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Le livre blanc , by Jean Cocteau

Le Livre Blanc - COCTEAU (Jean)

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the fabulously multi-talented writer, artist and film maker, never officially recognized Le livre blanc as his work (he said he didn't want to upset his mother), but to anyone familiar with his poetics it is clearly his. He was concerned about his mother's humor because the topic of this book is growing up and living as a homosexual man. At the time, the nicest word used to describe homosexuals was invertis ( inverts ); homosexuality was not illegal in France (though inverts were strongly discriminated against), whereas it was still actively prosecuted in the lovely anglo-saxon world.

The first person narrator begins with his childhood, recounting a few unmistakable signs of his tendencies to "inversion". When puberty arrives, the jig is well and truly up: I'm not sure if French classrooms were quite so wild, but according to the narrator, "The classroom smelt of gas, chalk and sperm."(*) He falls in love with a more physically mature boy named Dargelos (a name readers of Cocteau will recognize, and whose description will also be recognized by those familiar with Cocteau's drawings). However, in this book Dargelos dies in consequence of a foolish swim in an icy Seine.(**)

In a sensitive, flexible prose Cocteau takes us through the life of a boy who cannot understand himself because he is unspeakable - he is presented with gargoylish images of himself, if the matter is even permitted to be brought up. (Though this side of the matter is largely passed over in this book.) How many such stories do we already know? Speaking for myself, probably hundreds.

But the narrator's story is just a bit more complicated than the standard gay coming-of-age story. For example, he tries a mistress, Jeanne, who was simultaneously being kept by a wealthy Armenian (who knew about the narrator's relationship with Jeanne) and whom the narrator caught in bed with another woman... Also, he frequents another prostitute "for appearances" but is being shagged by her pimp... It gets even more complicated.

After the boy became a young man, there was apparently no limit to the opportunities for gay sex, particularly for a young man with money; the problem was finding love. Whether due to fate or bad luck, the narrator was doomed. But in one encounter he met a Dargelos-like sailor by whom he was absolutely smitten, and evidently so was the sailor by him. After a passionate night, the narrator walks away mumbling some nonsense to himself and never returns to his sobbing sailor. At this point at the latest, it became clear to me that this story is less of a tale about a gay human being and more of an anthropological study of all the ways a young, rich, gay stereotype can get into trouble.

The story told in this book is melodramatic, since it is told quickly and is full of what would appear to me as rather extreme situations, but it is entertaining. However, it seems to suggest that inverts must move from sexual encounter to sexual encounter and remain unhappy and unfulfilled.


And then he turns to God... Ah, but the Abbé he turns to for spiritual guidance, and with whom he exchanges elevated words, brings his thoughts to less spiritual matters. After a treacherous lover dies from a drug addiction and the brother of his new fiancée (the narrator is having an affair with the brother) shoots himself after a confrontation, the narrator considers withdrawing to a life of meditation in a monastery. Except that the young monk who takes him to the abbott reminds him of Dargelos. So the narrator "departs" and "withdraws from this society". Where to? No idea. The narrator concludes with noble words which ring very hollow in my ears.

So, Cocteau's "gay man" is, in the end, a pretentious aesthete who is constantly in heat. Still, that is much better than Proust's horrible, manipulative pervert Charlus. The story is entertaining, but it isn't much of a white paper. Don't worry, Cocteau wrote much better books than this!

(*) I recall the wonderful film "Zéro de conduite", by Jean Vigo, set at a time not much later than this book, so perhaps they really were that wild. No, that film was liberationist fantasy; of course, the Vichy government banned the movie. If you haven't seen it, try to find it. I love it. And "La guerre des boutons", too.

(**) This is the only book of Cocteau in which Dargelos dies.