TW: Quotations from the original and the translation include racially insensitive terms.

In Colette's Chéri, shortly after the ageing courtesan Léa has taken the eponymous teenager as a lover, she is discussing him with a friend:

"C'est rigolo, confiait-elle, à la fin de cet été de 1906, à Berthellemy-le-Desséché, il y a des moments où je crois que je couche avec un nègre ou un chinois.
      —Tu as déjà eu un chinois et un nègre?
      –Je ne sais pas. Je ne peux pas t'expliquer. C'est une impression."

Colette. Chéri. 1920. Ed. Christina Tumminello. "La Collection Française" de CPI. New York: Chatterley Press International, 2006. p. 32. All subsequent page references to the French are to this edition.

      "It's funny," she confided to the old Baron de Bethellemy, towards the end of the summer of 1906, "but sometimes I think I'm in bed with a Chinee [sic] or an African."
      "Have you ever had a Chinaman or a Negro?"
      "Well then?"
      "I don't know. I can't explain. It's just an impression."

Colette. Chéri and The Last of Chéri. Trans. Roger Senhouse, 1951. Intro. Judith Thurman. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 2001. p. 32. All subsequent page references to the translation are to this edition.

Later, she reiterates this identification, and the narrator provides some sort of explanation for what Léa has in mind while making it:

      "Oui, je t'assure, un chinois ou un nègre", avouait-ell à Anthime de Bertellemy; et elle ajoutait : "je ne peux pas t'expliquer", nonchalante et malhabile à définir l'impression, confuse et forte, que Chéri et elle ne parlaient pas la même langue.

p. 39.

      "Yes, I assure you, he might be a Chinese or an African," she declared to Anthime de Berthellemy, and added, "I can't tell you why." The impression was strong but confused, and she felt lazily incompetent to find words for the feeling that she and Chéri did not speak the same language.

pp. 39–40.

In Léa's mind, un chinois would be the same racial category as someone from South East Asia, so I believe she is comparing Chéri to French colonial subjects in Indochina and Africa. But Léa is not the only person to exoticize Chéri in this way. Another former lover of Léa's, who is training Chéri in boxing, makes the same sort of colonialist reference:

      "Pourtant, objectait Patron, il est d'un bon modèle. Vous lui voyez déjà des muscles comme à des types qui ne sont pas d'ici, des types de couleur, malgré qu'il n'y a pas plus blanc. Des petits muscles qui ne font pas d'épate. Vous ne lui verrez jamais des biceps comme des cantaloups.

p. 35.

      "And yet," Patron objected, "the lad's very nicely made. There's muscles on him now such as you don't see on our French lads; his are more like a coloured boy's—though he couldn't look any whiter, I must say. Nice little muscles they are, and not too showy. He'll never have biceps like melons."

p. 35.

Some years later, after Chéri leaves Léa, his teenage bride, Edmée, thinks of him in similarly colonialist terms:

      "Il y a des moments, pensait-elle, où il ressemble à un sauvage. Un être de la jungle? Mais il ne connaît ni les plantes ni les animaux, et il a parfois l'air de ne pas même connaître l'humanité.…"

p. 69.

'There are moments when he looks like a savage,' she thought, 'like a man from the jungle. Yet he knows nothing about plants and animals, and sometimes he doesn't seem even to know about human beings.'

p. 70.

Further, we are told that Chéri patronizes "un dépôt de tabacs orientaux / a tobacconist's that specialised in Oriental cigarettes" (pp. 99 / 101–102) and that he has a drawing room "sans meubles, plein de vases chinois / with no furniture in it, full of Chinese vases" (pp. 114 / 116).

Why is Chéri constantly exoticized in racial terms? What purpose does it serve to have his body, his sexual prowess, his psyche, even his taste in tobacco or décor, characterized in this colonialist manner? Are these comparisons meant to tell us something about Chéri, about the racist attitudes of French society of the time towards colonial subjects, or both? The implications of these passages might be obvious to native French speakers, in which case I'd welcome some explication. But if they are not so obvious, then I'd be interested to hear what critics and scholars, particularly those of a post-colonialist bent, have said about this.


2 Answers 2


I haven't read the novel and it would probably take a Colette specialist to track that trope across all her works, but colonialism and the exoticism it inspired in the arts were a big thing in France throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th century. Colonial exhibitions that ran until WW2 and showed "indigenous" men and women in staged human zoos reinforced the alien and picturesque perception of these people in the French society. A good starting point to understand France's relationship to native cultures and peoples at the time might be Victor Segalen's Essay on Exoticism written a few years before Chéri.

