Shortly after I was old enough to peruse the magazines and newspapers that came to the houses of older family members, I discovered the wonders of the Columbia House Record Company and the Quality Paperback Bookclub via their advertisements.
Both of these catalogue businesses offered tantalizing deals to new members to draw them into the fold, and I spent countless hours assembling my personal selections as an imaginary new member. I dreamed of joining and filling orange crates and bookshelves with records (then cassettes, then CDs) and books, assembling another me.
In my first apartment, long before I could afford to have a cable subscription, I did join the bookclub, with their 6 books for $1 deal. (Honestly, I could not afford to belong, but I still loved receiving the catalogues in the mail, and eventually I did fulfill my membership commitment. It was the grown-up version of the Scholastic Book Club, a highlight of my young bookish life.)
The regular QPB newsletters arrived with a small catalogue of new and classic selections and, on the back of the envelope (at least, as I remember it), was a blue-inked line-drawing of a woman’s head.
It looked like the photograph on the back of my old copy of Chéri (1920) and The Last of Chéri (1926). That image was my first acquaintance with Colette.
She didn’t seem real, this disembodied head, and I was in my later teens and it hadn’t fully become real to me yet that people who spoke other languages wrote books in other languages, books that I might find interesting if only I could read them. (We did study French fiction in French class in high school, but Camus not Colette, and Saint-Exupéry not Chéri.)
Even though I don’t remember being curious about this woman on the envelope at the time, for a couple of decades now, the contents of this little Everyman’s hardcover (a translation by Roger Senhouse) have been on my TBR. So #1920Club was the perfect excuse to finally and properly make the acquaintance of Léa and Chéri.
Now that I am more Léa’s age than Chéri’s, I wonder what I would have made of this love story as a younger reader.
Surely I would have taken note of passages like this: “Léa, rocking herself gently to and fro, glanced occasionally at Chéri, who lay sprawled on a cool cane settee, coat unbuttoned, a cigarette dying between his lips, a lock of hair over one eyebrow.”
He sounds like the quintessential bad boy, like someone out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And I probably would have overlooked the cigarette, the image of consumption and wizening; I probably would have focussed on the lock of hair.
And I probably would have taken the ill-effects that Edmée suffers in response to Chéri as no reason to question his desirability: “Intoxicated by the scent which Chéri used too much of, she began to droop like a rose in an overheated room.”
This kind of observation could have served as evidence of Léa and Chéri being destined for one another instead, of Edmée’s weakness and unsuitability. Let her droop while Léa thrives. (Note: These imaginings, these assumptions assigned to my younger reading-self, have little to do with Colette’s plot.)
I wonder, would I even have taken note of the question one of these women asks Chéri: “What you call love…isn’t it possible that it may be, really, a … kind… of alibi?” Even without all the hesitancy expressed in the ellipses, it seems like an unformed challenge that I would have dismissed before I properly understood what she was saying.
One element of the story that I feel confident I’d’ve been just as curious about then as I am now though? The description of the ‘housemaid’s coffee’, a drink “made with creamy milk, well sugared slowly re-heated, with buttered toast crumbled into it and browned till it formed a succulent crust”. Isn’t that a cozy treat? It should be trending online with all the sourdough bread these days.
In between these two volumes (yes, I read on – I had to learn of their fates), Colette wrote and published The Ripening Seed (the only other of her books I’ve read) whose theme is also relevant here. If only I lived a little closer to Kaggsy, I might raid her Colette shelves and see if she ever writes about anything other than being-in-love and not-being-in-love. Not that she needs to, in order to keep my interest: she does have a knack.