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Reading the World: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ by Jean Cocteau ****

I purchased Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles for two reasons; firstly, it looked fantastic, and secondly, I thought that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World Project.  The novel in its Vintage edition has been faultlessly and lovingly translated by Rosamond Lehmann, a Virago author whom I very much enjoy in her own right.

Cocteau the man was a fascinating figure by all accounts, and is recognised as important in many fields; he was a poet, a novelist, an artist, a musician, a choreographer, an actor, and a filmmaker.  The book’s blurb hails him ‘one of the most talented Frenchmen of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement’.  His foray into novel writing, Les Enfants Terribles, was first published in France in 1928, and in this translation in 1955. 9780099561378

Siblings Paul and Elisabeth share a ‘private world… from which parents are tacitly excluded’.  Although both in their middling teenage years, they play what they term ‘The Game’, ‘their own bizarre version of life’: ‘the word “Game” was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed’.  The rules are rather complex, and the overwhelming message of The Game is that one of the pairing must die.  Their home life is not a happy one; their mother has been recently struck by paralysis, and Elisabeth has to care for her:

‘She had been bewitched, spoiled, and finally deserted by her husband.  For three years he 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’.

Les Enfants Terribles opens with Paul being knocked unconscious by a snowball, which appears to have been thrown by a boy whom he is infatuated with.  He is badly hurt, and his friend Gerard sees him home.  Cocteau has tenderly described this journey: ‘Paul heard: but he was sunk in such leaden lassitude that he could not move his tongue.  He slid a hand out of his rugs and wrappings and put it over Gerard’s’.  Their friendship is loving and multilayered.

From the outset, I found the novel – or novella, I suppose, as it runs to just 135 pages – beguiling and intriguing.  There is such a sense of place throughout, and Paris is beautifully evoked.  Cocteau’s writing is intelligent, and there is a marvellously fluid feel to its English translation.  Elisabeth and Paul are endlessly fascinating.  Their sheer unpredictably renders both incredibly realistic.

I am a huge fan of French literature, and this contains almost all of the most prevalent elements which I enjoy within translated French tomes – child characters, interesting and original plot twists, the weird, and the quirky.  There is a tenseness and violence to it which builds as the novel progresses.  Les Enfants Terribles also includes a series of illustrations by Cocteau himself; these are vivid and striking.

Les Enfants Terribles is a transportative work.  In accordance with the blurb, I believed that the Game itself would be more a focus than it turned out to be.  However, the sheer strength and breadth of the coping strategies which the children adopt in response to the traumatic experiences which they undergo is strong enough to make the Game itself almost fade into the background.  Les Enfants Terribles is fantastic, both gritty and dark; it is a strange and clever book which promises to stick with the reader for weeks after it has been read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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