When reading supposedly “scandalous” and “controversial” novels from the past, the reaction of the contemporary reader is nearly universal: it’s hard to find so much as the blemish of a taboo in comparison to what we are now accustomed to. One of the most famous banned books, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and the adultery that happens within its pages, now seems formulaic and even quaint: you can find a saucier novel in just about any supermarket these days. Even the stifled pederasty of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice seems almost innocuous in our Post-Sandusky world. Cheri, Colette’s masterpiece, remains one of the few 20th century classics that will still raise an eyebrow, and not because its protagonists–a woman in her forties and a boy in his late teens–make love, but because they are in love.
Cheri was published in France around 1920 and went on to receive acclaim from two of France’s most well-known taboo breaking authors, Andre Gide and Marcel Proust. Cheri’s author was Colette, a talented writer whose scandalous indiscretions were second only to Oscar Wilde’s in terms of fallout. She would have many affairs in her lifetime with partners male and female, the most infamous of which involved her own stepson (no blood ties at least). Despite all of this, her novel Cheri can hardly be called lewd or pornographic. If her books were deemed unfit for public consumption, it was only in the same sense that Mae West’s hysterical comedic style was watered down in the Code years.
The novel follows the last months of the relationship between Lea and Cheri. They had met when Lea was approaching forty and Cheri was a mere 18, and their ensuing romance lasted six years. To clear up some of the confusion you may have at this point, let me point out that Lea is female, and Cheri is male. It took me a few pages to determine the genders of the protagonists, since not only is Cheri’s name (or nickname) feminine, but his attitude is as well. I’m reminded of Marcel Proust’s response to the question ‘what are your favorite qualities in a man?’ To which he answered “Feminine charms.”
It’s suggested at the onset that both Cheri and Lea regard their relationship as strictly sexual, and they share very little romantic attachment to one another. A few chapters in, as Cheri announces his engagement to a woman closer to his own age, Lea takes the news affably, and the two even share a few laughs about it. As they amicably split up, they slowly realize what they’ve done is at best a trial separation, and it proves to be very trying indeed.
It’s only when apart that Lea and Cheri realize they must be together. It’s only when their feelings are revealed as love that the novel takes on a scandalous aspect. Earlier, their romance seemed questionable, but it’s not all that uncommon in today’s society for men to take up with older women–we even have a number of crassly comical terms for it. One thing we don’t expect to form from such bonds–apart from children–is love.
Love, even amongst secularists like myself, has a heft to it, a solemn side. Sex though can be written off, chocked up to youthful recklessness, or called a dalliance on life’s way. When love and taboo collide, the first reaction is to think that something very powerful and important is being besmirched. In the spirit of compassion, while taking baby steps, we can gradually accept that love absolves taboo. Colette, very gracefully while maintaining a wry smile, holds our hands while we make this transition.
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