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Cocteau and Camus: Fantasist and Realist

books and culture

Cocteau and Camus: Fantasist and Realist

Two biographies illuminate divergent French artists and their legacies. January 10, 2017
Arts and Culture

Jean Cocteau: A Life, by Claude Arnaud, trans. Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandel (Yale University Press, 1,014 pp., $40)

Looking for “The Stranger”: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, by Alice Kaplan (University of Chicago Press, 289 pp., $26)

Jean Cocteau was a precious aesthete—a poet, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, critic, draftsman, and sculptor who worshiped art and beauty. Albert Camus was a novelist and politically committed activist who pursued existential themes: angst and the absurd, suicide and death. Two books—one new, one a decade old but translated into English for the first time—illustrate the contrasting legacies of these artists representing the opposite extremes of modern French literature. 

Originally published in 2003 and dedicated to Edmund White, who provided a blurb, Claude Arnaud’s Jean Cocteau: A Life has just been released by Yale University Press. At more than 1,000 pages, it is about twice as long as it should be. The author should have heeded Cocteau’s advice to the young novelist Raymond Radiguet “to shorten the action and the descriptions, and accelerate the style.” Arnaud indulges in too many meaningless abstractions—“He always needed to let his soul migrate. . . . He no longer believed in skyscrapers, but in roses”—and false generalizations. Arnaud’s discussion of Cocteau’s relations with Proust and Picasso are drearily familiar, but compared with them, Cocteau is superficial and trivial. Inventive and technically accomplished, he lacked human warmth and seemed trapped in his own fantastic world.

Though he tries to exalt Cocteau in the introduction, Arnaud concedes that “the sheer variety of his output contributes to his discredit.” Cocteau never wrote a masterpiece, and his biographer, showing more enthusiasm than discrimination, does not identify his best works nor provide a strong conclusion. The book’s poor index has no entry for Cocteau or his massive output; other entries list long series of numbers with no subheadings.

With his beak nose, thin lips, narrow face, high turban of hair, claw hands, and spindly frame, Cocteau looked like Edith Sitwell in drag. The acrobat of art and genius of self-promotion was a narcissistic, sadistic, and corrupt drug addict. His erotic poem exclaims: “Sometimes I want to scratch and bite you / Gouge out your too-black, too-deep, too slant eyes. / . . . I want to laugh at your burning pain.” As Orwell wrote of the characters in Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, “the so-called artists spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging.” Supported by his mother, Cocteau lived a self-indulgent and promiscuous life (he was not persecuted for his homosexuality). Modigliani’s satiric portrait captures the dandy and poseur.

Arnaud is strongest on Cocteau’s acting and his role as a non-combatant in World War I (“I went there as a fraud”) as well as his tempestuous relations with the teenaged Radiguet, who recharged him erotically. Withdrawn into his own world, Cocteau was indifferent to the political events of his time. Arnaud vaguely concludes: “It is hard to be one of those people . . . for whom nothing really exists. . . . More than ever this extraterrestrial was taking his orders from the heavens, where the gods who ruled over our destinies dwelled. . . . He had spent his life wasting his talent, his mind, his belongings.”

Michel de Montaigne observed, “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Biographers should remember that a shorter book is harder to write but easier to read than an encyclopedic long one. A well-written biography should illuminate the recurrent patterns of the life and look at the big picture, not just at the small details. Employing the same techniques as the novelist, the biographer should propel the narrative and concentrate on the readers’ interests rather than the biographer’s obsessions. Arnaud’s Jean Cocteau does not meet these standards. It is a book easier to praise than to read.

