Wall Street Journal
December 23, 2016
The title of Jean Cocteau’s second book, published in 1910, was Le Prince Frivole, and it is as a flighty, upper-crust character that the novelist, painter, filmmaker and playwright has been treated by commentators ever since. “He is incapable of seriousness,” André Gide said of him. Gide was not a prince but a king in the interwar French literary world, and one of Cocteau’s idols. Picasso, another, more enduring friend, suggested that if Cocteau could sell his talent, “we could spend our whole lives going to the pharmacy to buy some Cocteau pills.” Cocteau felt belittled by those remarks, but they chime with the compliment paid to him by W.H. Auden some 30 years later: “The lasting feeling that his work leaves is one of happiness.” The ability to be serious while being at the same time frivolous is what makes Cocteau dear to his admirers.
It is not altogether surprising to learn that the dominant feeling of Cocteau’s life was unhappiness, at least as it unfolds in Claude Arnaud’s massive biography. His Cocteau is a vain, self-seeking, drug-addicted figure, repeatedly thwarted in love, who by the end felt that he had “spent his life wasting his talent.” Read as an account of Cocteau’s daytime insouciance and nocturnal anguish, Mr. Arnaud’s book might seem to reflect its subject’s own verdict accurately enough. Chapter after chapter outlines a trail of calculation and treachery, repeated failure and only occasional success. Artistic life in Paris between 1910 and 1950, one of the most fertile cultural epochs in history, appears in this telling to have been marked at every stage by spite, sometimes progressing to physical violence. At one stage, the poet Paul Eluard threatened to murder Cocteau; another poet, Robert Desnos, “actually tried to kill Cocteau back in the Dada days” and made anonymous phone calls to Cocteau’s mother informing her “that her son had just been run over by a car.” Both were associates of the Surrealist emperor and principal hater André Breton, who warned Tristan Tzara that Cocteau was “the most detestable being of this time.” Breton’s supporters, Mr. Arnaud writes, “would not have been surprised or disappointed to learn he had actually committed suicide.”
The reasons for this degree of enmity never become clear. Some of the Surrealists’ feeling was rooted in anti-homosexual prejudice, but Mr. Arnaud’s speculative remark that “the symbolic death of this homosexual would help them recover their own virility” sounds glib. Other homosexual artists, including Proust (who enjoyed Cocteau’s company), were spared menacing phone calls.