In the play Le Demi-Monde by Alexandre Dumas (the younger), he describes a parallel universe in 19th century France where older, married women spend their time in a swirl of seduction, dazzling parties, and opportunism. It was an ode to that epitome of Epicureanism, where a lux libertine lifestyle was the new moral standard and swashbuckling Lotharios oozed charm, no matter their age. But Dumas would not have known that the title of his play would come to characterize an entire lifestyle for the next few decades.
Known as the Belle Epoque, these years saw the reign of the demimondaines, residents of the demimonde or half-world. Flush with industrial wealth, and a preternatural pre-war peace, the beautiful era lasted until the beginning of WWI. Colette’s Cheri is mostly set in the dying days of this splendor; a period when the rumble of war can be heard in the distance but is yet to be acknowledged amidst the reverberating sounds of joie de vivre. But Cheri is not a period piece that’s constrained by the age it is set in. Its characters speak the language of the reader, placing itself comfortably within the reader's milieu; a transcendental quality that’s evident right from the beginning.
The Belle Epoque is distinguished by its carefree atmosphere, wanton sexuality, and open-minded outlook. Nouveau riche industrialists and bohemian artists alike from Germany, London, and other places in Europe flocked to Paris to experience the unmitigated joy in being happily apathetic to some of life’s inherent worries like aging, social status or fidelity. It reminded me of the lotus-eaters in Tennyson’s eponymously named poem. Just like the mariners in the poem, the Parisians were caught up in a world of their own, a world where they could be petulant, and happiness could be bought quite easily. Towards the end of the era, the intoxication wore off as the war made things more real. Happiness, they realized, was the illusion they lived in and there were no devoted marriages or deep friendships to sustain them. The Belle Epoque had made Paris into a playground with walls of flimsy promises and temporary laughter. With the onset of war, these walls crumbled. And that’s when Paris came of age.
Quite interestingly, Cheri’s own evolution (or devolution) mirrors the diptych that defined the Belle Epoque. Initially, Cheri is the disdainful boy, untroubled and possessing a vanity that induces an oblivious self-confidence. He demands and his demands are met, he comes and goes as he pleases, safe in Lea’s attentions. Lea’s home is his island and this is where he gets his happiness. But just like how the surface of the Belle Epoque developed ripples, Cheri’s life develops complications when he gets married to Edmee. He is racked by vacillations and uncertainty brought on by the changes in his life. While it does not signal the complete end of a life of sybaritic pleasures for him, it was the end of innocence so to speak. He was now a married man who would soon be required to go to war. It was the end of his somnolent happiness, and like the people of the Belle Epoque it was his turn to come of age.
Pausing at this point, my thoughts wandered to my own before-and-after, experiences that might be very universal. Metamorphosing from a person who led a shy, fly-on-the-wall existence before college to a more outgoing, adventurous person. Undergoing a tectonic shift from living the relatively worry-free single life to a more thought-filled, but no less happy, married life.
While Cheri reminded me of my own indecisiveness in many things, his 49-year-old lover Lea was the embodiment of my need to be fit.
"Everyone knows," Lea would say, "that a well-made body lasts a long time."
I couldn’t agree more. We were both trying to beat time albeit for different goals. She hoped to remain alluring, and I hoped to continue to be able to run up a flight of stairs at Lea’s age. Lea strikes a universal chord with her obsession with age. Haven’t we all bought that shirt or that cream that promises to hide some of the wrinkles, in the hope of looking a bit younger? Haven’t we changed our diets, primarily not because they are healthy but because we will look skinnier and hence younger?
Today, our digital dependency has created a strong urge for instant gratification while the widespread intrusion and inclusion of social media in our lives have made appearances critical. We get frustrated if a page doesn’t load within seconds, we throw a fit if the mobile signal drops, and we are unhappy if we have to wait too long for just about anything. We tuck skin folds, color our hair, and suffer discomfort in high heel shoes and dresses one size too small. We are validated by the number of followers on Facebook and we flood our Instagrams with selfies. Isn’t there a bit of Cheri and Lea in all of us? We demand things and expect them to be given to us and we are always in the pursuit of youth and popularity. We have all been spoiled by modernity, which is our privilege. We are vain in thinking we have the world at our fingertips; an illusion built and fueled by living in the parallel world of social media. Cheri’s is a world of fleeting baubles that captures his attention for a while and then induces boredom. While the objects of attention differed, the experience has remained the same. We have so many distractions or interests that we ultimately don’t know what to set our mind to. Thankfully, while I have not been afflicted by the need to be anything other than my own self, I still cannot make up my mind if I should stick to just writing or if I should seriously pursue photography as well, alongside.
It’s this ability to speak to her audience in the future, touching upon quotidian things that make up the fabric of life that impressed me about Colette. Through her words, she weaves a coming-of-age tale, more than a romance, with which we can identify in some way or another. Through brilliant strokes of characterization, Colette distills the major arteries of collective thought into Cheri and Lea. Her dexterity of language is what draws the figure of a Cheri, the everyman, who is both vulnerable and insufferable at the same time.
Anger knitted his eyebrows close above his nose, magnified his eyes, glittering with insolence behind a palisade lashes, and parted the chaste bow of his disdainful mouth. Lea smiled to see him as she loved him best: rebellious only to become submissive, enchained lightly but powerless to free himself.
And her Lea is the everywoman who worries about being touched by time, slightly jealous of the young, and uncertain about her own looks that are tied to deeper insecurities.
They looked at each other in open hostility… He was thinking ‘Who’s she to talk of any wrinkles I may have one day?’ and she ‘Why is he so ugly when he laughs? — he who’s the very picture of beauty!’
She shrugged her shoulders, severely critical of everything she no longer loved in herself: the vivid complexion, healthy, a little too ruddy – an open-air complexion, well suited to emphasize the pure intensity of her eyes, with their varying shades of blue.”
Unfortunately, Colette’s magic with language was not enough to sustain my interest in the book, which I struggled to finish. Cheri’s all-pervading ennui spills over and clings like smoke to a shirt. While the book continues to be a relevant read for our age for all the aforementioned reasons, it does not grip like an Anna Karenina nor does it enthrall like a Gone with the Wind. Colette tries to infuse Cheri with emotion and pain but it simply does not become him. It simply does not become the age he is living in. Maybe she intended to convey that even in the age where promiscuity was welcomed with open arms there were real tears shed for love lost. And there very well might have been. It just didn’t seem to sit well with Cheri and Lea. There’s always a cloud of melancholy creating a gloomy atmosphere throughout the novel and Cheri just doesn’t seem happy with anything. It’s frustrating to follow the circles of his mind and his whims and fancies that change faster than he goes through clothes in a day. This coupled with the slow, meandering pace of the book made it a tedious read despite being a slim volume.
At the end of the book, I felt just a little bit drained. Perhaps it was the resurfacing of memories that I had pushed behind. Memories of a friendship, one that meant the world to me, that withered away as life slowly wedged itself in between, of my first year of marriage which juddered on a rocky road but eventually smoothened out. Or perhaps it was the effort of putting up with all of Cheri’s tantrums. Maybe both. Cheri does explore multifarious dimensions — social, personal, and historical — and Colette addresses issues that are not anchored to a single point in time. But as you can see, it’s not an easy or a very likable read. Just like its protagonist.
I am a wanderer and a wonderer. I love to travel and explore, not just literally but also through books, movies, and photography.