Colette’s Chéri, trans. by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C. C. Mambretti)

I’ve had too much of sex crimes, sadism, and injustice. Over the next few months, I’m translating Colette’s Chéri, a 1920 novella about the love of an older woman for a much younger man.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball.

“Léa, give me your necklace. Are you listening, Léa? Give me your necklace!”

No response came from the grand, wrought-iron and chased-copper bed that gleamed in the shadows like armor.

“Why don’t you give me your necklace? It becomes me as well as it does you—and more.”

When the clasp clicked, the enamel-white lace on the bed stirred—two, magnificent, bare arms—fine wrists—languid hands rose up.

“Stop it, Chéri. You’ve played enough with that necklace. Leave it alone.”

“It amuses me. Are you afraid I’ll take it?”

In front of the sun-drenched, rose-colored curtains he danced, all black, like a graceful devil above the bottom of a furnace. But when he moved back to the bed he became all white again from his silk pajamas to his buckskin, Turkish, babouche slippers.

“I have no fear,” replied a sweet, deep voice from the bed. “But you are wearing out the string of the necklace. The pearls are heavy.”

“They are,” said Chéri with respect. “He didn’t mock you, the one who gave you this precious object.”

He held it in front of a long mirror attached to the wall between the two windows, and he contemplated his image: a very handsome, very young man, not too tall or short, blue-tinged hair like a blackbird’s plumage. He opened his nightshirt to reveal a golden, strong chest—bulging like a buckler—and the same flash of rose played on his enamel-white teeth above the whites of his eyes and on the pearls of the necklace.

“Take off that necklace,” insisted the woman’s voice. “Do you hear me?”

Immobile before his image the young man laughed to himself. “Yes, yes, I hear. I know too well you fear I’ll take it.”

“No, but if I give it to you I know—too well—that you would be capable of accepting it.”

He ran to the bed and bounced on it like a ball. “And how! Me, I’m above all conventions. I find it idiotic that a man can accept from a woman one pearl on a tie clip, or two on buttons, and he is considered dishonored if she gives him fifty.”

“Forty-nine.”

“Forty-nine, I know the number. Tell me that it doesn’t become me. Tell me that I’m ugly.”

He bent over the recumbent woman with a provocative grin that displayed his tiny, white teeth and the lining of his lips.

Léa sat up on the bed. “No, I don’t say that. First, because you would never believe that. Even so, you ought not to grin and crinkle your nose like that. You’ll be very happy when you get three permanent wrinkles at the corners of your nose, n’est-ce pas?

Immediately he ceased grinning, smoothed the skin of his forehead, and bowed his head like an old coquette. They regarded each other with an air of hostility, she leaning back amid her lace lingerie, he sitting sidesaddle, Amazon-like, on the bed. He thought, She’s well to tell me about the wrinkles I’ll get. She thought, Why is it ugly when he smiles like that, he who is beauty in essence?

“It’s because you have the air of evil when you smile cheerfully. . . . You never smile wickedly or in mockery. But a cheerful smile makes you ugly. You are often ugly.”

“That’s not true!” cried Chéri, irritated. The anger knitted his eyebrows, filled his wide eyes with the light of insolence, weaponized his eyelashes, and he half-opened his disdainful, chaste mouth.

Léa smiled to see him, whom she loved, revolt, then submit, badly enchained, incapable of freeing himself. She put a hand on the young head, which impatiently shook off the yoke. She murmured as if calming an animal. “There, there. What is it? What is it now?”

He fell on the beautiful, large shoulder, burying his forehead, his nose, in the familiar spot, and closed his eyes and sought his protégé fee for the long afternoons, but Lea repulsed him.

“None of that, Cheri. You lunch today at the house of our national harpy, and it is twenty minutes till noon.”

“No? I’m lunching at the house of my patroness? You, too?”

Léa slid lazily back into bed. “Not me. I’m on vacation. I’ll go to take coffee at two-thirty—or tea at six o’clock—or a cigarette at seven forty-five. . . . Don’t let it disturb you; she’ll see enough of me. . . . And, besides, she didn’t invite me.”