The Brilliance of Colette, a Novelist Who Prized the Body Over the Mind

Colette was a complicated and contradictory figure.Photograph from Getty

“Chéri” sold thirty thousand copies by the fall of its first year, and inspired André Gide to send Colette a letter of praise. (“I will bet that the one rave you never expected to receive was mine,” he wrote.) Between the serial publication of that novel and the publication of its sequel, Colette, in an unsettling case of life imitating art, seduced her sixteen-year-old stepson, Betrand. “I invented Léa as a premonition,” she later wrote. Just as Léa groomed the teen-age Chéri, so this depraved maman taught Bertrand to swim, fed him hearty meals, and took his virginity.

The affair lasted about five years, at the end of which Colette began writing “The End of Chéri.” When we pick up the action again, it is 1919, and Chéri has returned from the war. His wife, Edmée, has evolved into an independent woman who runs a hospital for wounded soldiers and is besotted with the head doctor. Chéri and Edmée’s marriage is sexually arid, oriented around money and appearances. “I have nothing to fear from her,” Chéri reflects, “not even love.” Afflicted by nostalgia for the world of his youth, he feels at odds with peacetime society. Energetic Parisians are building businesses by day and dancing into the night, but Chéri is disgusted by “the young war widows who were clamoring for new husbands, like burn victims for cool water.” He has become alienated even from his own body. Gazing into a mirror, he wonders “why this image was no longer strictly the image of a young man of twenty-four.”

Assailed by change, he dwells upon one permanent image: Léa. She is about sixty now, a number of years he finds “implausible”: “What was there in common between Léa and sickness, Léa and change?” He soon finds out; the centerpiece of this darker sequel is another excruciating reunion. Chéri finds Léa at home. He notices her “broad back,” and “the grainy roll of flesh at the nape beneath vigorous, thick gray hair,” and her arms, “like round thighs,” which hang “apart from her hips, heaved up by their fleshy girth beneath her armpits.” If the Léa of “Chéri” was terrified by aging, now she is the model of acquiescence: “I love my past. I love my present. I’m not ashamed of what I had, I’m not sad that I no longer have it.” Part of the brilliance of the scene is that we perceive Léa both through Chéri’s horrified eyes, which regard her as having abdicated femininity altogether, and through our own, which admit some admiration for this contented woman, happily gossiping and frequenting restaurants. She might be boring and bourgeois, but she is healthy and proud, considerably more than seemed likely at the end of “Chéri.” It was her wicked infant who was in danger all along. Léa’s withdrawal into “a sort of sexless dignity” has closed down his last hope. Now the future is impossible, the present is revolting, and the past has perished on Léa’s double chin. Almost comatose with longing, Chéri spirals toward the title’s promised end.

Why has Colette never been more popular with American readers? William H. Gass suggested that this was because Americans, “though they know a bit about sex . . . prefer not to know about sensuality.” Lydia Davis, in her introduction to the Careau translation, wonders whether it has something to do with Colette’s being a woman, and “one reputed to write mainly about love.” It also seems possible that Colette’s scandalous life, which helped to make her famous in France, doesn’t play as well here. She was a complicated and contradictory figure, an icon of liberation who once said that the suffragettes deserved “the whip and the harem,” and an ally of the marginalized who published in collaborationist journals throughout the Vichy regime. Her affair with Bertrand may inspire a kind of awe at her audacity and appetite, but it’s not ahistorical to describe it as abusive, even if Bertrand, by all accounts, looked back on it fondly. One of his later lovers, Martha Gellhorn, noted that Bertrand “just adored her all his life,” adding, “He never understood when he was in the presence of evil.” (Gellhorn seems also to have been thinking of the friendly interview with Adolf Hitler that he published in 1936.)

In a blurb for the Eprile translation, Edmund White says that Léa and Chéri “are the most convincing arguments I know of against political correctness in fiction.” Condemning the seduction of minors doesn’t strike me as political correctness, but it is true that the world of these novels is not really an ethical or moral one. It is a ruthlessly physical universe, bound by the senses. There, the bond between the two lovers is, as Léa says, “the most honorable thing that we possessed,” and it is finally wrecked by the one thing more powerful than beauty, desire, and love—time. Even Colette was compelled to surrender. “I’m entirely disgusted,” she told a friend, upon being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her hips, the disease that would turn her into an invalid. The elderly Colette was forced to accept the humiliations of age, but rearguard victories were still possible. Before passing away on August 3, 1954, she gave her maid some last instructions. “People mustn’t see me when I’ve died,” she said, refusing her old enemy this final revenge. ♦

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