Paris Album 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau
30 July, 2011
What a wonderfully whimsical memoir filled with sketches of Cocteau’s friends! I bought Paris Album 1900-1914 (also published under the title My Contemporaries) as a very green undergraduate when I was going through a phase of reading French literature while studying astrophysics (I am my father’s daughter, after all. I can’t escape the spell of Camus’ L’Étranger). I read Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Gide, Genet, Flaubert, Zola, Dumas and Hugo so you can imagine my delight when I stumbled upon this little gem in a book market near my college (yes, I was rather pretentious). See, even writing this, I am imbued with Cocteau’s decadent style which is glorious and transports you back to fin de siècle Paris and the early 20th century when Cocteau was blossoming with his decadent friends reminiscent of the bright young things in the roaring twenties of London and New York.
I have to admit I have a weakness for Jean Cocteau. So talented and so exuberant. I even went to hunt down his mural in Notre Dame de France, a little Catholic Church next to Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Place, off Leicester Square because of a whiff of Da Vinci Code-style mystery. It’s beautiful and simple and if you are ever in London, do visit.
Paris Album reminds me a lot of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast but with French luminaries, many of whom are unfamiliar. Cocteau talks of Isadora Duncan, Gide, Sarah Bernhardt, Colette. That’s the extent of my knowledge. Catulle Mendès, who’s he? Mistinguett, qui? Hédiard, quoi? But it doesn’t matter because Cocteau’s portraits are vivid and vital and luscious. I wanted to be in Paris to meet these larger than life personalities who would probably drive me crazy with their eccentricities.
Ah, how easily we can imagine your homes, Louisa Casati, you who found no car high enough for your hairstyles; Georgette Leblanc, you who cycled behind Maeterlinck with your Louis XV heels; Jane Catulle-Mendès, you who did your morning shopping in a dress with a train – I love you, I respect women like you, exaggerated, marvelous women, delightful whirlwinds, precursors of the stars!
And he describes his friend, Edouard de Max, who had an imitation Pompeii bathroom and who dipped his pen in the mouth of a pottery toad. He wrote in violet ink in tall pointed handwriting, which he dried with gold dust. He kept his money in a cup and distributed it to anyone who was poorer than he was.
Written as columns for Le Figaro much later in his life, Cocteau’s recollections are probably as rose-tinted as Hemingway’s (life’s never that beautiful, and nor are people) but it does produce in one a desperate need to visit Paris.
One of the lovely things he discusses is the seed for his novel Les Enfants Terribles, a real-life Dargelos he met as a schoolboy and how this one pertinent incident did really occur.
And of himself, Cocteau writes,
Maurice and I were the young men of the moment. The era of young men, which was inaugurated by Raymond Radiguet, did not yet exist. We believed we were Byron and Shelley and that it was enough to talk about Oxford and go down the Champs-Elysées in an open carriage in the April sunshine.