Two walking cobwebs, almost bodiless,
crossed paths here once, kept house, and lay in beds.
Your fingertips once touched my fingertips
and set us tingling through a thousand threads.
Poor pulsing Fete Champetre! The summer slips
between our fingers into nothingness.
We too lean forward, as the heat waves roll
over our bodies, grown insensible,
ready to dwindle off into the soul,
two motes or eye flaws, the invisible…
Hope of the hopeless launched and cast adrift
on the great flaw that gives the final gift.
Dear Figure curving like a question mark,
how will you hear my answer in the dark?
The Flaw — Robert Lowell
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.
“People live together for years, they sleep pressed up against each other; a mingling of dreams, a mingling of sweat. They tell each other everything, give each other everything. They take on each other’s habits, each other’s ways of looking at things, ways of talking, even aspects of appearance. In every sense of the word, they belong to each other from top to toe. And then suddenly they leave each other, they tear apart. How do they do it? How do they bring themselves to it?”
Sapho – Alphonse Daudet
Walking in the rain, cowering under a decrepit umbrella I inadvertently caught glimpse of A Single Man in the bookshop window. Having previously read the book and recently seen the film I started thinking about the latter’s unfulfilled promise and that perhaps it is impossible to credibly enact heartbreak. Irrespective of this, Colin Firth did a stellar job playing George Falconer, an impeccably well-groomed and dapper 58 year-old English professor, domiciled in Los Angeles, mourning his recently deceased lover, Jim. Christopher Isherwood opens the book with a somewhat unconventional gambit, an evocation of an ethereal atmosphere relayed by some omniscient narrator. “Waking up begins with saying am and now,” he explains, “That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and there from deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.” The voice is resigned and detached, much like the protagonist is from his immediate environment made unfamiliar by the absence of a loved one. Staring at himself in the mirror George renders himself a “live dying creature… a prisoner for life,” with a face frozen in an “expression of a predicament”. And yet despite his grief he follows his infrangible routine, ensuring the crispness of his white shirts, the spotless shine of his bespoke shoes and the immaculately calculated creases in his trousers, for these are all the inane appurtenances that keep him trudging on. That and the memories.
“It was then [during breakfast], while they were drinking their second and third cups of coffee, that they had their best talks,” remembers George, “They talked about everything that came into their heads—including death, of course, and is there survival, and, if so, what exactly is it that survives.” George is overwhelmed by such recollections throughout the book until they prompt him to “damn all life.” And yet he goes on with his daily routine, trapped in a place where convention and otherness coexist in beautifully counterfeit harmony – a pristine Californian suburb, with lovat-green lawns and aureate cardboard housewives – observing the world through his horn-rimmed spectacles in a seemingly removed, sardonic and curious manner. George appears aloof, uninterested and unperturbed yet under the perfectly-turned out exterior he is making arrangements to sever his life, because he is grieving, because he is frustrated with the lack of political rights of “persecuted minorities,” because he belongs to one and like “everyone with an acute criminal complex” he is “hyperconscious” and angry with all the unjust “bylaws, city ordinances, rules and petty regulations.”
A Single Man is semi-autobiographical as was most of Isherwood’s work and charts a very specific period in America, that of the Cuban missile crisis and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The changing social mores are often relayed in a negative light through George’s cynical internal monologues and a feeling of “a sort of vertigo” he experiences whenever he is caught up in the whirl of it all. As a University Professor he feels obligated to support these social and political vicissitudes yet inwardly he despairs. “Oh God, what will become of them all?” he says surveying his students, “What chance have they? Ought I to yell out to them, right now, here, that it’s hopeless?” But George knows he can’t do that, because “absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of the hope. And the hope is not false. No. It’s just that George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.” Still, the pessimistic Professor makes his feelings clear during a lecture to a plenum of gormless, docile, homogenised drones. A single one of whom, Kenny, enthralled by George’s spiel, latches-on to the wizened bard and pursues him in hope of enlightenment. In truth, there is no point to Kenny and his attempts to rescue George are as authentic as his phoney Californian tan.
George is resolute in his decision to end his life. He carefully sets out his funerary attire and places a note by the tie instructing whoever finds his body to tie it in a Windsor knot, forgetting that the remnants of his face will be impossible to piece together after he fires a pistol into his mouth. What follows is a rather exasperating episode of a man attempting to kill himself. Throughout the book George has several, mostly meaningless encounters. One with his student Kenny; another with a nameless stud straight out of a 1960s Levis ad, who murmurs something idiotic about the dreamland that is America; and lastly and most interestingly with a fellow Brit and former lover, Charley. A divorcee with kohl-black eyes, a marzipan complexion, moiré-like flaxen hair spiraling like a pineal nimbus skyward, Charley flitters in her Mary Quant dress like a sad and aging beauty queen. After an extended boozy dinner and an impromptu jig in the backdrop of period-perfect Italian furniture the two lay on the floor reminiscing. While George grieves his recently deceased lover, Charley reflects on a love lost long ago, a love she has harboured for George since their early days back in London. Her plangent disposition and a dram too much gin results in a temerarious attempt to evoke the past. She “kisses him full on the mouth,” as George is leaving andgets rebuffed. “Do women ever stop trying?” George wonders, “No, but because they never stop, they learn to be good losers”.
I remember watching the film and thinking it was style over substance and would have had even less of the latter had it not been for the performance of Firth. I’m not a fan of the man (who could take him seriously after the Bridget Jones franchise?) but he does do that very English air of resignation incredibly well. While he hardly traverses the emotional spectrum to emerge and a method actor, this film is probably one of the best he’s ever done. And yet I doubt there has ever been an English teacher quite as dashing in literature or indeed in life. I remember my own: he sported purple socks, had hirsute ears, halitosis, imbibed great quantities of Irish coffee and was intolerably verbose. Not quite the matinee idol a la Frith. But life is no matinee, with its waters “swarming with hunted anxieties, grimjawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light.” I have read, understood and misunderstood a lot of books, have done things on my own, have loved, failed, been afraid and felt lost. But above all, I have hoped, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, that my existence has some intrinsic value. Yet, despite wanting to disagree with Isherwood I can’t when he says one’s life, as one’s body is like “garbage in the container on the back porch” because before too long “both will have to be carted away and disposed of.” That’s the truth of it – the real truth – somewhat different from a matinee but life is never really one of those.
“Nature admits of no permanence in the relation between man and woman. It is only man’s egoism that wants to keep woman like some buried treasure. All endeavours to introduce permanence in love, the most changeable thing in this changeable human existence, have gone shipwrecked in spite of religious ceremonies, vows and legalities.”
Venus in Furs – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
“Nothing is stranger and more delicate than the relationship between people who know each other only with their eyes, who meet daily, even hourly, and yet are compelled, by force of custom of their own caprices, to say no word or make no move of acknowledgment, but to maintain the appearance of an aloof unconcern. There is a restlessness and a surcharged curiosity existing between them, the hysteria of an unsatisfied, unnaturally repressed desire for acquaintanceship and interchange; and especially there is a kind of tense respect. Because one person loves and honours another so long as he cannot judge him, and desire is a product of incomplete knowledge.”
Death in Venice – Thomas Mann