cocteau remembrances

Jean Cocteau, infant terrible of Paris
was first supported early in his career for publication
in the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Francais) by
Andre Gide (a founding editor). Privately and
publicly they were friends and enemies, yet their
common interests nourished a friendship that endured
for forty years. However strong the sentiments that
caused sporadic quarrels between them, they were
constantly present in each other's lives from the
first time they met, in 1912.

The first excerpt is taken from Cocteau's book
Souvenir Portraits (Paragon House, 1990)

The second excerpt is taken from Truman Capote's book
The Dogs Bark (New American Library, a Plume book: 1977 )

I had just published, in 1926, Le Cog et l'Arlequin. Gide took offense. He was afraid the young would turn away from his program and that he would lose electors. He called me up before him as a schoolmaster would call a recalcitrant pupil and read me an open letter addressed to me.

I have received quite a few open letters. In Gide's I was described as a squirrel and Gide as a bear at the foot of the tree. I jumped over steps, and from branch to branch. In short, I was being reprimanded, and publicly. I told him I intended answering the open letter. He snorted, agreed, told me that nothing was richer or more instructive than such exchanges.

It goes without saying that Jacques Riviere refused to publish my answer in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, where Gide had published his letter. I confess mine was severe. Gide had no profit to draw from my answer except to answer it, which he did. He loved notes and counternotes, answers to answers. He replied to mine in ecrits Nouveaux, which had printed it.

I confess that I did not read it. I wanted to protect myself against a reflex action and a terrifying deluge of open letters. Time went by. Montparnasse and Cubism came. Gide kept out of the way. He could forget offenses, especially those he wrote. He telephoned me and asked to take charge of ... let us say, Olivier. His disciple Olivier was bored with the books in Gide's library. I would introduce him to the Cubists, to the new music, to the circus where he loved the bands, acrobats, and clowns.

I was cautious in carrying out this order. I knew Gide and his quasi-feminine jealousy. Young Olivier found it amusing to irritate Gide by constantly singing my praises, by declaring he hardly ever left my side and that he knew Potomak by heart. I did not know this until 1942, just before leaving for egypt. Gide confessed and told me he had wanted to kill me (sic). It was because of that story he tried to attack me in his journal. At least, he gave it as the reason.

He did not state that I had a hard time convincing him to read Proust. He called him a society writer. Gide was doubtless angry at me for having convinced him, when Proust's cramped handwriting appeared everywhere in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise.

On the day of Proust's death, Gide whispered to me at Gallimard's: "All I have here now is a mere bust."

In his person Gide combined Jean-Jacques Rousseau botanist and Grimm at Mme. D'epinay's. He reminded me of that endless harassing hunt after a terrified animal. He had both the fear of the one and the tricks of the others. The pack and the prey were mingled in him.

The posterior of Jean-Jacques was the moon of Freud rising. Such exhibitionism was not distasteful to Gide. But if you passed around him, you found Voltaire's smile.(note 1)

2. Jean Cocteau and Andre Gide

Andre Gide, that moralizing immoralist, a writer favored with sincerity but denied imagination, quite disapproved of Jean Cocteau, whose gifts the mischievous muses had reversed, making of him, both as man and artist, a creature vastly imaginative but vivaciously insincere. It is interesting, then, that Gide should have authored the most accurate, and for that reason most sympathetic, description of our eldest terrible child.

Gide is writing in his journal; the time is August 1914. "Jean Cocteau had arranged to meet me in an 'english tearoom' on the corner of the rue de Ponthieu and the avenue d'Antin. I had no pleasure in seeing him again, despite his extreme kindness; but he is incapable of seriousness, and all his thoughts, his witticisms, his sensations, all the extraordinary brilliance of his customary conversation shocked me like a luxury article displayed in a period of famine and mourning. He is dressed almost like a soldier, and the fillip of the present events has made him look healthier. He is relinquishing nothing, but simply giving a martial twist to his usual liveliness. When speaking of the slaughter of Mulhouse he uses amusing adjectives and mimicry; he imitates the bugle call and whistling of the shrapnel. Then, changing subjects since he sees he is not amusing me, he claims to be sad; he wants to be sad with the same kind of sadness as you, and suddenly he adopts your mood and explains it to you. Then he talks of Blanche, mimics Mme. R. and talks of the lady at the Red Cross who shouted on the stairway, 'I was promised fifty wounded men for this morning; I want my fifty wounded men.' Meanwhile he is crushing a piece of plum cake in his plate and nibbling it; his voice rises suddenly and has odd twists; he laughs, leans forward, bends toward you and touches you. The odd thing is that I think he would make a good soldier. He asserts that he would and that he would be brave too. He has the carefree attitude of the street urchin; it is in his company that I feel the most awkward, the most heavy, the most gloomy."

In the spring of 1950, in the piazza of a Sicilian town where Gide was vacationing (it was the last year of his life), he had another meeting with Cocteau, a farewell encounter which the writer of these notes happened to observe. It was Gide's custom to dream away the morning hours propped in the piazza sun; there he sat sipping from a bottle saltwater brought fresh from the sea, a motionless mandarin shrouded in a woolly wintry black cape and with a wide-brimmed dark fedora casting a shadow the length of his stern, brimstone countenance: an idle idol-saint (of sorts) unspeaking and unspoken to except for occasional consultations with those of the village Ganymedes who snagged his fancy. Then one morning Cocteau, whirling a cane, sauntered upon the piazza scene and proceeded to interrupt the steely-eyed reveries of Il Vecchio (as the local ragazzi called the distinguished octogenarian). Thirty-four years had gone by since the wartime tea party, yet nothing in the attitude of the two men toward each other had altered. Cocteau was still anxious to please, still the rainbow-winged and dancing dragonfly inviting the toad not merely to admire but perhaps devour him. He jigged about, his jingling merriment competed with the bell-music of passing donkey carts, he scattered rays of bitter wit that stung like the Sicilian sun, he effused, enthused, he fondled the old man's knee, caressed his hands, squeezed his shoulders, kissed his parched Mongolian cheeks - nay, nothing would awaken Il Vecchio: as though his stomach turned at the thought of digesting such fancy-colored fodder, he remained a hungerless frog upon a thorny frond; until at last he croaked, "Do be still. You are disturbing the view."

Very true: Cocteau was disturbing the view. He has been doing so since his debut as an opium-smoking prodigy of seventeen. For more than four decades this eternal gamin has conducted a fun-for-all vaudeville, with many flashing changes of attire: poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, designer, painter, inventor of ballets, film maker, professional conversationalist. Most of these costumes have fit well, a few brilliantly. But it is in the guise of catalytic agent that he has been most capable: as an innovator for, and propagandist of, other men's ideas and gifts - from Radiguet to Genet, Satie to Auric, Picasso to Berard, Worth to Dior. Cocteau has lived absolutely inside his time, and more than anyone else, formed French taste in the present century. It is Cocteau's kinship with his own epoch, his exclusive concern with the modern, that lay at the root of Il Vecchio's aversion. "I do not seek to be of my epoch; I seek to overflow my epoch" was Gide's declared ambition; a commendable one, too. But isn't it possible that a man who has so enlivened our today will, if not overflow, at least trickle into somebody's tomorrow?

note 1 : When I asked Genet why he refused to meet Gide, he answered, "A man is a defendant or a judge. I do not like judges who lean over amorously toward the defendants."

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