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The Journals of Jean Cocteau

The Journals of Jean Cocteau , edited and translated, with an introduction by Wallace Fowlie. New York: Criterion Books, 1956.

The occasion of Jean Cocteau's election to the French Academy (1955) has meant an increase of interest in his work in this country. Actually, this kind of interest most concerns publishers and their use of such events to provide "times" for concern with the writing of this or that man. This is a perfectly reasonable exploitation of a circumstance perhaps, but it can often lead to hasty thinking, editing, translating—and so on. The occasion forgotten, the book shows its gaps and awkwardnesses, and ends by disobliging the very man it assertedly hoped to honor.

The present book is an "occasion" book. Mr. Fowlie's introduction is twenty-nine pages long almost in defense of his uneasiness. He was given a sizable task, clearly. I am by no means as familiar with the material as he must be; but I am aware that it must have been very difficult to select things out of it—it does not break open into pieces, but is a texture of attention, endlessly reforming. At times Mr. Fowlie can only shout his goodwill ("Membership in the Académie Française will hardly slow him [Cocteau] down!"). But his translation is readable, and given his word—"A fairly literal translation seemed often to serve Cocteau better than an effort to recast the original in order to find a style and phrasing more native

New Mexico Quarterly , Winter 1956–57.


to English . . ."—we will have to trust him, and also thank him, because no one has as yet done more, or as much.

This brings us, then, to Cocteau—not fatuously, please, because I have taken pains, or have tried to, to separate him from his translator, and particularly, from the "occasion" behind the translator—forever to be suspected. As Mr. Fowlie suggests (p. 3), Jean Cocteau is not a widely read writer, although many people know his name, and sense a half-glamour in it, for reasons they themselves continue to produce. He has, however, been recognized by his contemporaries for many years. The first sections of the book describe his relationships with Satie, Max Jacob, Stravinsky, Raymond Radiguet, Pablo Picasso, Maritain, Proust, Diaghilev, Apollinaire. In the American context, Ezra Pound mentions him several times in Guide to Kulchur , once as follows: "To establish some table of values as among men I have seen and talked with . . . Gaudier had and Cocteau has genius . . . By genius I mean an inevitable swiftness and rightness in a given field. The trouvaille. The direct simplicity in seizing the effective means."

What is his writing like, then? I would like to know too. I have seen three of his movies, including Beauty and the Beast; know nothing of his poetry; read Opium when younger with great care (and wonder—it was not at all what I expected, and was very strictly written); and began Thomas the Imposter (remembering the kaleidoscoping of short scene-images, with which it begins); and read with what French I had, Journal d'un Inconnu , what I could of it—excited to find the mind so capable of balance and continuance. Cocteau writes:

On Words

I attach no importance to what people call style and that by which they think they recognize a writer. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better, by my bearing. I make every effort to be heard as briefly as possible. I have noticed, when a story does captivate the reader's mind, that he was reading too fast, and gliding down the slope. That is why, in the book, I skirt around the writing which forces me not to glide in a straight line, but to start over again, to reread the sentences in order not to lose the thread.

When I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I find in it and I dream of using them. I note them down. But in my work it is impossible. I limit myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot go beyond it, and it is so restricted that the work becomes a puzzle.

I wonder, at each line, whether I shall go on, whether the combination of the few words I use, always the same ones, will not end up by


blocking the way and forcing me to silence. It would be beneficial for everyone, but words are like figures or letters in the alphabet. They are able to reorganize differently and perpetually at the bottom of the kaleidoscope.

I said I was jealous of the words of other writers. It is because they are not mine. Each writer has a bag of them, as in a lotto set, with which he has to win. Except for the style I dislike—Flaubert is the leading example—too rich in words—the style I like, Montaigne, Racine, Chateaubriand, Stendhal, does not spend too many words. It would take no time to count them . . .

The sections into which the book is divided show a preoccupation with personalities, not Cocteau's nor perhaps even Mr. Fowlie's, obliged as he was by the concerns evident. Sections I (Childhood and Early Influences) and III (Testimonials) contain the bulk of it; and Sections II (The Writer's Character) and VI (Aesthetics) seem the most purposefully free, and useful. But what use we are intent upon, is what we must of course decide.

A use of words is a definition of words. This is not new, but worth, like they say, the repeating, always. The structure of language is at stake, so to speak.

There is also the question of "authorities," concerning which Robert Duncan, an American poet who has read Cocteau's work with care, writes:

What Joyce sees as "conscience" because he is guilt and sin centered, Pound sees as sensibility or Ibsen sees as awareness or Dante sees as Grace. Cocteau in Journal d'un Inconnu voices an aspect of the problem. It is here in the terms of the economy of fame. The work, as it is realized, is a flowering; and like all flowerings—the author here no more intending than a plant intends—an attraction; its emanations draw and repel, its colors exhibit or conceal. No matter! a host arrives, or hosts depart, of all sorts. This clustering about an emanation is its fame in which sometimes the plant can survive; thru which at times the plant comes even to flourish or, as in the relation of certain plants thru their flowerings with bees, to depend; or it may perish. All artists draw a sap out of solitude. The work of art flowers forth, ripens, and falls away from a vitality drawn out of a privacy, a secret source of the artist in the fields of time and space . . .

The relation of a poem to what the world calls events is similar. The "world" cannot view a poem as an event in itself, and seeks to translate as if the poem were referring to "real life." Yet for the poet, the reality of time and space which is realized in making, in a poem, is the real life.

[From an unpublished Notebook.]


The attempt to wrench segments from any completed work (happily called a book ), to reassort, re-time , reaffix, etc.,—is not easily defensible. Most reasonably, it would be the act of the man who wrote the book or books. In this case, it is not. In twenty years there have been five books by Cocteau published in English; two were translated by the British poet and playwright, Ronald Duncan, one by the British novelist, Rosamond Lehmann. The fourth is a retranslation of the same novel translated by Miss Lehmann (no translator given), published in this country. And the fifth is the present book. I think we had better go back, and start over.


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