Book Review: "Les Enfants Terribles" by Jean Cocteau
5/5 - A game, played for keeps...
“Les Enfants Terribles” by Jean Cocteau is a book that reminds me of the time I read “Ringolevio” and in that, I mean that it is where life is basically made into this metaphysical type of game. Sometimes this game can be amazing, filled with vigour and actually quite entertaining and other times, it can be dangerous as hell - and for the mind of children it can get a bit much. One thing I noticed in this book though is that no matter how dangerous or profane a situation may be for children or teenagers of their age, the writing style is almost fluently decadent and observational. It is always presented as beautifully tragic, as if we are supposed to believe that these children will be completely unharmed and thus we, are also participating in the strange imagination of this game. I don’t want to give too much away about the game itself but if you are going to believe that this is purely fictitious and in the children’s imaginations - then please reconsider. The game ends up being a degenerate and dangerous, a manipulative and ghastly thing, morphing from childhood to the teen years and all the way into pre-adulthood. It seems like there would be only one option to end the game itself and that would be if both children involved were to die. I will leave it up to you to find out whether that actually happens.
Here are some quotations that I found absolutely endearing. If you are interested, I have been trying to find a good translation of this book for about two years now and this one, I think, is the best I am going to get. It is by Vintage Publishing House and has a quality of doom to it, like a beating drum on a distant ship.
“There was snow that evening. The snow had gone on falling steadily since yesterday, thereby radically altering the original design. The Cite had withdrawn in Time: the snow seemed no longer to be impartially distributed over the whole warm living earth, but to be dropping, piling only upon this one isolated spot. The hard muddy ground had already been smashed, churned up, crushed, stamped into slides by children on their way to school. The soiled snow made ruts along the gutter. But the snow had also become the snow on porches, steps and house-fronts: featherweight packages, mats, cornices, odds and ends of wadding, ethereal yet crystallised, seemed, instead of blurring the outlines of the stone, to quicken it, to imbue it with a kind of presage. Gleaming with the soft effulgence of a luminous dial, the snow’s incandescence, self engendered, reached inward to probe the very soul of luxury and draw it forth through stone till it was visible, till it was that fabric magically upholstering the Cite, shrinking it and transforming it into a phantom drawing room.”
The language of violence is quite prominent in this novel as well. Apart from the languid and almost haunting atmospheres of winter and snow, human violence is almost elegant in its writing, which makes it evermore disturbing in the mind of the reader when you stop to think about what you have just witnessed in this short, but all-encompassing psychological novel:
“On went the cab, jogging through the open firmament. Stars came towards it, splintering the dim shower-whipped windows with fiery particles of light. Suddenly a cry was heard, two plaintive notes. Piercing, human they swelled, inhuman; the panes rattled; the fire brigade went storming by. Through chinks in the frosted glass Gerard could discern the bases of engines, the scarlet ladders, the firemen standing motionless, gold-helmeted in the niches, like allegorical figures on a monument. A ruddy flicker danced across Paul’s face. Gerard fancied him reviving. But the last of the whirlwind passed, leaving him death-pale as before. It was then that Gerard notice that the hand in his own was warm, and understood that his ability to play the Game stemmed from this link with living warmth.”
When the game is first mentioned, again like other moments in the book, it just sends some sort of chill straight through you. It is a brilliant passage that takes place from pages fourteen to twenty and if you read them carefully, you will notice that there is some sort of fascination with death to the teenagers that the reader just cannot ignore.