If countless male authors had written long before about the overseas colonies and "amours coloniales", published female writers were still a small minority in the 1920s and it is difficult to find pieces that eroticize men from a woman's perspective, let alone non-European men, as a point of comparison to Chéri. A few precursors like Claire de Duras and Isabelle Eberhardt wrote about colony natives or mixed-race love relationships but without a strong sensual or sexual component. If anything, it is male writers like Victor Margueritte (La Garçonne, 1922) who depicted women's sexuality the most and it didn't go without scandals.

From your excerpts in French, Colette seems fully in line with the mindset that was still mainstream in her time - natives from the colonies are to a large extent exoticized and fantasized while at the same time feared and essentialized as savages lacking a civilized culture and language. I can't detect an ironic or critical distance between the author and the words of her character who is also presumably the main protagonist through which the story is told and thus, empathized with.

  • 2
    I don't think one can - in one fell swoop - say she was in line a mindset. She was out probably to shock the idiotic bourgeosie and their moralism, that yes. Her characters are getting off on the other. Outré for sure given the times.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 14 at 20:33
  • 1
    +1. Thanks, this is a useful answer that provides great background info and answers the question as stated in the header. I will hold off from accepting it because I'd like to wait a bit in case someone provides more specific discussion of Chéri rather than the general milieu. (For example, while Léa is indeed one of the characters whose point of view is used, others like Edmée and Chéri himself are also among those.)
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 14 at 21:22
  • 1
    @Lambie I fully agree, Colette was a free thinker in many other ways - famously, feminism and social criticism. I was referring to the specific mindset about people of color. From the text only, nothing indicates she was, or wasn't, ahead for her time in that regard. Then again, I am not a specialist and agree with Verbose that this is no perfect answer. Commented Mar 15 at 9:56

In English, colonialist means someone who supports colonialism.

In French, it means the same thing.

I don't see anything in the cited excerpts that supports the idea of colonialist. It's just not in the text even if the broader society was impacted by colonialism.

Colette was a person who liked - or even got off on - shocking society in general re sex and sexuality. This is borne out by all the literature on her I have seen. The very fact of this book, Chéri, where the protaganist, aged 50, sleeps with a young man half her age, caused quite an uproar in Parisian literary circles of the time.

The framing of her relationship with the young man is complicated but two of the features are that she infantilizes him while at the same time erotizing him. Mostly his beauty, it would seem. Léa's relationship with him is semi-incestuous. Why? Because he calls her "Nounenoun, a term of affection that could be used and was used by him to her when he was a little boy. If he is still calling her that, as an adult, that's incestuous or at best quasi-incestuous.

The only translation I've found that I can quote here that shows this from the novel is by Roger Senhouse and the excerpt runs as follows:

"But no confession came from those curved lips, scarcesly anything indeed but sulky or frienzied phrases woven around "Nounoune" — the name he had given her when a child and the one he now used in the throes of his pleasure almost like a cry for help."

The term Nounoune was invented by Colette. It is quite close to the French term "nounou", a child's term for a nursemaid, a nourrice being the formal term for the person who cares for a small child. So, that's how Chéri was referring to his lover, Léa. Also, nou is homophonic to the pronoun nous (we, us). See the definition of nounou.

Translation into English at archive.net.

After I added the line about semi-incestueuse, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the "guardians" of Colette's work in France, La Société des Amis de Colette think the same way:

They say: The quasi-incestuous dimension of their relationship does not thereby make this novel into a remake of Bataille's famous book Maman Colibri: [..] (La dimension quasi incestueuse de leur relation ne fait pas pour autant de ce roman un remake de la fameuse Maman Colibri de Bataille :)

For example, his beauty:

Elle toucha de l'index, comme pour désigner et choisir ce qu'il y avait de plus rare dans tant de beauté, les sourcils, les paupières, les coins de la bouche. Par moments, la forme de cet amant qu'elle méprisait un peu lui inspirait une sorte de respect. "Être beau à ce point-là, c'est une noblesse", pensait-elle.

