#1956Club – a great French artist considers his life and work…


Journals of Jean Cocteau – edited and introduced by Wallace Fowlie

Today’s time travelling trip to 1956 sees me considering another great French artist – the most wonderful Jean Cocteau. I first encountered his works back in the mid-1980s, when friends dragged me off to a screening in London of two of his films, “Orphee” and “La Belle et La Bete”. If I recall correctly, it was at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, on a dreary afternoon, and I emerged afterwards stunned, into a dark rainy night, filled with a sense of wonder at the filmic visions I’d just seen. I’ve loved Cocteau and his work ever since, and as well as his films, I have quite a number of his written works…

Some of my Cocteau collection (there are many more films about….)

However, one thing I didn’t have was his “Journals”, and when I discovered this particular book had been published in 1956 I couldn’t resist searching for a copy. It’s the only book I’ve purchased for our club, and it really is a surprisingly nice edition which was very reasonably priced.

Put together following Cocteau’s election to the French Academy the previous year, this is not a traditional publication of an artist’s journals or diaries (for example, as those of Virginia Woolf have appeared) in chronological dated order. Instead, the entries are drawn from Cocteau’s other published works and gathered together by theme (presumably as a result of Wallace Fowlie’s editing process) resulting in a collection of Cocteau’s meditations and memories. This is no criticism, however, as the contents are fascinating and I believe are the result of author and editor collaborating on what should be included.

Cocteau writes about, and illustrates, his appearance…

Split up into four sections, the book takes a look at Cocteau’s childhood and early influences; he discusses his character; shares thoughts on artists and writers he’s known (such as Proust, Apollinaire and Picasso); meditates on theatre, films and aesthetics; provides some moral essays; and contemplates France and New York. Dipping into these various sections reminded me what a wonderful writer he was, as well as artist and film-maker; he used the work ‘poesie’ as an umbrella term for his oeuvre and it’s a good one.

One of Cocteau’s distinctive drawings

As well as being fascinating reading, “Journals” is also a beautiful book; my first edition hardback has lovely thick pages and features some his wonderful drawings (I adore them…) Instead of going into more detail, I though I would share a few favourite quotes from Cocteau; reconnecting with him was a marvellous experience, and the fact that I have now discovered that there was later publication of some of his diaries threatens to increase the size of the Cocteau pile above even more… ;D

On Proust:

The room of Marcel Proust, on the Boulevard Haussmann, was the first dark room where I witnessed almost every day – it would be more exact to say every night, because he lived at night – the evolution of a powerful work. He was still unknown, and I formed the habit of looking on him, from my very first visit, as a famous writer. In that stifling room, full of clouds of fumigation and dust which covered the furniture with a gray coating, we saw the activity of a beehive in which the thousands of bees of memory made their honey.

Cocteau by Francois Bret via Wikimedia Commons – Copyright ACAFRA / Estate François Bret / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On films:

The cinema is still a form of graphic art. Through its mediation, I write in pictures, and secure for my own ideology a power in actual fact. I show what others tell. In Orphee, for example, I do not narrate the passing through mirrors; I show it, and in some manner, I prove it. The means I use are not important, if my characters perform publicly what I want them to perform.

When years ago I made my first film, Blood of a Poet, I knew nothing about the profession of a movie director. I had to invent a technique. The movie professionals thought I was ridiculous. And yet it is my only film still showing throughout the world and which for seventeen years has been shown intermittently in a small New York theatre.

Cocteau’s desk via Wikimedia Commons – SiefkinDR / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On Rilke:

In 1912, for a small sum, I rented a wing of the Hotel Biron, on the rue de Varennes, where Rodin lived. In the centre of Paris, five glass doors opened onto a fairy-story park abandoned by nuns at the time of the separation of Church and State.

In the evening, at the corner window of the hotel, I used to see a lamp light up. This lamp was Rainer Maria Rilke’s. He was Auguste Rodin’s secretary. I was to know only that lamp of his, which should have become a beacon for me. Long afterwards, alas, I learned from Blaise Cendrars who Rilke was; and many years passed before Rilke became acquainted with my play Orphee, produced in Berlin by Reinhardt, and before he sent Madame K this touching telegram: “Tell Jean Cocteau I love him. He is the only one to whom is revealed the myth from which he returns tanned as from the seashore.” At the time of his death, Rilke had just begun work on the translation of Orphee. My good fortune in this and my loss in his death cannot be measured.

Fortuitous Finds


…. or How I Fail to Control the Book Buying Habit!

I went into town today not intending to really look for or buy books – honestly! The TBR is in a terrible state, expanding faster than I can read items from it, and I’m developing space issues on my shelves despite a clear out, owing to my habit of picking up a bargain when I see it rather than hoping I will come across the same book again when I have time to read it. However, as I missed my charity shop visits last weekend owing to visiting Kent University, I thought I would pop into a couple of my favourites – which was a mistake!


In one, I noticed the first volume in the four book set of “A Dance to the Music of Time”. I *was* a little tempted because I’m having trouble tracking down the individual volumes in Penguin copies at a reasonable price. It was only £2 but I was strong and rejected it. However, the very next visit was to the Samaritans Book Shop and there sitting on the little display table in the centre of the shop were all 4 volumes of the set, i.e. all of the 12 books collected – at £1.75 a volume!! At which point I capitulated and bought them, because at £7 the lot, this is considerably cheaper than trying to find the individual books online. Plus, I confess I’m struggling with the small type in the Penguins (my eyesight is suffering with increasing age!) and so I think these will be a little more manageable. And I do feel that I must get on with these, as the Anthony Powell Society are very kindly reprinting my reviews in their newsletter (which is rather exciting – more news about the society here). The downside of this purchase was carrying heavy books around town – but I should be used to this by now…

Anyway, putting aside a couple of  minor purchases above (a Cocteau for 50p and a Mitford I hadn’t heard of from the Oxfam Book Shop) I thought I was done for the day – until I wandered into one of our newer shops….


I spotted an Angela Carter I don’t have (which would have been 50p) and just before paying had another look on the book shelves – only to realise that the book had actually been removed from this little lovely that was sitting there grinning at me:

(OK, that’s a little fanciful, but I do feel rather like I’m constantly being tempted by books).

I’m afraid this wonderful box set was irresistible, as I only have  two of the books already and at £6 it was a bargain (especially as it’s in great nick!) It’s a box set produced for the Book People some years back (I already have an earlier one!) and after I staggered home laden with books (to be frowned at by other half), I was left with one major problem – where on earth am I going to put them all?!?!?!

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