Friday, August 18, 2006

Les Enfants Terribles

Book Number 9: Les Enfants Terribles, by Jean Cocteau
Country: France

All I know about Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) is what is printed in the front of the book I picked up, the most significant item of information being "...a leading figure in the Surrealist movement." All I know about Surrealism is Dali, with his melting clocks and his swans being reflected as elephants. Pitiful, really.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Surrealism:

Surrealism is an artistic, cultural and intellectual movement oriented toward the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative faculties of the "unconscious mind" and the attainment of a dream-like state different from, "more than", and ultimately "truer" than everyday reality: the "sur-real", or "more than real".

Les Enfants Terribles is surrealism epitomised, going on the above definition. For the four children at the centre of the novel, all there is is Life and the Game. The Game is the surreal, a reality born from their minds that comes into itself at night, while in the day they mostly sleep through Life or wait for the night to come again. The Game affects everything in their lives - their relationships to other people, to each other, their loves, their passions. Eventually, for one of the group, the Game proves to be more important then real life and the consequences are terrible.

The 'children' featured in the book are a little older than children featuring in novels of make-believe worlds usually are - the book starts when the oldest of them is 16, and she is probably at least 20 when it ends. The others are a couple of years younger. Their imaginary world is never fully explored or explained, and the reader is not initiated into their group, but kept very much as an outside observer. The Game intrudes into their lives, and the boundaries between the two rapidly become uncertain. Good fortune and the group's careful exclusivity and rejection of the outside world create a cocoon for them to play out the Game, until something changes and real life forces its way in. Perhaps because of the exclusivity of the group of children and the distance the author retains from their minds, this book was quite challenging to get into, and took me a couple of attempts to get going. I found myself frequently re-reading passages to try and make sense of what I had read, because much of it is couched in semi-Game language - by that I mean phrasing and references to things of import in the Game I didn't fully comprehend the significance of. The confusion I felt while reading was undoubtedly intentional on the author's part, to emphasise the lack of clear distinction between reality and the surreal, but I can't say it suceeded in either helping me liberate my mind or understanding the liberation of the character's minds.

I was mildy curious about the ending from the blurb on the back of the book, which encoraged me to keep reading, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed reading it. I prefer books where I can engage with the characters, get into their minds, understand who they are and why they do what they do. While I found the concept behind the book interesting, fantasy worlds have become common place in literature since the Surrealist movement, and I didn't find these characters interesting so much as self-absorbed and spoilt. A decidedly uninspiring read as far as I am concerned, although I did like the accompanying ilustrations. Cocteau would be horrified!

5 comments:

litlove said...

I read Les Enfants Terribles a while back and did expect something more dramatic from it. I came to the conclusion that it was Lord of the Flies remade by French Surrealists, so that's to say without the action. It's supposed to be shocking for its representation of incestuous relationships, but I wasn't convinced of the shock value myself - don't know what you thought?

The Traveller said...

Maybe it was shocking when it was written, but I can't say I was at all shocked by anything - I found some parts of their relationship a little weird, but mostly I thought it was an extreme case of classic female jealousy. Stranger things have happened.

Danielle said...

Wasn't this made into a movie as well? It sounds familiar, or perhaps I am thinking of the book only.

The Traveller said...

No, there's a movie as well. I think there are even plays of it.

Robert said...

How could it be a remade Lord of the Flies when it came out 25 years before Golding's book?