She touched with her index finger, as if to point out and select what was so rare in so much beauty, his eyebrows, eyelids, and the corners of his mouth. At times, the form of this lover that she scorned somewhat inspired in her a sort of respect. "To be handsome to such a degree, is nobleness", she thought. [translation mine]

And her infantilization of him:

Léa posa sur les épaules de Chéri ses bras polis, nus et lourds >:"Mon pauvre gosse! Mais j'aurais dû déjà mourir quatre ou cinq fois, à ce compte-là! Perdre un petit amant…. Changer un nourrisson méchant…."

Léa put her shiny, naked and heavy arms on Chéri's shoulders. "My poor child! But I should have already died five or six times on that account. [in reference to his mother coming to his bedside].

And in the book's opening scene: "Laisse ça, Chéri, tu as assez joué avec ce collier. Leave that alone, Chéri. You've played enough with that necklace." (Project Gutenberg's reprint)

Without going into more detail about his physicality and her infantilizing him, her relationship to him is also one of, at times, slight boredom. She has had many lovers in her lifetime who were young and has been "devoted for the last 30 years to radiant young men or fragile adolescents". Chéri's mother spoils him (he doesn't finish school and that's alright with her, and at one point stamps his foot like a child among other childish antics) and Léa dotes on him as if he were just a beautiful boy.

As far as verbs ending in ize, I feel one needs a pattern or theme in the story description or the dialogue that justifies that as it would have to happen over some narrative time. So, Léa definitely infantilizes Chéri, and Chéri "motherizes" her (he calls her by the childish name Nounoune and she too refers to herself as that) but the use of a term two or three times with the same meaning in a novel doesn't really entitle it an ize verb ending (exoticize).

So why did the author use those terms? Well, the character herself says "I don't know. I cannot explain it to you. It's just an impression". We, the readers learn time and again that she enjoys her love affair with him (it's been going on for six years) and therefore if she has the impression of a Chinese or Black man as part of the "sex trope" of the novel, then, one's mind goes to something positive for her, not something negative. The negative aspect of the affair for her is her aging. That is another major preocupation in the book. My reading of chinois and négre is that of an extension of her fantasies, not a limitation of them. Furthermore, nothing suggests racism at all. Her friend the baron remarks that maybe it is due to the young man's well-formed muscles. How often would one describe one's fantasies as a negative... after spending so much time describing their positive aspects.

Here is just one quote from a longer essay in French by Julia Kriteva, the psychoanalyst and writer, (well-known in literary circles versed in structuralism and semiology) about Colette:

Submerged in the instant of pleasure, Colette takes pains to tell stories: her exploded tales (like a drawing) shake us up above all with their sensual flashes and meditations on the war between the sexes and very little, in fact not at all, by repetitive, rather banal plots. Narrative time slips away in Colette, their old-time vaudeville acts fade and become old but what remains intact is the poetry of pure incorporated time, like the time invented by Proust, that Colette remodels in her own way. They are less metaphysical, gayer and have a sensuality that fills the mouth, fills the tongue (fills language)." Kristeva paeon to Colette

The complicated issue here revolves around the term négre, and the cited translations into English.

In French, the word noir is the appropriate word today to designate or to mean a black person. English has - rightly - relinguished Negro and French has done so too for the term négre (except as an adjective and in other contexts not relevant here) in favor of noir.

"En tant que personne noire, il est parfois cocasse, voire gênant, d'observer un collègue, un client ou un patron chercher ses mots avec un brin d'embarras pour s'empêcher d'articuler ces quatre lettres. La peur d'utiliser le mot « noir » relève d'une vision quelque peu dépassée de la lutte contre le racisme".

Translation: As a black person, it is sometimes laughable, if not embarassing, to observe a colleague, client or boss fumbling for words a bit confusedly and who stop themselves from saying these four letters [noir]. The fear of using the word "noir"| comes from an outdated view of the fight against racism.

"Or, contrairement à d'autres termes du passé, le mot « noir » ne porte pas de charge symbolique négative. Il n'a ni le caractère déshumanisant du mot « nègre », lié à l'idée de servitude, ni le caractère dégradant de « mulâtre » qui évoque un croisement racial contre-nature, ni la teinte très coloniale de « gens de couleur » qui désignait les descendants libres et plus ou moins métissés d'anciens esclaves".
Translation: Now, unlike other terms used in the past, the word "noir" carries no negative symbolic charge. It has neither the dehumanizing trait of the servitude-related word "negro" nor the degrading one of "mulâtre" [mulatto] that evokes an unnatural cross nor the very colonial hue of "people of color" that designated the more or less mixed race free descendents of former slaves.

