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Les Enfants Terribles

by Jean Cocteau

The wonderful beginning transports the reader directly to the muffled, cocooned world, and deep within it the room where siblings Paul and Elisabeth and a small clique of friends are trapped in a powerful and all-consuming pattern of behaviour. This is the world of teenagers. Truly they are Enfants Terribles, these strange creatures seem both older and younger than their years and are always rebellious, passionate and unfathomable. They are isolated, self absorbed and now without any parental guidance after the death of their drunken, violent father and the demise of their mother, who has been struck with a mysterious paralysis. The adults are little more than caricatures, it is the children who take centre stage, and their impulses, reactions and abnormal behaviour is always fascinating. At the heart of their existence is the Game, which is played out in one room, a sort of den, or shrine within their chaotic lives. All is not normal here and emotions run high with grandiose gestures, threats to leave, which can never happen and shifting alliances and dynamics. Above all, it is the chilling, bizarre Game, which takes over their lives.

The bond between brother and sister and the other key players is unbalanced and the behaviour exhibited is hysterical and deeply destructive. Perhaps some of it can be partially explained by the trauma they have suffered, and the Game is a response to the chaos, as they withdraw into a parallel world, over which they feel they have at least some control. However as the book progresses the reader wonders who or what is actually in control, the rules become more punitive and serious as the Game hurtles deeper into danger.

First published in 1929, and later filmed in 1950, Les Enfants Terribles is essential reading for anyone drawn to dramatic, bewitching and mysterious literature. Cocteau's evocative line drawings add to the dreamlike and surreal atmosphere, and the links with Grecian and Classical culture are quite clear, as in all Cocteau's visual and literary work. Beauty, innocence and adoration of youth are powerful themes, as is the idea that youth is cruel and destructive, plus ca change, especially when, in the words of Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.


This edition is one of the excellent new Vintage Crucial Classics series.

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