- Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, translated by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell
Yale, 1024 pp, £30.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 17057 3
Jean Cocteau had a genius for being seen. As an elegant young man, with the cult poet Anna de Noailles on his arm, thanks to an introduction from Proust, he danced the polka at the Bastille Day ball in 1912, careful, first, to alert the photographers. ‘If I were to take a picture of a village wedding,’ a photographer once remarked, ‘Jean Cocteau would appear between the bride and groom.’ Across the span of his life he appears in snaps with Stravinsky, Picasso, Piaf, Chanel, Charlie Chaplin. A picture from 1958 captures an elderly Cocteau bowing gallantly to kiss the hand of a radiant Brigitte Bardot – one eye furtively seeks out the camera’s gaze. He is posed by Man Ray, displaying his beautiful hands; Cecil Beaton photographs him smoking opium, in a sepia haze. He is portrayed by Philippe Halsman as a god with six arms, bearing pen, book, cigarette, scissors: caught between versions of himself, he becomes Cocteaux. As if refracted by these multiple appearances, his person attains a strange, fugitive invisibility.
Eyes and gazes are everywhere in Cocteau’s work, from the devoted gaze of the lover in the lyric sequence Plain-chant (1923) to the uncanny eyes painted on the eyelids of Lee Miller in his 1930 film Le Sang d’un poète. He kept returning to the pivotal moment in the myth of Orpheus when a sudden, interlocked gaze sends Eurydice back to the unseen shades. Despite the connections, his work is remarkable for its eclecticism: he wrote poems, plays in verse, plays in prose, novels, memoirs; he devised writings in novel formats, which he sometimes illustrated. He made paintings and sculptures as well as stage sets, ballets, movies, ceramics. He ‘tattooed’ a villa, and several chapels. All this variety – this series of metamorphoses or, in his word, mues, ‘moultings’ – constitutes a kind of predicament, the tricks of a transformation artist always assuming different roles with a stealthy, virtuoso quickness parodically borne out in the syllables of his name: Cocteau – ‘coq-à-l’âne’, ‘coqs tôt’, ‘cocktail’. ‘There is something comic to surmount in your name,’ a director of the Revue blanche said to the young Cocteau in 1914, and his name was the source of jokes throughout his life, but he also had fun with the names of others: Marlene Dietrich’s, he said, ‘begins with a caress and ends with a horsewhip’. Through all his incarnations, Cocteau insisted, there runs the ‘blood of a poet’: he classified his works under the headings ‘poésie’, ‘poésie de théâtre’, ‘poésie critique’, ‘poésie de roman’, ‘poésie graphique’, ‘poésie cinématographique’. ‘To enclose the collected works of Jean Cocteau,’ Auden wrote, ‘one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse.’ It’s a double-edged remark: a warehouse is capacious but also a place for hiding things away. And yet Auden brings to light something of Cocteau’s fabulous theatricality: his collected works are like a vast, backstage world, where props and costumes are always magically available.
Claude Arnaud’s biography, first published in France more than ten years ago and now translated into English, describes a life that travels the distance from Proust to Bardot, not just chronologically but culturally, from Gallimard to the silver screen. The more time you spend with Cocteau the more Cocteaux appear: he’s an ambulance attendant in the First World War, tending the wounded alongside the patron of ballet Misia Sert, wearing a chic uniform designed by Poiret; he transforms himself from the ‘le prince frivole’ of the salons to hang out with the bohemians in Montparnasse but remains a boy living with his mother into his late thirties. He vanishes into opium dens, but then suddenly embarks on an impromptu trip around the world in eighty days. In another guise, he coaches the prizefighter Panama Al Brown. His desire to be noticed involves his revealing everything, but always in another set of clothes. In this he was like Coleridge, another opium addict, who found he could not ‘attain this innocent nakedness except by assumption. I resemble the Duchess of Kingston, who masqueraded in the character of “Eve before the Fall”, in flesh-coloured Silk.’ Ever visible, he drifts into other works of art: his cadences return in Pound’s Pisan Cantos; he appears as a blonde in a poem by Frank O’Hara; he becomes the name of a band, the Cocteau Twins. It’s as if he can beam into other worlds, as his voice does, through radio, in his 1950 film Orphée, transmitting from an elusive elsewhere.
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