The article is by Par Binkady-Emmanuel Hié, a black journalist. And the article specifies this: Binkady-Emmanuel Hié a été un des auteurs du manifeste « De la question raciale à l'Opéra de Paris », qui a fait grand bruit dans le monde de l'opéra en 2020. (Karim Sadli)

Binkady-Emmanuel Hié is one of the authors of the manifesto "The Racial Issue at the Opéra de Paris", an event caused an uproar in the world of opera in 2020. (Karim Sadli)

Publié le 19 avr. 2023 à 07:01 Mis à jour le 19 avr. 2023 à 17:30 Les Echos newspaper_ the word noir [black]

In 1937, Richard Wright contributed a “Blueprint for Negro Writing” to the first issue of New Challenge, a short-lived magazine he helped launch in June 1937. document_hal science

His novel Native Son was published in 1940 and uses the term Negro with a capital n thoughout. Native Son

The famous black American intellectual, W.E.B. du Bois used the term Negro with a capital n all the time:
The Negroes in the Making of America
by W. E. Burghardt DuBois
Ph. D. (Harv.) Publication date: 1924

At around the same time in France (the twenties), Black intellectuals from the French Antilles and Africa used the term Négre (with a capital letter) extensively in order to take back the term used by racist whites. That story is well told in this article entitled [Le Rouge et le Noir]

The dictionary says this:

☆1. Terme dont on usait autrefois pour désigner un homme noir, une femme noire (ce terme, souvent jugé dépréciatif, a été parfois revendiqué au XXe siècle par les Noirs pour affirmer leur identité). Translation: A term that was used in times gone by to indicate a black man, or black woman (this term which is often seen as condescending was sometimes claimed back in the 20th c. by Blacks who were affirming their identity).
9th edition of the Dictionnaire de l'académie, December 2009.

Now for the translation of the terms as given in the question.

This: "but sometimes I think I'm in bed with a Chinee [sic] or an African." "Have you ever had a Chinaman or a Negro?" is not acceptable as a translation.

The term Chinee comes from Uncle Remus and was subsequently a poem by Bret Hart called the The Heathen Chinee (about the Irish calling Chinese people by that name that became a ministrel trope). Here is a long academic article about that.

The original French says: chinois ou négre twice. Once in Léa's words and once in old baron's, without any accompanying adjectives, descriptions or modifications. The only accurate translation would be: Chinese or Negro man. Léa then repeats the words and the unacceptable English translation says: Chinese or African man. The fact she does not change her words for these individuals means the translation should not change them either.

Then, the baron compares Chéri to what he calls "types de couleurs". That should be: coloured blokes. Because types is not lads, which is too "sweet sounding". It's blokes or guys. Here again, historically, the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was founded in 1909. And the term was used at that time.

If I were to compare what would be a racist reading of this text, it would go something like this: Oh I have a great sexual relationship with X. We really enjoy each other. He is such a kraut (or frog). I give this example in order to stay away from a similar one involving Black men as it would be so fraught. But really? It would take a particularly pervese personality to dream that up. Maybe in a Quentin Tarantino movie... The ending in the above fantasy would be: He is such a sexy French or German man.

As for thinking that chinois is vietnamien, that is just not right. I doubt any French person at the time would confuse the two.

For the record, I just spoke to a friend of mine in France and explained this question to her. She has an aggrégation in French literature and told me that this question's framing regarding what is considered "racially insensitive" today is simply not germane to this time period in France, socially, politically and literarily for these terms as they appear in this novel.

Please note: all italics are mine.
For the record, I have a Master's from the Sorbonne in translation theory and speak French fluently.

  • 4
    I don't think your edit concerning your friend is particularly helpful here, and comes across as being deliberately provocative. Both the question and your frame challenge seem valid without bringing "woke" into the equation. Also worth reminding you, as I'm sure you know, that interpretations that don't look at the historicity of a text are valid in many critical frameworks - see Wimsatt’s “The Intentional Fallacy” for an example.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Mar 18 at 17:08
  • @MattThrower The lack of knowlege of French culture at the time explains the misreading put forward here. My analysis stands as an exploration of the term négre and chinois in French culture at the time. The issue here is a knowledge of French culture and misreading as explained in this article: blog.homeforfiction.com/2018/08/08/misunderstanding-books
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 28 at 15:46

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