Camus was everything that Cocteau was not—Algerian, poor, tubercular, and a university graduate. Handsome, heterosexual, and twice married, Camus was a journalist and editor of the underground resistance newspaper Combat. Despite his tuberculosis, for which there was no cure at the time, he smoked heavily and liked to soak up the sun on the beach. He won the Nobel Prize and died at 46, in a car crash. Alice Kaplan devotes the first half of her lively, intelligent, and perceptive book to a careful account of Camus’s writing of The Stranger, the second half to its difficult publication in Nazi-occupied France. She identifies three key moments in the creation of the novel: Camus left Algeria for Paris and abandoned the first version, A Happy Death, in March 1940; he completed a new draft in April; and he rejected the negative response of his influential mentor, Jean Grenier, in May.

The name of Meursault, Camus’s famous protagonist, matches that of a white Burgundy wine and suggests a plunge (saut) into death (meur). Meursault’s quintessential trait is his refusal to conform to society’s expectations. Though Camus loved teamwork on the soccer field and in theater groups, he made his hero an isolated outsider. Meursault has no personal feelings about his mother’s death—though perhaps he kills the Arab to compensate for it—or his mistress’s love. Camus was likely drawing on his own mother—deaf, illiterate, silent, and withdrawn—who worked as a cleaning lady and was partially “dead” to him while still alive. Ironically, Camus gives Raymond Sintès, Meursault’s brutal and vengeful friend, the maiden name of his beloved mother.

Living entirely through his senses, Meursault is affected only by the sea and sun—and the blazing heat incites him to murder. The sensational murder trials that Camus covered as a journalist in Algiers were a major influence on the novel. Camus’s “time spent in court would allow him to plot The Stranger around a crime that grew out of ethnic tensions in Algerian society,” Kaplan writes, “and around a trial that made a mockery of the justice system.” Meursault is found guilty for the wrong reason: not for killing the Arab but for failing to cry at his mother’s funeral and for swimming and going to the movies the next day. (Camus may have drawn on the life of his fellow North African, Saint Augustine, the subject of his master’s thesis in philosophy; Augustine did not weep at his mother’s funeral and tried to assuage his sorrow by going to the baths.) His trial illustrates the absurdity of life. Camus does not describe the execution nor explain how the apparently dead man can narrate his own story.

Jean-Paul Sartre called The Stranger “Kafka written by Hemingway,” and the affinities between Camus and Hemingway are compelling. Both began as newspaper reporters who “knew how to build suspense through a few well-chosen details,” and both described short, violent lives “whose brevity had something naturally cruel” about them. Camus’ principle of fiction, “The true work of art is one that says the least,” is based on Hemingway’s “iceberg theory,” which advocated minimalism.

In chapter XIV of In Our Time (1924), Hemingway wrote of the dying bullfighter, “Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. . . . Then everything commenced to run faster and faster. . . . Then he was dead.” In A Happy Death, written in the late 1930s, Camus similarly described the life seeping out of his hero: “There rose inside him a stone which approached his throat. He breathed faster and faster, higher and higher.” In A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway warned about the danger of swallowing patriotic rhetoric: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages” where soldiers had died. In a political speech of 1936, Camus also warned his audience to beware of the deceitful manipulation of language, of “the power of certain words like ‘fatherland,’ ‘glory,’ ‘honor.’”

Camus had two generous enablers. His journalist friend Pascal Pia, who acted as his literary agent, praised The Stranger and sent it to publisher Michel Gallimard. André Malraux, a leading literary figure in wartime France, recognized the greatness of the novel and offered specific suggestions to improve it. Malraux wrote Pia: “The Stranger is obviously something important. The force and simplicity of its means, the fact that it ends up compelling the reader to accept its main character’s point of view, is even more remarkable. . . . What Camus has to say, in convincing us, is not insignificant.” In a brilliant editorial stroke, Malraux said that all Camus had to do to improve the crucial murder scene was to link “the sun and the Arab’s knife. In other words, Camus needed to make the sun glint off that knife.”

In 1942, when paper was scarce, The Stranger’s first printing was a modest 4,400 copies. Seventy years later, it has sold more than 10 million copies in France alone. Camus’s terse novel has become a classic—one that outlives Cocteau’s creations.

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