Computing the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever

Last of Cheri book coverThe Last of Chéri
by Colette
translated from French by Roger Senhouse

Ah, Chéri, the spoiled beautiful boy who thought he was being terribly grown up by getting married to the first girl he liked who was his own age. Thankfully Colette revisited that scenario and reassured us that no, Chéri is not happy living a respectable life.

Since his introduction in Chéri, Chéri has fought in the First World War and returned to a Paris changed irrevocably. His wife has found purpose running a hospital for war veterans, which holds zero interest for Chéri. There is no longer a glittering whirl of parties to occupy his time. He’s depressed, but he doesn’t understand that.

“The apparition of the large, flat, half-veiled moon among the scuppering vaporous clouds, which she seemed to be pursuing and tearing asunder, did not divert him from working out an arithmetical fantasy: he was computing – in years, months, hours and days – the amount of precious time that had been lost to him for ever.”

The writing is of course beautiful, but it’s also thoroughly melancholy. Every page is suffused with sadness and/or confusion.

Can Chéri recover from his depression? Can he reconnect with Léa, the woman who trained him as her lover, who he has belatedly realised the importance of in his life? A chance meeting with Léa’s friend “The Pal” offers him the opportunity but following through comes with complications.

Ultimately, Chéri is suffering because he could not freeze time when he was young and happy. His period of pleasure was linked so much to his physical attractiveness that growing older is already unbearable to him at 30.

“Every time he bumped into his own image, Chéri was brought up sharp by a slight shock when he recognised it as his own. He never could understand why this glass did not reflect the faithful image of a young man of twenty-four. He could not detect the precise points where time, with invisible finger, marks first the hour of perfection on a handsome face, and then the hour of that more blatant beauty, the herald of a majestic decline.”

Chéri is not a pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, rude, ignorant. It can be hard to sympathise with his suffering while surrounded by luxury. But he represents a country forever altered, a lost time and place, and in that respect his story is moving.

Le fin de Chéri published in Paris in 1926.
This translation published 1951.

Source: secondhand, years ago, I don’t remember where.

NB Though this is a novel set in France by a French author, I read it before I started the EU Reading Challenge, so I can’t honestly count it towards that.