, but only if it were written quite differently would I really enjoy it.

Chéri and Léa are difficult, unsympathetic characters - but this is a type I often find interesting to read about. Books can show such people's underlying thoughts and feelings, and the events that made them so disagreeable: they can make them sympathetic and understandable if you are reasonably open-minded.

But we hear nothing of Chéri's inner life, and in writing alone there is no appeal in a person who is gorgeous, selfish, rude, spoilt and shallow, and barely has a kind word for anyone. Yes, his "eyes ... were used only to win love, never to reveal his mind", but dammit, Colette, you should be revealing his mind rather more than in the odd factual sentence about his childhood.

Léa experiences so many pleasurable things during the course of the book, but they are mentioned in passing, only for the narrative to concentrate on her varying degrees of boredom with and sneering at almost everyone she encounters. Colette is described as a sensual writer, but sensual, vivid descriptions of Léa's beauty treatments, dress fabrics, food, let alone a lover (even within the constraints of the era) are absent. This book seems not sensual, but bitter, jaded, and depressed, not even attempting to derive deep pleasure from one's surroundings.

Léa and Chéri don't even seem to like each other much, let alone to be "soulmates". This is a type of love which is some other force, animal and compellingly fated, not modern companionate love.

These characters live on the surface in the worst possible way; they lack joy, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness and true engagement with their worlds.

Yes, they can be analysed, but I could only enjoy reading about them if there were a narrative that dealt more explicitly with these aspects of personality. There is a terribly wasted opportunity as they each separately come to realise that they are in love: disappointingly this leads to no further unfolding of the selves except in one long conversation quite near to the end of the book. And this was too little too late after dragging myself through the emotional deadness that made the story feel three times longer than it is. (I quite forgave myself for having abandoned this book after a few pages, some years ago.)

As with difficult characters, it can be interesting to read about alien situations to gain a better understanding of them. The May-to-September age gap between Chéri and Léa was clearly something open to ridicule at the time when the book was written, but these days it would be more scandalous because she had been a close friend of his mother's throughout his lifetime and had babysat him when he was a child. I suppose because Colette wasn't writing at a time when she had to explain or justify this aspect to any great extent, little space was devoted to it. But the lack of interiority made me wonder all the more "why?". What did it mean to them?

I'm afraid I resorted to a somewhat objectifying psychological analysis to get any satisfaction out of the story, though I would have preferred to understand the characters on more human terms. I took the story as an example of what could happen if two people with avoidant attachment styles and poor-to-indifferent reflective and mentalisation capacity, raised in and living in a narcissistic and materialistic milieu, were to be strongly physically attracted to one another and subconsciously fall in love as a result of that attraction.

I wonder whether the world in which the novel is set was indeed the joyless, petty place it seems here. Before Chéri"Belle Epoque Paris" had rather a magical ring to it.
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