A small boy tastes salt at the corners of his mouth. His legs feel shaky and his lungs heave. He’d counted on Tillie to see him through his first night in this dormitory but instead had to watch as all the stuffing was wrenched out of her by a pack of fellow-inmates — by way of saying hello. None of them will look at him now, as he climbs into his bed, and he has been careful to meet no one’s gaze.
Not to look up ere some crushing horror descend at the back of one’s ears. Nor move too soon ere a large monster snort new fire. But now to turn gently and up from brave but shy eyes to see. On the next bed sitting a plump little boy. His carrot haired head bent over as he sewed carefully with needle and thread. He looked up and smiled. His eyes were brown and his cheeks big and red. And in his hands, all nearly joined back together again, was Tillie.
How these two are connected I’ll explain in a minute, but seeing Chéri, Stephen Frears’ mesmerising new film of Colette’s La Fin de Chéri last Saturday reminded me that I’ve been puzzling for decades over the uncanny hold J. P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968) has on my imagination. No story of any character in it overlaps more than fractionally with my own biographical facts, and yet this is one book with about four others that I’ve always packed with special care in a life of chronic uprooting. The mere sight of its cover can sometimes be oddly comforting.
That the novel is poignant — a word whose etymology includes both ‘pierce’ and ‘point’ — rather than baldly melancholic is, I suspect, the key to its appeal, and that’s also true of Frears’ Chéri.
Then there’s an interesting difference between the original texts. Wild mules couldn’t drag me within a mile of an adaptation in any medium of my beloved Balthazar B. I couldn’t trust anyone to get it right. By contrast, Frears’ film has done the unthinkable – mined and exposed the gravitas in what struck me, in every attempt I ever made to read Colette’s story, as an irritatingly frothy and boring yarn about a reverse May-September romance between a silly, too-old courtesan and a handsome but conversation-less gigolo an absurd quarter-century younger.
From what do transporting works of art derive their charge? I mean, does anyone know what inspiration stretched their creators to the limits of their powers? We’re usually left in the dark – often because artists themselves do not know the answer. For Balthazar B, though, Donleavy has given lovers of literature the rare gift of a satisfying explanation.
In his interview in the Paris Review series of chats with authors, he tells about attending a rehearsal for the London production of an adaptation of the wicked picaresque that made his name, The Ginger Man. On that day, the play’s producers found that the show could not go on without an infusion of an extra thousand pounds, but had no idea where the money would come from until a ‘young, elegant’ man from Cambridge ‘who had inherited a shipping fortune and was in the process of spending it all’ unexpectedly entered the hall. One of the producers, Tony Walton, immediately ‘pounced. This chap stood there and just looked at Walton and a tiny little smile came on his face. He said nothing at all, just nodded.’
Years later, Donleavy asked this serendipitous theatre-angel why he’d ‘drop a thousand quid he more than likely would never see again, suddenly like that.’ The angel’s answer was that Walton asking for the money had taken him back to being driven to his prep school with his nanny, ‘never having been away from home before.’ Donleavy, quoting him, says he described being led into
’this great awful school […] where all these little bastards descended upon me and took my elephant and pulled it apart. It was ripped to shreds and I was beaten up.’ Later that evening […] he was there crying in bed, without this little elephant he’d always had to hug to sleep […] And suddenly there appeared at his bedside this little boy who was just at that moment sewing up the last of his elephant to give back to him. Tony Walton, my producer, was that little boy. And that’s how I heard that story and it came to be in Balthazar B.
Rightly or not, I felt as if I’d struck pay dirt when I found that anecdote. More than inspiration for a winning twist in the plot, it seemed the equivalent of the Proustian madeleine for Balthazar B‘s genesis. A fragmentary real-life event or scene as a spark is somehow more impressive and intriguing than the conventional background about an actual person and life inspiring a novel. There was, for instance, Auguste Hériot, who seems to have been the principal model for Chéri even though he was only slightly younger than the novelist and, though ardently in love with her, had only a brief liaison with her. By some accounts, Hériot – a spendthrift scion of a plutocratic family that owned a department store in Paris and had ‘the lissom masculine elegance of a cavalry officer’ — was virtually the air-head I thought Colette had portrayed. But one of her biographers, Joanna Richardson, also quotes a close observer of them both describing him as ‘not an idiot, but a very rich man, a regular warrior, brave to the point of temerity, who fought like a lion in the First World War and led an adventurer’s life. . . ’
This is certainly not the Chéri in the Frears film. But an English director in 2009 has still made this couple’s May-September reversal completely believable in a way the proudly libertine Colette could not in 1920 – the year after she seduced a seventeen year-old stepson at forty-six, and before she married a man seventeen years younger, at fifty-three.
This is another impossible accomplishment Frears’ film has in common with Donleavy’s book, in which the tender seduction of a barely pubescent Balthazar by his governess Bella is heart-breakingly real. How did Frears do it? By his sensitive direction of two actors with good looks of unearthly perfection giving devastatingly subtle and complex performances that do full justice to a clever script.
Michele Pfeiffer, playing the forty nine year-old Léa, ‘doesn’t look like a great actress,’ one critic has noted sagely, arguing that her performance in Chéri proves that that’s exactly what she is — all the more impressive, I’d add, for her not playing ‘against type’. The changing play of expressions on her face and on her co-star Rupert Friend’s contribute a depth of characterisation I could never find in the book. They demonstrate the unrivalled impact of gestalt – the way our minds instantly grasp the whole of an integrated image in a way they never do by adding its constituent parts together, … which is virtually all that the most vivid and affecting collection of descriptive words can usually do.
Both Donleavy and Frears also understand the cunning leverage in counterpoint. Daftness and modernist larking-about – both verbal and stylistic – are used to recount Balthazar’s wistful story. It’s impossible to dismiss Friend’s Chéri as just a pretty boy when, deceptively casual, he delivers line after line that isn’t only crisp and bracing but positively fanged.
On a seven-hour car journey on Sunday I didn’t touch the audio tapes I’d packed in a canvas bag to keep drowsiness at bay. Scenes from the film kept spooling through my head, along with regret about the inevitability — in the sense of that which cannot be avoided — of Léa releasing Chéri for the marriage arranged for him with a young woman he can never cherish because he has known ‘what one meets only once in a lifetime and is floored by completely,’ as Colette (by way of Farrar, Straus and Young’s uncredited 1951 translator) puts it.
Frears’ virtual reality was so viscerally compelling that I kept running his version of Léa and Chéri’s story through my nonsense-detection circuitry with a saying bordering on soppy and moronic that I heard long ago, I don’t know where, and whose source I have never found:
You must let love go, when you have to. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it was never yours in the first place.
Chéri’s end – which I won’t give away – is a tragically hopeful paradox, since it suggests that the concluding sentence there can be false as well as true. Or so I’m supposing – and I’m looking forward to dissenting opinions, attached to arguments.