Thomas the Impostor
Thomas l'imposteur (1923) was one of the first books about the First World War which was not just reportage. But this book is certainly not just a view of the war from the trenches, not a bit of it.
When Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) wrote it, he was already under the influence of the much younger Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), who, before his unbelievably premature death from typhoid fever, had, like Rimbaud, sprung fully formed into the Parisian literary world at the age of 15. (He also sprang into Cocteau's heart, as Rimbaud had done into Verlaine's.) To oversimplify, Radiguet had steeped himself in the French literature of the 17th and 18th centuries, about which Cocteau knew next to nothing (he was thrown out of school at least once and was never a good student), and his enthusiasm for the classic authors won over Cocteau, with an serious effect on his prose and poetry styles. The two co-wrote a number of texts, and the case has been made that Cocteau's Le grand écart was inspired by Radiguet's Le diable au corps, and his Thomas l'imposteur was inspired by Radiguet's Le bal du comte d'Orgel. The case has also been made that between Radiguet's death and the publication of Le bal du comte d'Orgel Cocteau re-wrote Radiguet's book. But that I'll discuss elsewhere.
The consequence for Cocteau's prose style: he began writing a linear, relatively simple, emotionally reserved narration in the style of the psychologizing and moralizing classic French authors, which culminated later in his Les enfants terribles. This was neither the first nor the last of Cocteau's transformations. But Cocteau always remained the upper class aesthete, no matter what his reference style; that, in my opinion, is the unmistakable constant of his work, that and the fact that he always had the eye of a poet.
In any case, turning to the book at hand, it should be mentioned that though Cocteau was rejected by the French army for medical reasons, he did serve for a time in the Red Cross' ambulance corps on the Belgian front. And he became very close friends with the unique poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who did fight in the trenches and was horribly wounded, and with whom he surely shared many impressions of the war.
To what end did Cocteau use these? To write, with a lofty serenity I have only seen attainable in French, a biting satire of the absurdity of mankind. At least that describes the first two thirds of the book.
An accidental agglomeration of persons, each for his own private reason, led by a princess with connections and a young impostor, who, because of his imposture, has even more connections, gallivant across the ruined countryside in a convoy of private automobiles and makeshift ambulances looking for wounded soldiers. And they actually help some of them, very nearly by accident. They stumble from horror to absurdity and back again. Back in Paris, they just stumble from absurdity to absurdity. All of the absurdity is, alas, completely possible, realizable, credible. As the impostor's imposture crumbles, the other parties realize that they now depend upon the credibility of that imposture... But Cocteau suddenly drops this promising line, and the book's tone changes.
Abruptly, the impostor excitedly finds himself at the front in Belgium; granted, it is not a hot zone, because the Belgian royal family lives close by. But men die there every day. Cocteau delivers a splendid description of the setting, for here he is reporting from personal experience. He was there with these men in this zone of the front. The soldiers adopt the impostor, for there in the trenches none of his imposture has any meaning; he can discard it. The satire is forgotten, and the impostor becomes Cocteau.
Again, Cocteau jettisons this promising line and occupies himself with a complicated interplay of unrequited loves. He digresses again and again. He finally returns to the impostor, and the inevitable occurs.
What was the role of the digressions and why the change of tone? I just don't know, even after this second reading. Perhaps Cocteau lost his focus or changed his mind. Perhaps he began to identify too strongly with the impostor, and in making this identification he lost his ironic distance and slipped into a tragic mode. Read it and see what you think - there is much to enjoy in this fine little book, in any case.