PAST TENSE: The Cocteau Diaries, Vol. I by Jean Cocteau
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PAST TENSE: The Cocteau Diaries, Vol. I

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What 1951 and 1952 were like for the great French poet, playwright, filmmaker, and artist. This diary, the first of several volumes recently published in France, is not an intimate look at romantic matters (Ned Rorem, in a Forward, seems a bit disappointed that Cocteau never mentions his own homosexuality). Instead, the subject is being a poet, or public literary figure, matter of interest enough. Those who are familiar with Cocteau's writings will find the same old recognizable figure here, gabbling away brilliantly on any number of topics. The point of Cocteau's achievement, as this diary reinforces, is that despite his butterfly appearance of intellectual dabbler, Cocteau was, in fact, a greatly gifted poet with a sensibility capable of wonderful observations. In his 60s, he still reveals a springing athletic wit and vigorous alertness to new stimuli for his Muse. So eager is he to capture poetically his emotions that he may seem at times insensitive. Visiting a friend's deathbed, he sees there ""someone else on his bed. A huge alabaster puppet."" The two most important literary personalities in these pages are Proust and Genet. He keenly identifies Sartre's book on Genet as ""a monumental portrait of Sartre of which Genet is merely the stone or bronze."" He is even more perceptive about Proust, whom he knew in his youth. Cocteau decides, ""I admire Marcel. I do not respect him."" In the fleeting passages that follow, the reader can sense a sort of sibling rivalry, so close were the two writers in some ways. The fresh translation by Howard is one of the most elegant and finished Englishings of Cocteau that American readers have been privileged to see. A dazzling look at the professional aspects of a literary life. Creative insights and Gallic wit abound.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 1986
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich