Thursday, 29 April 2010

Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau

Paul loves Dargelos, Gerard loves Paul, and so does Elisabeth. Elisabeth and Paul are brother and sister.

Jean Cocteau once claimed that everything he made, be it poem, book, play, drawing or film, they were all poems really. This makes sense, as this book is not a plotty, observational saga, but a dream.

The book begins during a boys' snowball fight which is taking place at dusk in a Parisian street. War has been declared and the combatants are determined to win for their chosen side. The game is referred to only as 'the battle' and as Paul, warm with love, searches the icy battleground for Dargelos, soldiers fall and missiles fly.

The reader is drawn into the boys' world which, already insular, is made further otherworldly by the snow.

'The snow had gone on falling steadily since yesterday, thereby radically altering the original design. The Cite had withdrawn in Time; the snow seemed no longer to be impartially distributed over the whole warm living earth, but to be dropping, piling only upon this one isolated spot.'

This feeling of claustrophobic isolation is carried on when Paul, hit in the heart by Dargelos' rock centred snowball is taken home by Gerard. Paul and Elisabeth's mother is ill and the siblings share a room, 'The Room', which is their own private world with treasures, stories and 'The Game'. This Game seems to be ultimate escapism, the ability to retreat into your mind and enjoy a swooning reverie which Elisabeth thinks of as 'their private legend.' (Cocteau wrote this book during a week of drug withdrawal.)

These children are utterly immune to the realities of life. When their mother dies, they are looked after by Gerard, a maid and a kind family friend. They exist in a private netherworld of barley sugars, crayfish, shoplifting, dares and dens.

It is apparent to the reader from the first few chapters, that these two innocents are not going to thrive, but it is the arrival of Agatha, a spitting image of Paul's lost love Dargelos, that precipitates the end of The Room and of The Game.

The book is illustrated by Cocteau's pen and ink drawings and these help to contribute to the dreamlike feeling that pervades the text. Simple line drawings show Paul in battle, Elisabeth as a spider caught in the web of her own making, and a group of ghostly school boys pressing their noses against a snowy window.

The translation is by Rosamund Lehmann and was said by The Times to have 'the rare merit of reading as though it were an English original.' The prose does seem fresh and uncontrived. Translations can often be stilted, but this highly specific book seems to flow straight from Cocteau's pen into English.

'The street lamps shed a feeble light upon what looked like a deserted battlefield. Frost-flayed, the ground had split, was broken up into fissured blocks, like crazy pavement. In front of every gully-hole, a stack of grimy snow stood ominous, a potential ambush; the gas-jets flickered in a villainous north-easter; and the dark holes and corners already hid their dead.'

If you enjoy pacy, plot-driven reads, then do not bother opening this book. If, however, you enjoy beautiful writing that you can dwell on, rather than be pulled along by, then this poem of a book will haunt you for ever.


  1. Ohhh, this is on the top of my to-read list! It sounds like what I expected it to be like so that makes me happy.

  2. Did you read this in French? I haven't read a French novel in ages! Maybe I should check this one out... so long as I have my trusty dictionary by my side.

    -Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop

  3. babygotbooks, I first read it years ago and it stuck in my mind. The text and illustrations together work perfectly. I hope that you enjoy it.

    Lydia, no. I posted with the Livre de Poche image just because I like it. I am incapable of reading a French menu, let alone a novel! The Rosamund Lehmann translation is great though...