Book Me…

…Book Blog by Dolly Delightly

Tag: Jean Cocteau

Writers On Writers

“The trouble with Freudian psychology is that it is based exclusively on a study of the sick. Freud never met a healthy human being—only patients and other psychoanalysts. “
Aldous Huxley

“I don’t know what service I provided for Cheever except to be delighted with his work.”
William Maxwell

“Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”
Jean Cocteau

“I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep.”

Ray Bradbury

“Nabokov is a natural dandy on the grand international scale.”
Anthony Burgess

“Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong, he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking.”
Flann O’Brien

“What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!”
Tennessee Williams

“Only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing.”
García Márquez

“Beckett destroys language with silence.”
Eugène Ionesco

Sources: The Paris Review, Brainy Quote 


Jean Cocteau: An uncommitted aesthete and a writer of brilliance

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.

Jean Genet: A poet, a moralist and an abandoned child

A couple of days ago, while meandering home from work I took a little detour and popped into the Oxfam bookshop on Bloomsbury Street where I picked up a forsaken edition of Funeral Rites by Jean Genet. Once described as a “moralist” and a “great poet” by Jean Cocteau, Genet was more commonly known as France’s foremost contrarian. Funeral Rites, the last novel Genet ever wrote, reads like a fiendish dirge “composed mainly of love and pain” by a man’s “grieving heart”. The sacred is enmeshed with the profane seamlessly, as one minute the narrator reminisces about his “dearest and only lover” while the next he rapaciously recounts all the various sobriquets for the anus, the “dark, ultimate treasure, the bronze eye”. Yet the book addresses a bigger question, a moral one of a man’s struggle with grief over his dead lover – a French Resistance fighter killed by the “prodigy of a well-aimed” Nazi bullet – and his struggle with apostasy.  His consternation comes to the fore as early as his lover Jean’s funeral, when he finds himself conflicted by angst of seeing his lover’s limp “precious corpse”  juxtaposed against sights of male mourners, which prompt sudden erotic thoughts and a yearning for their “tenderness”. He pensively fingers a matchbox in his pocket, drawing parallels between the two death-boxes, and yet mourning quietly in private he becomes distracted again by his lover’s brother, his eyes resting on the boy’s fly and the “bulge beneath the cloth of his trousers”.  The protagonist cannot reconcile his grief and his carnal impulses, and the inner conflict to do so is conveyed as much through action as the dirty, baroque idiolect.

Funeral Rites is set in Paris in 1944 during the struggle for power between the French Resistance and the advancing German Army. The backdrop to Genet’s story is illustrated by graphic images of ubiquitous bullets, puling sirens and overcast skies hanging above the devastated city like memento mori for those killed in battle. The theme of defection both from love and country dominates the narrative, and is defined most markedly when the narrator announces: “If was told that I was risking death in refusing to cry ‘Vive la France’, I would cry it in order to save my hide, but I would cry it softly.” He continues: “If I had to cry it very loudly, I would do so, but laughingly, without believing in it. And if I had to believe in it, I would; then I would immediately die of shame.” Later, the betrayal is that of his lover, as he pours “rivers of love” over a strapping German called Erik. The two elements, however, come together when the narrator contemplates his loss and his own betrayal of his lover with the enemy. The narrative, however, gradually strays from the dead to the living, focusing on the incestuous relationships between various characters in the book.

The heterogeneous plot chronicles the narrator’s interaction with several members of Jean’s family – his moribund brother Paulo, his neurotic bourgeois mother Giselle, his insipid fiancée Juliette – as well as the Nazi pistolier Erik and an adolescent French traitor Riton. The oedipal relationships are steeped in both fantasy and reality with the narrative moving back and forth in time, from the sacrilegious to the philosophical, as the protagonists ruminates about sex, death and love.  The scope of this ominous ideology is charted when he says: “Evil, like good, is attained gradually by means of an inspired insight that makes you glide vertically away from human beings, but most often by daily, slow, disappointing labour.” The narration is sometimes convoluted, particularly when the narrator trans-morphs mid scene into the character he is describing, but then a familiar voice re-emerges affirming  the story which “expresses the secret iridescence” of his heart, while he attempts, to extricate himself from the guilt and the grief over his dead lover.

Funeral Rites, like every other novel in Genet’s canon, borrows significantly from his life. Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who left him in the hands of Assistance Publique, Genet documented his experiences in his work. “I’m an abandoned child who knows nothing about his family or his country,” says the narrator at one point, mirroring Genet’s fate.Genet spent most of his youth in and out of prison, an experience which he later documented in The Thief’s JournalFuneral Rites like The Thief’s Journal is a transposition and sublimation of Genet’s own life; a life of a man who had always felt an outsider. The most accurate summation Funeral Rites comes from Genet himself who once called it a “prismatic decomposition” of the human condition, for it is exactly that and a masterfully macabre, chimerical study of the correlation between love, sex and death.

%d bloggers like this: