The fate of buried works,"" writes Cocteau here, ""is to be translated into several languages."" As usual, the quixotic French artist is his own best example: this is the latest in a series of English translations rekindling the obscure brilliance of one of the century's great creators. First published in the early 1950's, a decade before the author's death at age 74, and composed during Cocteau's ""retirement"" at the home of his friend and patron Francine Weissmuller, the book is a hypnotic memoir, a grand bowing-out from the dramatic stage of life. Its spirit and structure are borrowed from Montaigne; essays like ""On The Birth of a Poem,"" ""On Memory,"" and ""On Friendship"" originate in enticing epigrams that lead to dazzling, mercurial meditations. ""The soul is pathetically weak,"" Cocteau writes in ""On A Purple Passage,"" and poetry, the soul's medium, ""is a religion without hope."" Elsewhere, Cocteau contemplates his scandalous outlaw image and what he calls ""the burden of personality."" ""Invisibility"" is his recurring metaphor for the mystery of identity the essays explore. Man, he writes, ""unable to withdraw into himself. . .disguises himself."" In an age both ""idolatrous and iconoclastic,"" he notes in ""On Friendship,"" an artist's work is his only inviolate statement. Thus the book is peppered with remarks on fabulists like himself--Gide, Proust, Wagner--and ends with reflective notes on the author's own dramatic rendering of Oedipus Rex. Browner's pretentious introduction and Cocteau's occasional impenetrability are the only weaknesses in an otherwise spectacular literary performance.