Disappearing in a puff of smoke
SOUVENIR PORTRAITS by Jean Cocteau translated by Jesse Browner Robson Books, (12.95, pp. 173 This is a new translation into English of a book which Cocteau put together in 1935 from short articles he wrote for the Saturday Figaro, accompanied by his own drawings, recalling his youth before 1914. Cocteau was born in 1889 but became successful with the appearance of his first book of poems, Le Lampe d'Aladin (1909), and so encountered many of the famous characters of the belle époque. Extraordinary for a book containing Rejane, Madame Rossini, Sarasate, Cosi- ma Wagner, de Max, Colette, Otero, Sarah Bernhardt, Mistinguett, Isadora Duncan, Catulle Mendes, the Empress Eugenie, Reynaldo Hahn, Anna de Noailles, Sacha Guitry and Paul Poiret, to be slim — but Cocteau has managed it.
He never intended it otherwise. In the first chapter he writes ... an article by a poet recalling his life, I see as something light, fleet, written in fresh ink at the edge of an editorial desk, without any touching up.. .
So what we have are sketches — draw- ings and prose fragments done seemingly with the same pen: casual, soft, untidy, animated. It is mostly a record of exteri- ors and social moments with plenty of lists of what people wore, interior decora- tions, smells etc. Only the piece on Anna de Noailles is anything like a sustained portrait and she still comes at us in fits and starts. There is a noticeable absence of bitchiness (though sometimes there's teasing) and this one would expect from the nostalgie de la jeunesse in which the memoirs are written.
Cocteau, however trivial his task (and some of his tasks were wonderfully triv- ial), always regards himself as the poet, with the result that one of the prevailing tones of Souvenir Portraits is a pretentious sentimentality brought about by his attempts to raise the emotional power of this work beyond its capacity. 'I wish to be read by people who have remained child- ren at any cost. I can tell them a mile away.' But then he follows up this nonsense with a typically clever Cocteau touch:
A look into the primitive fairyland is better protection against the ravages of age than any beauty treatment, or any diet.
From time to time he goes beyond clever- ness into meaninglessness, which is typical- ly French. And that you would think is that.
However, the book becomes more inter- esting when one remembers that in 1935, despite periods in cure clinics in 1925 and 1928, Cocteau was still struggling with his opium addiction. These glimpses of the past, half in, half out of reality, are also opium dreams. An opium reverie is not, as some imagine, a coherent fantasy enacted in the mind through time. It is more a pro- cess, wavelike in its pulsating liquefaction of partial dreams and images, an undulat- ing parade of treasures from the uncon- scious which can combine the enchanted with the utterly banal, the formless with the recognisable. In the opium world, the finished-off unit is a limitation. A certain sloppiness or open structure is essential light, fleet, without any touching up. Intel- lectual activity is in abeyance, so that a text such as this, held together only by the power of association and in which so many of the journalistic references have been forgotten, disintegrates into a poignant suggestiveness, like pieces of old moulder- ing velvet.
To put it another way, incompleteness is crucial to the appeal of drug hallucinations, indeed is the key to their fascination. And this is also true of vital works of art. The living books are those which are not merely a rattling good read, which cannot be taken in one bite, which are not perfectly dis- cernible in all their aspects. An element of the hidden should somewhere be present. They must refuse to be obvious. But incom- pleteness, exacerbated by opium, goes fur- ther in these portraits and becomes the necessary method. From his personal expe- rience Cocteau cannot recall biographies, merely an ankle, a phrase, a gait, a shirt, someone's receding back, several lines of oblique conversation, a portion of garden seen through a window. Opium dreams, like all dreams, acquire their tangibility only on reflection. The same process allows one to fill in the gaps, but Cocteau prefers not to do so. He prefers intimacy to finesse.
Under the influence of opium all emo- tions converge upon one, the paradox of detached absorption, the gaze, which is also the attentive child's view of the adult world. (Cocteau writes 'A child's glance is quick to record. Later on, he develops the prints.'). One becomes the spectator of one's own experience, incapable of analysis but relishing the appearance of things hence all these lists and the importance of evocation per se. And because the narration is associative, not intellectual, the hypnotic unfolding of memories is often interrupted by a fidgeting, as of moving about in a con- fined space, not knowing where to go next. And as frequently the text congeals out of vagueness into lucid images. The overall effect is tasty but imprecise, familiar but mysterious, unusual and unsatisfactory.
The present translation does not under- write the glamour of Cocteau's world. That Gallic playfulness, that poetic and opiated surge, that mondaine tilt of the mind are not easily conveyed in flat American English. Cocteau's silliness, however, makes the cross-over unmoderated.
`Even my wildest dreams are rather tame.'