Les Enfants Terribles

To celebrate the fifty years since the death of  French author Jean Cocteau, Annette Ong reviews one of his seminal works, the 1929 ‘Les Enfants Terribles’.

This book will either have you shaking your head in disbelief while muttering, “Those crazy kids!” or swearing off procreating anytime soon. Les Enfants Terribles is a novel rumoured to have been written within a week while Cocteau was suffering from Opium withdrawal – perhaps indicating his state of mind.

Cocteau was quite the Renaissance man; a novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, choreographer, filmmaker and performer, he had his hand in most creative pursuits and was highly influential within the Surrealist movement. Well-known within the art community, he collaborated with artist Pablo Picasso and the singer Edith Piaf. His leaning towards Surrealism is clearly apparent in this novel, which reads like something born of a bad dream.

Les Enfants Terribles is the story of brother and sister, Paul and Elisabeth. The children are wealthy but orphaned. Their mother, devastated from living with their abusive alcoholic father, retreats from life, falls ill and eventually dies. Their father, an extremely violent man, dies from cirrhosis of the liver. As children, Paul and Elisabeth concoct a bizarre world within their shared bedroom. Within these walls, the “Game” is played.

Cocteau has described their living quarters as being adorned with newspaper clippings of ghastly murders, with numerous collectibles – seemingly significant only to the children – strewn across the room, with discarded clothes, mountains of books and plates of decayed food taking up the remainder of floor space.

More like a psychopath’s bedroom than the bedroom of two pre-teen children, you get the impression they wouldn’t be brought into line by the standard ‘into-the-naughty-corner-with-you’ type of discipline. In fact, they’d probably derive some kind of masochistic pleasure from it.

The “Game” can best be described as an oddly disturbing surreal version of life; anything they do, anyone they come close to, is controlled by the “Rules” of the “Game”, which Cocteau never lists but tacitly implies. As Paul and Elisabeth embark into adulthood, the “Game” becomes trickier as lovers and friends become unwitting casualties in its twisted ways.

There are certain undertones of incest in the novel; however, this may be a simplistic way of reading the characters. There is probably some Freudian explanation or analysis of the children’s close relationship, which I’m sure does better at deciphering the intricacies of their relationship than I ever will. However, from my own reading, I found control, destruction, deception, obsession, possession and dependence to be significant themes in the story. It is as if the children get some bizarre gratification from being needed or neglected by the other. In the end, death takes the upper hand in the “Game” and it is finally put to an end.

This is a short novel, easily read in one sitting; however, the complexity of the plot and characterisation keeps the reader on their toes throughout. Cocteau is a wonderful writer; a little heavy on the adjectives at times, but nonetheless a great author. His writing is unapologetic, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. An added bonus is the author’s own illustrations throughout. A masterpiece.

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