Borrowed time


Colette <em>Vintage Classics, 128pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 009942276X

In these days of smoking banlieues and new puritanism, nobody reads Colette. She defined Paris as the art nouveau city of artists and demi-mondaines, and as she mythologised the place, so she created her public self within it, a provocative celebrity who makes Madonna look amateur. Beginning to write as a helpless hack who churned out schoolgirl romances in the name of her sadistic first husband, she ended her life as a national treasure, loaded with the highest public and literary honours and awarded a state funeral in 1954.

Within a few years, radical students were building barricades in Paris and Colette's writing was denounced for its "decadence". Icarus-like, her work hurtled from favour and remains a closed book to the Bridget Jones generation. "I was always scared of sexy French writers and the scary students who read them," shuddered one chick-lit princess. The seam of pure gold in her writing has been flooded in the gush of schmaltz generated by the film of Gigi, one of her least insightful books.

Cheri, which appeared 25 years earlier, in 1920, was her breakthrough novel, the foundation of all the glory that was to come. It is the deep, dark obverse of its more famous successor, the story of a young man luxuriating in a love affair with one of his mother's friends, a retired courtesan 25 years his senior. Concerned with renunciation, redemption and retribution, it is also the mirror image of another iconic work, Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux camelias, but is infinitely more subtle and compelling because it enters the heart of a seductress loving on borrowed time who chooses to surrender to age in the hope of setting her lover free. Colette, in her forties and in love with her young stepson by her second marriage, simply wrote about what she knew.

Our heroine, Lea, is no cliche with a heart of gold, but a complex, sophis-ticated, intelligent woman whose moral sense has been honed by her years on the margins of a hypocritical patriarchy. Childless, she begins to love the young man while nurturing him over a summer holiday. In the long run, Lea proves far nobler than Cheri, who sulks, rages and treats his manipulative, bourgeois young bride with a cruelty that our heads condemn while our hearts applaud. Ironically, it is the young man who tries to resist the march of time and refuses to grow up while his much older lover decides to grow old.

Colette's language is opulent but deployed so effortlessly that the reader is borne blissfully along, without the sense of being machine-gunned by a show-off wordsmith. The description is sensual but acutely truthful, and for every idyll under the dappled shade of lime trees in Normandy there is a counterpoint, notably the tea party in Paris with the superannuated courtesans and arthritic ballerinas who will be Lea's new peer group. Cheri's mother is the most repellent of this crew, rendering his loss all the more poignant.

I read Cheri first as a teenager, imagining that I was catching a glimpse of the warm, thrilling and elaborate world of adult emotions. If only. Rereading it now, in the heroine's age range and in the days of Nip/Tuck and Calendar Girls, when there is a daunting requirement for women to stay sexual indefinitely, it has a fresh relevance and an enduring artistry.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid