For a francophile I’ve come quite late to Colette, but, yes, that is the fervor of the convert you glimpse in my enthusiasm. When she is good, she is so wonderful, and when she is lazy she’s still pretty entertaining. The Last of Chéri is emphatically good. It’s probably best read after Chéri, the novel about a beautiful, spoiled young man whose mother is a retired cocotte. In a perversion of nature (ah, Colette!), Chéri is the lover of his mother’s friend/rival/colleague, Léa. (The 2009 film of Chéri is respectable but not fabulous: I could not accept Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging, overripe courtesan. Costumes were glorious, though, especially Rupert Friend/Chéri’s.) Naturally this situation cannot last — Léa is far too old for him and Chéri must be placed in the world, i.e. married off. The novel ends. The years pass. World War I intervenes. Chéri is now thirty! Oh, impossible! He is a decorated veteran — hard to imagine that dandy in the trenches. His wife Edmée is beautiful, serious, and irritating.
Here’s what has me awe-struck: in the character Chéri, Colette initially created something of a monster, exotic and artificial. He was basically brought up as a toy for his mother and her friends. Yet in The Last of Cheri, his creator shows what must become of him. On a hospital visit with his wife, who does Good Works, he talks to “a former comrade among those suffering with trench feet…. he knew perfectly well that a whole man who had escaped from the war was not in the least like these mutilated fellows… he had nothing in common with them and could find no peers among them.” Well — there are no peers for Chéri, anywhere.
But then he rediscovers his old love Léa, living quietly in Passy. And she is fat! “She was not monstrous, but she was huge; everything about her had grown enormous. Her arms stood out, away from her body, like rounded thighs; they were too fat to touch her body at any point. Her clothes implied a renunciation of feminine allurement, the long, plain skirt, the severe coat, half open over her linen blouse, gave her a sort of sexless dignity.” Léa may also stand for the ruin of the world that created Chéri. Or, wait, is that ruin Chéri himself? Lost, lonely, unoccupied, unappreciated — even his looks are fading. (“‘…if you can remember Chéri as he was only six or seven years ago–‘” says Léa to a visitor.) Worst, he finally grasps the elementary fact that Léa, the light of his life, was in fact — a professional. Cheri’s cynicism about his mother and her friends, his ease in their world, turns out to have masked a kind of innocence. He was aware of what they did, but he didn’t really know where the houses and the pearls and the carriages and the silks and the champagne came from. The truth, on top of the dislocation from the war and his fundamentally ruined character, does him in.
Oh, and his real name is Fred.