The first substantial life of the French surrealist writer and artist to appear in English since 1970.
You might not have known that Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was an angst-y, tormented artist to look at him: he “always tried to put himself forward as happy and detached,” writes French biographer Arnaud (Chamfort: A Biography, 1992), and he had a happy childhood without much drama. Still, as Arnaud remarks, Cocteau wrestled for a long time with his homosexuality, a preference for men that “remained more acted than lived,” no small thing in a time when the law still weighed heavily against same-sex relationships. Arnaud accomplishes several things in this overstuffed life of the writer, artist, and filmmaker. He does much, for example, to correct the emphasis on Cocteau as eccentric artist—he was, after all, a shining light of Dadaism—that comes “to the detriment of the creator.” Focusing closely on Cocteau’s works, Arnaud ventures that he was often at his best as a collaborator, whether encouraging Marcel Proust during the long years of his writing Recherche, even if Proust may have thought of him as “a piece of furniture,” or concocting strange experiments with Pablo Picasso. In the end, Arnaud provides a portrait of a committed, seasoned artist who was, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, a vortex of energy, constantly at work, writing “on invitations, record jackets, cigarette boxes, theater programs, book covers.” If Cocteau was not well-understood in his own time, and often savaged critically, he is unjustly overlooked today. Although, for instance, he was long considered one of the trio of “uncle Jeans” of French film, the others being Renoir and Epstein, many students know him only for Orphée (1950), and although his literary production was steady, he remains known today mostly for his middle-period novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929). Concludes Arnaud, a touch hopefully, “we haven’t yet finished with Cocteau.”
Arnaud’s biography provides a useful corrective and will inspire renewed interest in Cocteau’s work.