by Francis Steegmuller
Little, Brown, 583 pp., $12.50
Jean Cocteau: Lettres à André Gide (avec quelques réponses d’André Gide)
La Table Ronde, 217 pp., 35 F.
edited by Robert Phelps
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 331 pp., $8.50
Cocteau led a fabled life, full of signs and wonders, some comic, some tragic. Of course he was very modern and very perverse, but he was, I think, a sort of Galahad, a Galahad, perhaps, of opéra bouffe. What made him a Galahad was his desire to be driven by “unknown forces,” “to make a report,” as he says, “for an Intelligence Service that is difficult to place,” to plague, at the court of the Ballets Russes, Serge de Diaghilev, he with his “watery eye cast down with the curve of a Portuguese oyster,” and no doubt his King Arthur—to plague the impresario until he gave him the clarion call: Etonne-moi, “the first notes of a period that were struck in 1912, and would only end with my death.”
What made Cocteau a bit of a buffoon were his scandals, his feuds; his apparently constitutional restlessness (often remarked upon by Picasso and Colette); his spindly, pulsating, dandified figure; his face, which, in repose, would suggest that of a seminarian, but, when animated, with his heraldic nose and unloved mouth, that of a harlequin; and, lastly, of course, his not infrequent inability to take “dictation from the gods” except when before a packed house.
His career, that astonishing array of poems and plays, films and essays, ballets and novels, drawings and sculpture, so often regarded as a revue, a spectacle, as anything and everything but an oeuvre, was, like his character, never easy, and disturbing to many. In Francis Steegmuller’s book, for instance, a balanced, very vivid biography, we come across a letter from Cocteau to his mother, written when he was in his early thirties, a few months before the premiere of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a jeu de théâtre which, along with Parade and Le Boeuf sur le toit, Cocteau would offer, ingratiatingly enough, as a “calculated insult to the public”—and two years or so away from probably the reverberating event of his life, the sudden and shocking death of his protégé and lover, the dazzling Raymond Radiguet. (“In three days,” the typhoid-ridden, twenty-year-old novelist had predicted, “I will be shot by God’s soldiers…. The order has been given.”) It was a death which plunged Cocteau into despair, drugs, and a fleeting return to the church of his childhood.
His mother, with whom he dined regularly throughout his life, was a genteel haute bourgeoise in lace, prayer book in hand, but also the pretty first-nighter Cocteau always remembered dressing for the red and the gold (le mal rouge et or: Baudelaire’s phrase), for what he called as a boy “the great forbidden theater.” Here, in the letter, adopting a tone he rarely assumed, Cocteau remonstrates with his maman, as he would do increasingly with so many others, over the sorry condemnation, which followed him to the grave, of having scattered his talents, both ethically and aesthetically—in other words, of having wasted his life.
“Pull yourself together,” you say? That’s a …