One of my favourite novels is Cheri, by the French author, Colette. It tells the story of a beautiful young man who is cossetted and spoiled by his mistress – in the dominating sense of that word – and lover, Léa, an older woman. The book opens in Léa’s boudoir, where she is dressing, and Chéri is lounging on her messy bed, naked except for a long string of Léa’s pearls. ‘Give them to me,’ he says, commanding, then pleading, then seductive. The pearls look beautiful on her, Léa reflects as she dresses, but they look even more beautiful on Chéri.
I love the sensuality of this novel, and its exploration and appreciation of pleasure, discipline, and loss in every area – of love, work, and, ultimately, life. There’s a trade off for everything, the novel implies, but at the same time the great consolation is that everything can be compensated for – even the loss of love. The passing of time is another theme of Chéri, and its relationship to pleasure. The evanescence of the love between this young man on the cusp of his erotic life, and woman near the end of hers is contrasted with the unchanging order and beauty of Léa’s home. There is a scene of her going through the linen cupboard with her housekeeper, for example, in order to relax. Material pleasures are the opposite of emotional and physical ones, Colette implies, in their permanence, and their coldness – like the pearls the naked Chéri is wearing. And yet, or perhaps and so, Léa has spent her career trading love for things. Her wealth – including those pearls – is the fruit of her successful career as a courtesan, during which she traded her love, or at least her body, for money, and yet she is still capable of experiencing heartbreak. Is that the true mark of youth, perhaps? In which case it’s Chéri who is the aged one, as he is cynical and jaded, behaving as though he is beyond love before he’s even begun.
When I think of Chéri, I wonder where those young men are now in our public cultural life. Where are the stories about them? Who are the movie stars who embody them? I have done my time worshipping his type in my personal life. It’s something that drew me to gay culture in the 90s, that my ideal of beauty was also one of theirs, whereas straight culture was like a distorting mirror, focused so obsessively on presenting female beauty – similar to me yet more ‘perfect’ – as the ‘object of desire,’ and the men who loved them like cartoon characters of exaggerated masculinity. Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth could never play Chéri. (And Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Léa in the film version seems impossible to me also, which is why I haven’t seen it.) The young Rupert Everett, on the other hand, could have done so with his eyes closed.
As a fantasy object, however, Chéri, is heterosexual, and another thing I admire about the novel is its particular appreciation of the nuances between a man and a woman. The eroticism of gay culture attracted me with its atmosphere of casual equality. Straight sex and love is haunted by mother and father, and struggles against the supposed privilege of being the dominant paradigm to be anything but just the way it looks in the ads on TV. In Chéri, however, their love is recognisable to me, yet anything but bourgeois. They couldn’t be less interested in being productive, materially or reproductively. Yet the question of who is boss hangs in the air – as perhaps it does in most relationships. It’s not a burden but rather a fact of life, Colette implies – and while the two lovers play with it, they each have their strategems in place to survive.
He never looks at women in the street because he is sure that they will look at him.