Thursday, October 28, 2021

Some Colette novels about affairs with younger men - beggars for favours of her kind drink in the illusion of generosity

At some point here Colette begins a long love affair with her 16 year-old stepson – I suppose he does not stay 16 for long – and writers a few short novels about older women with young boyfriends. The most famous is Chéri (1920), where the title character is the most beautiful man in France, and exquisite surface:

He was capering about in front sun-drenched rosy pink curtains – a graceful demon, black against a glowing furnace, but when he pranced back towards the bed, he turned white again from top to toe, in his white silk pyjamas and white Moorish slippers.  (first page of the novel, tr. not mentioned in the British edition I am looking at)

Chéri (in English maybe Dearie) is always feminized, and is at this moment wearing his mistress’s pearls.  She is a high-end courtesan nearing the end of her career, keeping her spirits up with the help of Chéri’s youth. She is a wonderful character, but she gets to think about age and death and the meaning of love, subjects with weight.  It is a testament to Colette’s skill that shallow Chéri functions as a character at all, and is not just some kind of faun or nymph.

Where Chéri is sad but balanced, the sequel, The Last of Chéri (1926), gives itself over completely to Dearie and becomes a work of complete despair, or revenge.  I probably read the Chéri books twenty years ago, and I had remembered the mood of the first one pretty well, but not the inexorable grimness of the second.  Colette was adept at writing plotless stories, but she could turn on the melodrama when she wanted.

Le Blé en herbe (1923, Ripening Seed) is about a pair of teenagers, in love with each other but working on the complicated problem of whether or not they are a couple in an entirely plausible adolescent fashion.  I can think of a few precursors, mostly French, but this book seemed to me like a genuine advance in the fictional representation of adolescent psychology.

The boy in the couple adds a complication by allowing himself to be seduced by a single woman, bored, older (all of thirty) on vacation in the neighborhood.  Let’s look at some sexy Colette prose:

She put her arms on his shoulders, and with a slightly brutal shove she forced his dark head down on her bare arm.  Thus burdened, she hurried towards the narrow confines of the shadowy realm where she, in her pride, could interpret a moan as an avowal of grief, and where beggars for favours of her kind drink in the illusion of generosity. (last page of Ch. XIV, tr. another old edition that doesn’t say!)

The eroticism gets a little abstract there.  The sex is hidden by the chapter break.

Emma at Book Around the Corner has a perceptive review of The Ripening Seed.

It is curious that the point of view of these novels is, as a group, mostly that of the young man.  Colette’s work is always inspired by her own life, but she is not a narcissist, not always the subject of her work.

9 comments:

  1. I have a novel of her on the shelf unread, waiting I guess. It was translated by Tomaz de Figueiredo, who admired her prose quite a lot. It was the only novel he translated, as a favor to his editor after the first translator disappointed him.

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  2. No kidding. Only novel he translated! Yes, an honor.

    Colette stands with Proust as an exception to the Cartesian, anti-rhetorical tendency of the time. Whatever she was, she was not a Cartesian.

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    1. That's what Edmund White said, in basically the same words, about Jean Giono's Melville, which I just read. That book is all rhetoric and fantasy. Which is to say, pretty good stuff.

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  3. Thanks for the mention..
    I'd use Darling for Chéri but since English isn't my native language...

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  4. Giono was not-of-his-time in an even harsher time, that of Sarte and the New Novelists and so on. Peak French anti-rhetorical.

    "Darling" is good, likely better. Part of the joke, I'll mention to those who have not read these novels, is that Chéri, although it sounds like and presumably is the courtesan's affectionate nickname for her boyfriend, is used as his name throughout both novels, by everyone, including the narrator. So the character's name really is "Darling" or "Sweetie" or something like that.

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  5. I haven't read Colette, but "nearing the end of her career, keeping her spirits up with the help of Chéri’s youth" makes me think of Strauss's Marschallin.

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  6. "Colette’s work is always inspired by her own life, but she is not a narcissist, not always the subject of her work."
    Sounds interesting.

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  7. In 1925, Colette got rid of her ex-stepson and fell for another younger man, and they stayed together for thirty years, until her death at age 81. But yes, I do wonder if Colette knew Der Rosenkavalier.

    Colette is commonly at the center of her books, but often as more of a "camera eye," and often she displaces herself somehow. Her work rarely feels egotistical to me, not like Proust sometimes does.

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    1. I see. That's good to know.
      I wonder what Knausgård is like.

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