Cheri – Colette (French)
The novel opens with Lea in bed, Cheri capering about the room, insisting that she give him her pearl necklace: “It looks every bit as well on me as on you — even better!” Cheri then announces that the necklace would be part of his trousseau. Lea, a worldly courtesan, seems unfazed by the news of his marriage. Lea is forty-nine, Cheri is twenty-five, and they’ve had a sexual affair for six years. What, considering the age difference, could she expect, except that he move on? But theirs is a perverted bond, and neither will be able to move on. Cheri (who never had a real mother) has the mentality of a twelve-year-old; he isn’t fit to be anything but an indulged boy. Lea (who never had a child) sees time eroding her beauty; she knows that soon she will be physically unattractive to Cheri (or any other young man), and she can’t accept that loss. After his marriage, when he and Lea are apart, the depth of their mutual dependency asserts itself. In presenting us with an unsolvable dilemma Colette is at times overly-emotional, but her conviction is impressive; it made me wonder if she had experienced such a relationship. Underneath a thin veil of lace this is a brutal and ugly novel. When Lea observes aged courtesans desperately trying to hold onto their youth she sees monsters. And of the lives they lead: “She had a foretaste of the sinful pleasures of the old – little else than a concealed aggressiveness, day-dreams of murder, and the keen recurring hope for catastrophes.” This, she fears, is what awaits her. In the closing scene Lea tells Cheri to go back to his wife: “And you will talk to her like a master, not capriciously, like a gigolo. Quick, quick, run off. . . .” He leaves, and Lea watches him from a window, sees him “throw back his head, look at the spring sky and the chestnut trees in flower and fill his lungs with the fresh air, like a man escaping from prison.” And so, on this hopeful note, the book ends. To be continued, in a novel written six years later.
The Last of Cheri – Colette (French)
Lea makes one appearance, when Cheri visits her. She has given up any attempt to preserve her looks; she’s gray-haired and fat. Though this meeting opens up wounds for her, she seems to have survived quite well without Cheri. He, on the other hand, is little more than a wraith, inexplicable even to himself. This inexplicability makes for exasperating reading. Unlike the other wealthy characters in the book, who live the “bustling life of people with nothing to do,” Cheri has become jaded and stagnant. He’s also celibate; his feelings for his wife (and everyone else) are hostile. What is there about this twenty-nine-year-old man that makes him unable to function? I didn’t buy the answer Colette presents us with – that he’s a lost soul without Lea. Cheri is deranged, not lovesick. On the last pages he’s lying on a divan in a room surrounded by photos of a young Lea: “. . . all the Leas, with their downward gazing eyes, seemed to be showing concern for him. ‘But they only seem to be looking down at me, I know perfectly well. When you sent me away, my Nounoune, what did you think there was left for me after you?’ ” This tortured soul is a fictional aberration, whereas the Lea who has accepted old age is grounded in reality. In the one meeting between the two Lea sees that Cheri is gaunt, and she recommends a little restaurant (while blowing an imitation kiss in honor of the food), along with some advice: “Romanticism, nerves, distaste for life: stomach. The whole lot, simply stomach. Love itself! If one wished to be perfectly sincere, one would have to admit that there are two kinds of love – well-fed and ill-fed. The rest is pure fiction. If only I knew how to write, or to make speeches, my child, what things I could say about that!” These blithe words smack of cruelty, as does the fate that Colette dooms Cheri to. Maybe this book is her day-dream of murder.
Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi (Italian)
Christ never proceeded on to the desolate regions of Lucerno, Italy, where Carlo Levi is banished by the Fascist government. Levi stays for one year in the godforsaken town of Gagliano. The peasants there say “We’re not Christians.” “Christian,” to them, means “human being,” and, since they’re thought of (by the world of Christians) not as men but simply as beasts of burden, they do not qualify. This remark reflects the bitter humor – and hopelessness – with which they view their lives. Levi becomes close to the peasantry because he was trained as a doctor; he never practiced, but he has knowledge that the other two doctors in Gagliano don’t. Those two doctors – utterly incompetent and uncaring – are typical of the town’s gentry (those who are in charge). Levi winds up treating the ill, of which there are many. Malaria is rampant; this was a preventable disease, but nothing is done by the government to eradicate it; Rome only impinges on the lives of the peasants in the form of taxation or a demand to serve in the military. Time, in the form of progress, has passed them by; they live in brutish, primitive conditions; their homes are hovels which they share with their goats. The Christianity of the peasants has a strong element of pre-Christian paganism. Their “Black Madonna” is a forbidding, fearsome figure, and they adamantly believe in potions and spells, witches and gnomes. This book, which could be called narrative anthropology, is a close look at a place you would never want to visit (even the landscape is devoid of beauty). But when Levi leaves it is with a feeling of affectionate sorrow. He doesn’t sugar-coat nor ennoble the people of Gagliano, but he recognizes and responds to their humanity.