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.

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‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy ***

Read as part of Fleur Fisher’s Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.

Together and Apart, which has just been reissued by Vintage Books, was first published in 1936.  Margaret Kennedy dedicated this, her seventh novel, to fellow author Rose Macaulay.

Together and Apart begins with a letter, written from protagonist Betsy Cannon, residing in Pandy Madoc in Wales, to her mother.  This technique ensures that we learn about our protagonist from the very beginning of the story, and serves to immediately announce the main thread of plot.  It also wonderfully sets the scene and tone for the rest of the novel.

In the letter, Betsy informs her mother that she and her husband Alec are ‘parting company’ and seeking a divorce: ‘… we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.’  She tells of the way in which she finds her husband’s writing of operettas ‘vulgar’, and does not feel that doing so is a ‘worthwhile profession for an educated man like Alec’.  The pair have decided to separate for the sake of their children: ‘I now think that they would be happier if Alec and I gave up this miserable attempt…  I don’t want the children to grow up with a distorted idea of marriage, got from the spectacle of parents who can’t get on’.

Divorcing during the 1920s was, of course, a scandal, and Kennedy addresses this fact well in the third person narrative perspective, which she utilises for much of the book.  She demonstrates the way in which the divorce affects all of those around Betsy and Alec, from their children to their outraged parents.  Despite this, Betsy remains hopeful about her own future: ‘Very much happier was how she had imagined it…  Of course she would marry again some time.  And the other man, whoever he was, would love her better than Alec ever had, would worship and cherish her’.

Kennedy discusses familial relationships and their breakdown throughout the novel, and everything which she touches upon is shown in mind of the impending divorce.  Together and Apart, even all these years later, is still an important novel, just as relevant to our society today as it was upon its publication.

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‘The Constant Nymph’ by Margaret Kennedy **

Upon its publication in 1924, Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, The Constant Nymph, leapt straight to the top of the bestseller list.  Despite its subsequent fall from popularity, it has been made into three films and a play, and consequently took its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel has recently been reissued by Vintage Books, along with several of Kennedy’s other novels.

In this, its newest volume, The Constant Nymph has been introduced by Joanna Briscoe.  She believes that whilst the novel has ‘aged notably well’, it has certainly ‘suffered from neglect’ since its publication, ‘as its author has fallen perilously out of fashion’.  She goes on to say that the novel is ‘startlingly modern in its outlook’.  Whilst Briscoe’s introduction is interesting, it does give rather a lot of the plot away, which is a real shame.  One cannot help but think that an afterword would have been more fitting in this case.

The premise of the novel is intriguing: ‘Avant-garde composer Albert Sanger lives in a ramshackle chalet in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by his “circus” of assorted children, admirers and slatternly mistress… When Sanger dies, his circus must break up and each find a more conventional way of life.  But fourteen-year-old Teresa is already deeply in love: for her, the outside world holds nothing but tragedy.’  The object of Teresa’s love is a man twice her age, a friend of her father’s whom she has known since her early childhood, and whom she decides to elope with.  This earns inevitable comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita.  Whilst The Constant Nymph is not as startling as the aforementioned for the mostpart, some sections of the story do prove rather unsettling.

In terms of Kennedy’s writing, whilst her descriptions are nice, the majority of her writing feels quite flat.  The third person perspective which is used throughout creates a curious detachment from both characters and plot. Before I began the novel, I believed that Kennedy’s prose would be perfectly sculpted, but in reality, it felt rather disappointing.  The whole of the novel is rendered two-dimensional in consequence, and it does not serve to grab the reader as it really should.

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‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro *****

As far as short stories go, Canadian Alice Munro is one of the most revered authors in the field, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year in recognition of her craft. Lying Under the Apple Tree is made up of selected stories, all of them previously published in some of the author’s other collections.  The tales here come from the following books respectively, demonstrating how Munro’s work has progressed over the course of just over a decade: The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009).  Many of them can also be found within the pages of the wonderful and far-reaching Selected Stories, which showcases three decades of Munro’s work.

‘Lying Under the Apple Tree’ by Alice Munro (Vintage)

As one might expect, almost all of Munro’s tales are set in and around Lake Huron, where the author herself lives. Some of the stories take small towns and rural homes as their backdrops, and others are set within large and crowded cities.  The wealth of inspiration within Lying Under the Apple Tree is vast, and each story presents a clear and thoughtful slice of life.  None of the tales are similar, despite the settings which are occasionally used more than once, and the use of a couple of protagonists who carry themselves through a series of stories, rather than just one.

There are tales which include such plot details as holidays spent with families, and how such sojourns impact upon them, both as individuals and a complete unit; motherhood; grief; dementia; and those which touch upon such things as museums ‘dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles’.

One noticeable element within Lying Under the Apple Tree is that the prose which Munro crafts is utterly sublime, even when she is turning her hand to describing the most mundane and everyday things.  She has the most stunning way of making both objects and events, which are so usual and are taken for granted by the majority of us in the modern world, appear afresh.  It is clear throughout her writing that she never fails to notice the magic in everything, and one gets the impression after reading just one of her many tales that she adores her craft.

Her characters throughout are so very realistic, and her turns of phrase are stunning.  Each story is marvellously built, and not a single word has been wasted throughout.  Munro manages to weave the unexpected – be it a small detail, or something rather more pivotal – into each tale.  She deftly captures emotions, and shows how they can alter over time.  Indeed, Munro’s stories are so well written and crafted that even re-reading them is a real treat.  Lying Under the Apple Tree is a stunning collection, which really does showcase Munro’s talent as an author, and one which deserves to be widely read.

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‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield (Vintage)

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980,has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

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