Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Impostor - Jean Cocteau


I was unaware of Jean Cocteau's sense of humour until reading his novel, The Impostor. Why did I presume he was a serious-minded fellow interested only in serious art and serious subjects albeit revolving around the avant garde? His humour might be black but here it is on display for all to see if anyone cares to look.
It's rather similar to the way Morrissey is viewed as a miserable person when in actual fact he's a very funny guy. The same with Hilary Mantel as in her being viewed strictly as a serious writer when in actual fact she possesses a very keen sense of humour.

The Impostor concerns itself with the collision between the reality of war and the fantasia of the mind. It's set in France during the First World War at the point where the government has fled Paris and all kinds of madness is subsequently flourishing. Those who have chosen to stay behind are either heroic, loyal, foolish or just plain crazy; and in many cases a good mixture of all four of these things.
Cocteau introduces us to an esoteric troupe of misfits gathered together under the leadership of a princess who has ambitions to be a cross between a Florence Nightingale figure and an actress. She's set up base at an old nursing home in Paris and is setting off for the front line in a convoy of vehicles carrying crates of dry biscuits, oranges and Cordial-Medoc. Their mission being to pick up wounded soldiers and bring them back to Paris.

Just before they're due to depart a sixteen year-old boy in a soldier's uniform enters the camp and on being asked his name is mistaken for the nephew of a famous and much revered General. He does nothing to correct the mistake and in fact assures everyone that he is indeed the General's nephew. The boy is, however, nothing more than a wandering fantasist who has spent his whole life in a world of make-believe and delusion. His fantasies and his adoption of another's identity serve to be a useful asset to the princess who asks him to help her secure the necessary passes and documents required to travel unobstructed through France. He duly sources her the papers that she needs simply by mentioning to the authorities the 'fact' that he's the General's nephew.

Cocteau describes the war as a Catch 22/MASH-type situation of blackly funny and illogical circumstances. He wrote it, however, in 1923 so this is years before either of those books (or films) had even been thought of.
At times it's not the most well written book ever but this might perhaps be down to the translation? It's Cocteau's weaving of reality, fantasy and farce that makes it interesting, particularly in his depiction of the young boy living a life of illusion ultimately to the benefit of other people. The boy himself is unable to distinguish between reality and falsehood but nor does he make any attempt to do so.
His fantasy is his reality, right up to the final moment on the battlefield at the end of the book where he is shot and says to himself he doesn't have a chance unless he pretends to be dead - even though he is actually dead already.

Cocteau would go on to develop his ideas and his writing powers most notably in Les Enfants Terribles before moving into film making. Though having written much poetry before, it was with The Impostor where it all really began and if for no other reason this makes it an important book. Perhaps significantly, the same year that The Impostor was first published Cocteau became addicted to opium...
John Serpico

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