Book Review: Cocteau – A Life
by Claude Arnaud
translated from the French by Lauren Elkin & Charlotte Mandell
Yale University Press, 2016
The many-armed figure in the famous 1949 photo by Philippe Halsman is Jean Cocteau, the French novelist, director, playwright, and poet, the headline-grabbing bon vivant and trailblazing professional flirting dandy. The photo, this emaciated Cocteau-pus, perfectly captures the frenetic energy of the man, the almost desperate intellectual restlessness that characterized him from his precocious youth as a teenage star of the Paris art world to his spearheading work in the avant-garde art movement to the height of his fame and energy in mid-century, the writing of novels, the collaborations with fellow groundbreaking artists like Picasso … and finally to his declining years and death in 1963 at the age of 74.
Even for somebody who liked abandoning projects more than he liked finishing them, it was a capacious life, a life that invites a compartmentalized biographical approach: here a book on Cocteau the director, here a book on Cocteau the designer and artistic taste-maker, here even a book on Cocteau the provocateur of public sexuality. Somehow this protean figure seems more manageable if you pin down one shard of identity and hold to it firmly from cradle to grave. Reconciling Cocteau’s various selves felt like an impossibly tall order even when he was alive and could theoretically help with the task. A half-century after his death, a book that attempts to give readers the man in full runs the risk of looking as bizarre and unnatural as that famous 1949 photo.
Back in 2003, Parisian biographer Claude Arnaud wrote just such a book, and through what can only have been a herculean communal effort, Yale University Press has now produced an English-language translation of it, a thousand-page behemoth titled Jean Cocteau. And in these pages, Arnaud actually succeeds in doing what seemed impossible: he gives readers one single Cocteau who is, implausibly, the sum of his parts, and Arnaud goes one winning step further by offering a covering rationale so sweeping it might even have made Cocteau himself blush a it:
Cocteau’s frivolity? There has scarcely been a writer, past his twenties, who more surely evoked tragedy. His dilettantism? He was one of the most single-minded workers of the century, methodically preparing for that second life – longer, more ample, and radiant – when his poetry and theater, his films and stories would finally be welcomed. His lies? It is true that he readily told tales and attracted other mystifiers like Jean Genet, the writer-thief, and Maurice Sachs, the young receptionist who looked up to him like the Messiah – to say nothing of the madmen who assailed him at the end of his life. But this absurd reproach can only be understood as a compliment.
When a biographer simply plunks such partisan claims on the table and stares you down with a steely gaze, you can either humor that biographer and plow on ahead, or you can get up and walk away. The ones who stick around will be very glad they did, because translators Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell have done an impressive job of capturing the involved, passionate virtuosity Arnaud brings to his multi-faceted subject’s life and times. Arnaud matches his own indefatigable curiosity with Cocteau’s, bringing each one of the man’s many interests into clear and remarkably even-handed focus, creating in the process a very rewarding look at Cocteau’s “perpetual becoming.”
Arnaud is especially good on an aspect of Cocteau’s personal life that grows more important as the narrative progresses: his, erm, dealings with people younger than himself, particularly the many young people who fell into his orbit as students, acolytes, and hangers-on. Like many aging egomaniacs, his estimates of younger generations grew dimmer as the years passed:
Cocteau’s daily life was no longer busy enough to sustain his prewar levels of euphoria. He had entire days in which to think about his life, and to keep a written record, between two canvases and five drawings, of his state of mind – encouraged by the calm that reigned over the villa Santo Sospir. A nagging worry began to invade his journal (which well deserved the name he would give to it, Le passé défini [Past tense]). The young had become uncultured, vulgar, living from moment to moment, with no thought of what might have come before – they were drunk on themselves and on their supposed preeminence.
One of the reasons why Cocteau worried so much about young people becoming uncultured, vulgar, and narcissistic was that Cocteau almost compulsively associated with young people who were uncultured, vulgar, and narcissistic. Three emblematic Cocteau friendships – Jean Marais, Jean Genet, and particularly the dimwitted but epically gorgeous Edouard Dermit – are painted with marvelous delicacy and generosity.
And at the gravitational center of those three and hundreds more relationships is Cocteau himself, argumentative, hilarious, contradictory, endlessly problematic, here vibrantly alive in a biography that matches the amplitude of his grubby grandeur. Arnaud tackles directly his subject’s occasional iniquities head-on, but he’s equally direct about his subject’s flashes of genius, which stand here in more convincing detail than in earlier biographies. Arnaud follows Cocteau down every whim’s path and into the arms of every crackpot theory that momentarily caught the artist’s distractible curiosity, and in every case, Arnaud not only describes but analyzes, and always in thought-provoking ways. When Cocteau contemplates the idea that all life on Earth was borne here in microbial form on meteors, for instance, Arnaud digs right in:
And what if life had come from elsewhere, taking advantage of meteorites to sail past the clouds? It would have arrived here by accident, and without warning begun to flourish like dandelions, lichen, or vermin. It would have ended up adapting to the waves of cold and heat, would have developed wings when water began to freeze and legs when the oceans got too salty. These thoughts ultimately reassured Cocteau: all the earth’s inhabitants were descended from extra-terrestrials, rejected from another planet that had cruelly cut off all contact. He could no, then, be the only one to feel like a foreigner here on earth.
That image – Cocteau the space alien – will have readers looking at the cover photo on this Yale volume, which is that 1949 photo of a nervous, multi-armed artist in perpetual motion. That space alien now has a big biography in English that matches the unlikely size of his life.