Other people's sensual experiences aren't worth a straw.
—Louis Aragon, The Libertine
A few years ago I tried to lead my students through two brief novels by Colette, Chéri and The Last of Chéri. I thought, among other things, that these beautiful books would furnish us with a good opportunity to think about the nature of sensuality and its tense relationship to sex—which is a close but not always friendly sibling—and to love, which is often another matter altogether. At the very beginning of our trip, we halted in order to examine a string of pearls belonging to the reluctantly fading beauty, Léa de Lonval. She is a courtesan, as the French say, of a certain age and the sexual mentor of her present bed toy, the handsome Chéri, who has just picked the necklace from her dressing table and declared his desire to possess it. “Give them to me,” he says, “around my neck they look as well as they do around yours.” As the teasing becomes serious, we learn that there are as many pearls in this rope as years in their owner’s life, and that his request to wear them is symbolically the same as placing not only her history about his neck but also the weight and worries of his future years upon his youthful features. Indeed, his mistress immediately complains that when Chéri laughs, ugly wrinkles disfigure his nose.
The light in the room glistens from the chamber’s polished surfaces—the jewels, mirrors, Chéri’s grin, his Moorish slippers and silk pajamas, and particularly the whites of his black eyes—joining these rapid scintillations to those associated with Léa, especially with her naked arms only at that moment rising lazily from the interlaced sheets of her enormous wrought-iron and polished copper bed. He is a malicious imp, continuing to posture. “Il penchait sur la femme couchée un rire provocant qui montrait des dents toutes petites et l’envers mouillé de ses lèvres.” Janet Flanner translates: “He tossed toward the recumbent woman a provoking laugh which showed his small teeth and the soft inner sill of his lips,” the last phrase not quite Colette’s, who has written “the moist reverse” or “inside side of his lips.” Yet Flanner has fallen in with her text’s intention so perfectly that “sill” collects the signals sent into this sexually charged scene the way a fly can sometimes be caught by a quick fist.
My students understood, at this stage in the sexual war between these characters, that “Léa! Donne-le-moi ton collier de perles!” amounts metaphorically to the declaration, “I want your inheritance; I want your wealth, your refined tastes, your social suspicions tuned to every trick; I want everything except your wrinkles, your states of anxious self-regard, the face in your mirror.” In the world both lovers occupy, pearls are permanent; the neck not so much. Above all, these young readers believed—when Chéri accuses Léa of being afraid he’ll steal her necklace—that in the final sum, it’s all about the money, dummy. The lesson seems to be: if you are wise with its use, wealth will purchase social position, lovers, and the amusements needed to occupy an idle life.