LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES - JEAN COCTEAU
I know he's not in the Best Sellers lists but does anybody read Jean Cocteau nowadays? And if not - why not? And indeed, if not - why should they?
I must admit I don't actually know that much about Jean Cocteau as a person, all I know is his work which perhaps is the way it should be? He was a poet, essentially, and he regarded all of his work as an extension of his poetry in different media be it in film, theatre, verse, criticism, or novel. I must also admit I didn't really understand what his novel Les Enfants Terribles was about until I was over half-way through it but so beautifully is it written that it didn't really matter.
So what is Les Enfants Terribles about? I might be wrong but it's about a brother and sister going from childhood to young adulthood in a private, perpetual state of near-hysteria. It's about the unbalanced and unsettling relationship between them as they suck other people into their 'game' causing lives to spin out of control yet be caught in an orbit of exact logic.
Their lives have been affected and are dictated by events not of their own making such as having had an unstable father who is now dead and an equally unstable mother who dies quite early on in the story. The brother and sister are subsequently left to their own devices to create their own world full of secrets, exaggerations and petulance. All children are capable of transporting themselves to another world of make-believe where if there are any rules at all then they are rules that only make sense to the child. The brother and sister live in such a world for rather than having left that world behind along with childish habits they've carried it on into their teenage and young adult years. Their obsessions, their squabbles, their antics, their spitefulness - all are of the stuff of children.
A hint as to what is to come is given soon after the main characters have been introduced when a friend spots some words printed in soap upon a mirror in the brother and sister's house declaring 'Suicide is a mortal sin'. There's no explanation for the words being written on the mirror and in fact they're taken as just another oddity to add to the general oddness of their lives.
A snowball with a rock hidden inside is thrown at the brother at the start of the story and it's this event that sets off a whole chain of events. The snowball has been thrown by a boy whom the brother obsesses over and he falls ill from being struck by it. Some years later a friend of his sister comes to live with them and the brother is struck by her resemblance to the snowball thrower. The brother comes to see that he's in love with her but having never really grown up he's unable to express such emotions particularly with the added problem of his sister's jealousy. After much manipulation by the sister everyone ends up in miserable states of affairs. The spectre of the snowball thrower enters their world again when he is encountered by a mutual friend and as a gift to the brother he passes on some poison to him. It's not stated but the poison may well be opium?
Reading Les Enfants Terribles is like looking into a smashed mirror and trying to see the face peering back. Details can be seen clearly in many of the shards but the whole is partially obscured due to the cracks. You know a face is there but it's hard to define.
Jean Cocteau was a famous imbiber of opium and if you know anything about opium (as we all do down here in Exmouth) then it helps to understand where the book is coming from. Not that you need to be a drug fiend or anything of the like to enjoy it. Les Enfants Terribles, I should declare, is a work of art and even though it was written in 1929 it hasn't aged in the slightest. It sits, in fact, in an almost eminent place of its own and towers over much more widely read and feted literature. Jean Cocteau isn't in the Best Sellers lists but he should be far better known than what he is.
And so too, come to think of it, should the Cocteau Twins....