LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES BY JEAN COCTEAU

I thought the cliché that adults don’t understand children was untrue until I spent a year or two teaching. Having no young relatives, it was the first time I had been around them since my own childhood, and, more importantly, it was the first time I had frequent discussions about them with other adults. And I was astonished by how naïve the adults, in particular the parents, were, how totally, how greedily, they swallowed and regurgitated the idea that these kids were innocence personified, that they were incapable of, and uninterested in, anything dubious, even when presented with concrete, and sizeable, evidence to the contrary.

Being in that environment I would, naturally, regularly think back to my own youth, to the fights that were more bloody and savage than any I have seen or been involved in since, to the sexual experimentation, and the promiscuity, that would make a decadent Parisian author blush, to the ever revolving carousel of gangs, friends and enemies, to the appalling cruelty and the intense bonds, and the complex games that lasted for weeks, which often involved malevolently stalking each other through the woods. The only innocence was in the lack of understanding regarding what exactly all this stuff meant; you didn’t psychoanalyse, introspect, or define or make connections. You didn’t, for example, call what you felt love or happiness or hate, you simply felt; and you accepted, without question, that this was the world, never giving a thought to the existence of another world, the world of your parents.

One man who did know a thing or two about all this was French author, filmmaker, and artist, Jean Cocteau, whose most well-known work is the one under review here. Les Enfants Terribles begins in Balzacian style, with Cocteau describing a peaceful scene, into which he then places a group of schoolboys, who ‘shatter the silence with the sound of tumult.’ Note the choice of words: ‘shatter,’ ‘tumult’; Cocteau wants to impress upon the reader that there is something brutal, a kind of violence, in the behaviour. By the end of the passage he has gone even further, describing the boys, and by extension all children, as ‘terrors’ with ‘animal instincts,’ a theme he pursues throughout the rest of his short novel. Indeed, when he introduces one of the main characters, Paul, he is hit with a snowball containing a stone and ends up badly hurt.

“At all costs the true world of childhood must prevail, must be restored; that world whose momentous, heroic, mysterious quality is fed on airy nothings, whose substance is so ill-fitted to withstand the brutal touch of adult inquisition.”

As the novel progresses the focus narrows until it is concerned with four people only, Paul and Elisabeth, who are brother and sister, and Agatha and Gerard; although the two siblings are, of course, the dominant force. But before focussing on them myself, I want to linger a little longer over the opening passage, because, once again, what the author describes here plays a central role in the rest of the text. Cocteau emphasises the schoolboys’ imaginative capacity as they transform the peaceful scene into an ‘Athlete’s stadium,’ or a ‘Wonder fair,’ or ‘Court of love’; the world, he suggests, isn’t for children something that is fixed, it is whatever they want it to be. But this world is insular, it, in a sense, excludes adults, with it having its own ‘cryptic language’, secret rites, etc. In a nice touch, Cocteau imagines a group of painters opening their windows and looking out at the boys and not recognising them as the subject of their sentimental paintings, titled things like Merry Wee Rascals and Play In A White World.

After the incident with the snowball Gerard takes an ailing Paul home, and in the back of the cab we get the first reference to the Game, when Gerard wonders if Paul is genuinely as hurt as he appears to be. His suspicion is that he may be ‘putting it on,’ which of course gives the impression that this would not be out of character. Both Paul and Elisabeth, it becomes clear, live a life somewhere between fantasy and reality. They adopt poses and attitudes, set each other [and Gerard] challenges, act out roles, etc.; their relationship is extremely close, but dominated by a kind of one-upmanship and a desire to exasperate or irritate the other. To return to what I wrote earlier regarding innocence, the siblings are innocent only in so much as they lack self-awareness. Numerous times Cocteau states that they are not conscious of the game-playing or the acting; he also mentions how Gerard felt something of ‘perversion or necrophilly in the delicious pleasures’ of travelling with Paul, but would never have thought about it, or understood it, in those terms. And so one sees the term ‘innocent’ as being defined by a kind of ignorance rather than goodness.

les-enfants-terribles

[From the film of the same name, which was also written by Jean Cocteau]

Despite giving the impression, with that brilliant opening, that the book was to be about the strange, savage nature of children in general, with, one assumed, the siblings being held up as an example, Cocteau rather ruins this interpretation [which, by the way, I preferred] by giving Paul and Elisabeth a background or history that justifies or explains their behaviour and approach and ideas. In short, he reveals that both their father and mother were neglectful and wild, and so one understands that the offspring of this couple have grown up without appropriate adult role models, and that they have been, to all intents and purposes, left to themselves to raise themselves; indeed, the author refers to an ‘inheritance of instability’. What this means for Les Entants Terribles is that it becomes particular; in other words, whatever it says about the two main characters can only be applied to these children in these circumstances or, at best, other children in similar circumstances. As hinted, I think it was a poor decision to take the novel in this direction, and, moreover, I’m not entirely certain it was Cocteau’s intention.

Another issue I had was with the author’s lack of subtlety or faith in his audience. At times it is as though he didn’t trust the reader to join the dots, to understand his work, and so repeatedly chimes in with unnecessary exposition, mostly in relation to the children’s lack of consciousness or self-awareness. In fact, there is a point in the text when he prefaces yet another reference to this with the phrase ‘it must be remembered’ as though there is any way even the dimmest reader could have forgotten when Les Enfants Terribles is less than one hundred pages long and he had already made the same point, in almost exactly the same words, about five or six times. Moreover, these infuriating authorial intrusions added to what was, for me, the book’s biggest flaw, which is that it feels more like a sketch, or draft, of a novel than one that is fully realised.

Before concluding, I want to comment on the style, because much is made of it in the reviews that I have so far encountered, with the word ‘beautiful’ being the most popular descriptor. Well, I didn’t find the writing beautiful. I would go with something like ‘overwrought,’ although I ought to point out that this isn’t necessarily a criticism. While it is not my favourite, I’m not at all opposed to a bit of ornate, bells-and-whistles prose from time to time. What I found more impressive was the symbolism. The book begins with snow, and there are numerous references to it throughout; the siblings are also said to be both extremely pale, and both wear white clothes [dressing gowns? I can’t remember] at various points. White is, of course, representative of innocence, but it is commonly associated with the spectral too. There are several deaths in the book, but I’m not too interested in those, although they are of course relevant and important. What did grab me is the idea that ghosts could be said to exist between two worlds, and this equally applies to Elisabeth and Paul, who, it must be remembered[!], live a life between fantasy and reality; they are of this world, and simultaneously not of it.

I didn’t know how to fit this into my review without ruining the structure, so I am placing it here.

I would like to point out that I do not understand the term ‘shocking’ as applied to this book; honestly, there is nothing shocking in it; in fact, the action is rather banal, for the most part. Furthermore, the claim that there is the suggestion of incest or homosexuality is, for me, a mighty stretch. I sometimes wonder if some people actually read what is before their eyes, or whether they simply allow their imaginations to run wild, because things are more fun that way. Yes, Elisabeth is once almost brought to tears by the ‘grace and beauty’ of Paul’s body, and yes they share a bath at one point, but thats it, theres nothing more salacious than that. In terms of homosexuality, Paul does have something of a crush on a boy called Dargelos, but Cocteau himself describes this as ‘chaste.’

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