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Reading for Writing – Chéri By Colette

February 11, 2022

Happy Friday!! Here is the next book on my list from Natalie Goldberg’s 2011 year-long intensive list.

What’s it about? Good question. As far as I can tell Chéri is a story about a middle-aged woman courtesan and her much much younger lover. After reading the Wikipedia synopsis, I think my description still about sums it up. I think I’m going to approach it as a novel solely about complex character development, as it doesn’t appear to have much action. It was written by a French woman named Colette and published in 1920. Only some of her novels have been translated into English, but Chéri has been adapted to the screen twice (1950 and 2009), and been made into a ballet.

Progress? Pg. 79 in my copy, which seems to be about halfway through.

Observations and Thoughts About Writing:

  • The book is filled with dialogue. I mean it’s literally all dialogue and I frequently get confused about which character is speaking. I know I’m not very good with dialogue in my own writing, but this has thrown me for a loop. I find myself having to backtrack to figure out who’s talking, and I wonder if this is related to my own ability to differentiate between speakers or failing to identify cues to indicate who is speaking. Or maybe the writing style was different enough in the early 1920’s to throw me. I haven’t read anything written in that era for a while. Maybe my mind is just out of practice. I will soldier on.
  • The fact that I’m reading a translation keeps knocking around in my mind as I’m reading. In George Saunders’ Story Club there was a long discussion about the meaning that can be lost during translation as we worked through a piece by a Chinese writer Lu Hsun called “The Incident” (also from 1920 as it turns out). With “The Incident” it was clear that some meaning and strength was lost in the translation and that different translations treated the language differently, but I wonder if some of that was increased by the inherent differences between the English and Chinese languages. It’s left me wondering if there is also such a wide difference between English and French that would result in similar issues with translation. French seems more similar to English in that it shares some latin roots for words, but I don’t know enough about the nuances of translation (or French) to make a determination. Any thoughts on this?

Other Thoughts and Questions:

  • I imagine this book was pretty risqué for it’s time, but there’s no overtly sexual imagery or scenes. Everything is implied with dialogue and a few sultry looks. It’s intriguing.
  • Colette is a fascinating woman. The first four novels she wrote were “assigned” to her by her husband who published them under his name and retained the copyright. She never saw a dime from their sales. She was married three times and had numerous relationships with both men and women. In between writing novels she could be found on the stage or pursuing more formal journalism. She was a prolific writer, but not everything has been translated into other languages and she’s most famous for her novel Gigi. The best inspiration for writing strong female characters is to find strong female characters in the world. A biography about Colette will likely find its way onto my reading list.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

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