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Les Enfants terribles

Les Enfants terribles - Jean Cocteau

When me and my sister were younger – like four and five, or five and six – we used to play these epic games in the back seat of our parents' car on long journeys. The car was a big old Citroën estate, like the vehicle from Ghostbusters, and the back seat folded down to form a huge play area (this was before anyone bothered about seat-belts in the back).

The games we played were incomprehensible to everyone but ourselves, and now we're older they've grown incomprehensible to us too. All I can remember are a few titles. One game was called ‘Baby in Australia’, which – bizarrely – was about a baby travelling around the United States having adventures. It was like Rugrats meets The Littlest Hobo. I'm not quite sure why we gave this such a confusing name. Another, more logically titled, game was called ‘Strongbaby’ (one word), and involved a baby with superhuman strength. I'm not certain now to what use an infant would really put Hulk-like strength, nor for that matter why we were both so obsessed with babies. But mothers and fathers reading this will readily appreciate that our own parents were happy to tolerate what appeared to be incipient psychological problems on the grounds that it kept us quiet for the length of a three-hour jaunt up the A1M.

I hadn't thought about this for years. Then I read Les Enfants terribles and it all came flooding back. If you've read the book this may sound alarming, but fortunately in our case it apparently never went further than a lot of weirdly regimented transport-based role-plays. For Paul and Élisabeth, the central characters of Cocteau's dark and dreamy novel, the shared world of childhood fantasy takes on a more all-consuming and sinister aspect.

Orphaned twins, they construct a haven of their own in their dead mother's apartment on the rue Montmartre (just round the corner from where I work), where their room is all low lighting, red textiles, pictures pinned up from newspapers, and a collection of hoarded ‘treasure’ brought back from the outside world. Here, in the middle of the night, the teenagers play what is only ever referred to as ‘the game’, a sort of never-ending psychological test of one-upmanship which governs their entire lives: the game is nothing less than a ‘semi-consciousness into which the children plunged’, which ‘dominated space and time; it initiated dreams, blended them with reality’.

Outsiders are brought into this private world, but they are always ultimately cat's-paws used by one sibling to get at the other. The self-imposed rituals are about domination, and there is a crackle of erotic charge everywhere: indeed at times this reads like the most literary treatment of D/S ever made. This is not to say that the book is about sex; it is much more oblique and remarkable than that. In one extraordinary scene, Élisabeth waits until Paul is just dropping off to sleep, and then, at three in the morning, she suddenly produces a bowl of crayfish from under her bed and starts eating them, ignoring Paul's anxious requests for her to share.

‘Gérard,’ [she says to Paul's schoolfriend who is with them,] ‘do you know of anything more depraved that some sixteen-year-old kid reduced to asking for a crayfish? He'd lick the rug, don't you know, he'd crawl on all fours. No! Don't give it to him, let him get up, let him come here! He's so vile, this great playboy who refuses to move, dying for nice food but not able to make the effort. It's because I'm ashamed for him that I'm refusing to give him a crayfish….’

[—Gérard, connaissez-vous une chose plus abjecte qu'un type de seize ans qui s'abaisse à demander une écrevisse? Il lécherait la carpette, vous savez, il marcherait à quatre pattes. Non ! ne la lui portez pas, qu'il se lève, qu'il vienne ! C'est trop infecte, à la fin, cette grande bringue qui refuse de bouger, qui crève de gourmandise et qui ne peut pas faire un effort. C'est parce que j'ai honte pour lui que je lui refuse une écrevisse….]

An hour later, when Paul finally gives up and goes to sleep, Élisabeth wakes him and forces him to eat the crayfish, ‘breaking the carapace, pushing the flesh between his teeth’ as Paul struggles to chew while half-asleep: ‘grave, patient, hunched over, she resembled a madwoman force-feeding a dead child.’

It's an incredible scene the like of which I've never read anywhere else, and all described in this beautiful, verbally rich, precise Coctellian prose. The oppressive and erotic atmosphere is picked up on later by one of Élisabeth's friends, who is pining submissively after Paul: she ‘thrilled to be a victim because she felt the room to be full of an amorous electricity whose most brutal shocks were made inoffensive’. The novel's dénouement is going to prove her horribly wrong on this point.

The conclusion is dark and very French: the quasi-incestuous power-play cannot survive impact with adulthood, and implodes with considerable collateral damage. But how difficult for a writer to enter into this private world of childhood fantasy, and how perfectly Cocteau pulls it off. Some of his lines froze me with horrified delight: when the children find their mother dead in her room, the body is described as a ‘petrified scream’ – ‘ce Voltaire furieux qu'ils ne connaissent pas’. He combines the eye of a poet with a good novelist's willingness to examine the psychic areas usually left unexamined.

This year marks fifty years since Cocteau's death, and it's a good excuse to try him out if you haven't yet (as I hadn't until recently). Reading this is like having a beautiful dream that modulates into a beautiful nightmare. I kind of want to send a copy to my own sister, but I can't help feeling like that might be in bad taste.

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