Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contender as the phrase, in the singular, has frequently been used to describe Cocteau himself. Born on 5th July 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a small village a few miles outside Paris, into a wealthy and politically influential family, Cocteau left home at the age of 15. His father, a lawyer and an amateur painter, shot himself in his bed when Cocteau was nine – a tragedy which is thought to have kindled Cocteau’s perfervid fascination with death. Speaking about it at the end of his own life, Cocteau said that his father had killed himself “for reasons that are no longer relevant” even though they continued to plague him. At the age of 19, Cocteau published his first collection of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp. Three years later, another anthology, The Frivolous Prince, followed. Cocteau quickly became a mastodon of the corpuscular literary scene of 1920s Paris, mingling with the likes of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Maurice Barrès and Jean Hugo. He wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, but Les Enfants Terribles remains at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. Penned in just 17 days, the book captures the “legend of eternal youth” and its inevitable tragedies which, as Cocteau says, “bare no relation to one’s preconceived ideas,” because “one is always bewildered by their simplicity”.
The story of Les Enfants Terribles – inspired by a real life tale of a “family closed from societal life” – revolves around a brother and sister who inhabit a world of their own, a fantasy world with its own rules, created to alleviate the monotonous languor of everyday realities. Elisabeth and Paul’s psychological pulsations, partly responsible, for their alienation from the world at large are established early. A mother crippled by some paralytic illness, a woman who “only four months ago had been young and vigorous” but now at the mere age of 35 “longed for death,” a woman who “had been bewitched, spoiled and finally deserted by her husband.” Cocteau illustrates the situation further: “For three years he [the father] had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred. His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better. He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated. An impulse of rebellion now turned this woman into a mother who neglected her children, took to night clubs, got herself up like a tart, sacked her maid once a week, begged, borrowed indiscriminately,” and finally died.
Right from the outset Les Enfants Terribles emanates an “atmosphere of perpetually impending storm” when Paul gets struck by a “marble-fisted blow” of a snowball, hurled in play by Dargelos, the subject of Paul’s infatuation, which leaves him incapacitated and revelling in the “sweet delights of sickness and perpetual holiday” under his sister’s care. Elisabeth, the “ministering angel” hastily reveals herself to be an enclave of jealousy, malevolence and lust looming over the household like a “Byzantine Empress”. One very quickly realises that the relationship between the siblings is not as straightforward or orthodox as social mores prescribe, and tentatively reels on the verge of incest, their incongruous love never consummated but paramount. Elisabeth is a domineering soubrette, a hurricane to Paul’s harmony, manipulating and conniving in her efforts to keep him all to herself and to comminute anyone who gets in her way. Paul’s quixotic nature paints him as a biddable naïf determinedly under his sister’s spell. The two together, live in “The Room” perpetually playing “The Game” according to unwritten, recherché rules known only to them. The siblings, the “twin seraphs”, curiously united by a familial intimacy verging on romantic love, do not know the meaning of “embarrassment in the presence of each other” and their shared space is “a masterpiece of their own being” in which they live, dress, wash together as if “twin halves of a single body.” Left largely to their own devices, after the death of their mother whom they had treated “with scant consideration, but nevertheless they loved” Elisabeth and Paul entice outside spectators into “The Game”. Gerard and Agathe get whirl-winded into the snare and the love-hate sibling relationship kept under a strict “seal of secrecy”. “The Room”, their room, becomes like a “gypsy camp” and the brother and sister who once “adored” and “devoured each other” begin to drift apart, except Elisabeth refuses to let go until the two of them can meet elsewhere “where flesh dissolves, where soul dissolves, where incest lurks no more.”
Cocteau’s ability to capture the reader’s attention and direct it to the idiosyncrasies and psychological antecedents behind the events in Les Enfants Terribles underlines the book’s intrigue and the writer’s brilliance. But, in his early years, as the epitome of moderne amid 1920s bohemian circles, Cocteau experienced an unexpected but rapid fall from grace and was dismissed as a social chameleon, a crude dilettante and an uncommitted aesthete. He was deemed frivolous for diversifying into poesy, painting and cinema . Andre Breton regarded him with particular animosity and along with his Surrealist companions attempted to sabotage Cocteau’s artistic endeavours. Cocteau himself did some collateral damage too by spreading himself too thinly. It wasn’t merely his poor health, aggravated by decades of opium abuse and subsequent detoxification, it was also the fact that he continuously put himself on the line, at once consumed by the world and consuming others to gain greater acclaim and clout as an artist. Thus, he lived in an eternal state of identity crisis and by his own admission continued to experience anguish and turmoil, from as early as his father’s suicide up to the tragic and premature deaths of his closest male paramours.
Cocteau’s literary undertakings were inexorably influence by his mercurial disposition and unremitting fatalism. They also exhibited his profound leanings toward death, morbidity and violence, engendering many paternal phantoms and references to suicide. This is particularly true of Les Enfants Terribles which also reflects his idealism and captivation with the cult of youth, his need of fantasy at once unnerving and enthralling like the escapist machinations of Paul and Elisabeth. The element of melodrama in Les Enfants Terribles is handled with considerable acuity, and the alluring horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of the siblings is led gloriously to a ripe climax. The book entails copious cross references form William Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, all of which coalesce masterfully to make a very poignant point, namely that love is wayward, cruel, uncompromising and in the extreme: fatal.