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The French poet and novelist Raymond Radiguet died ninety years ago on December 12th, 1923, at the age of twenty, leaving behind a small but potent body of work that shook the French literary scene of the time. His mentor and, possibly, lover, Jean Cocteau wrote, “he died, without knowing it… after a miraculous life.”
The “without knowing it” was wishful thinking on Cocteau’s part. Raymond died from typhoid fever; it was likely to have been a horrible death. But Cocteau wasn’t at his bedside so would have known nothing about it. In fact, the young man died alone. According to Francis Steegmuller’s 1986 biography of Cocteau, one friend who saw his body after it had been laid out was convinced he was conscious when he died. “I have never seen a face so terrible, expressing such despair and frustration…”
But Cocteau had a problem with death, which was perhaps something to do with his father’s suicide when Jean was just a boy. He refused to go to Raymond’s funeral, giving this excuse: “One longs to say to them [the dead]: ‘What have I done to you?’ It is like a definitive break.” Well, yes, it pretty much is a definitive break.
Trying to excuse Cocteau’s absence from Raymond’s death bed, Jean Hugo claimed it was his grief that kept him away. Coco Chanel had another explanation: “Cocteau was afraid. You know Radiguet’s mother sat with him, and caught typhoid.”
It’s interesting to consider Cocteau’s squeamishness regarding the reality of death alongside his fascination – one might even say obsession – with the idea of it, or rather the mythology of it. You don’t make three films about Orpheus by accident.
So what exactly was Cocteau’s relationship with Raymond? When the youth first caught his eye, Raymond was fifteen and Cocteau twenty nine, though they did not meet properly until a year or so later. According to Cocteau’s account, Raymond was sent to see him by Max Jacob, who certainly had the reputation of being a pederast, or paedophile, as we might say today. Cocteau describes Raymond turning up at the apartment he shared with his mother: “My mother’s maid said ‘There’s a little boy with a cane.’ And in fact he was carrying a little cane that he never put down all the time he was there.”
The image of a cane was associated repeatedly by Cocteau with Raymond, without apparently appreciating the Freudian symbolism of it. Perhaps it expressed an erotic desire on Cocteau’s part rather than fulfilment? Radiguet’s father wrote to Cocteau voicing concern over the propriety of the relationship, particularly over a passionate letter from Raymond addressed to Cocteau (but never sent) and alleged liaisons in hotels. Cocteau denied any wrongdoing and defended himself robustly. He seems to have been mindful of his role as a father figure. Raymond’s real father seemed unconvinced, but was no Marquess of Queensbury, so the friendship continued. At times, Cocteau also had to defend himself from his own mother’s disapprobation. “When will you stop seeing me through the eyes of the cheap press?” he complained.
Even if it was unconsummated, theirs was without doubt a highly sexualised relationship. In an interview in Paris Review with William Fifield many years later, Cocteau had this to say: “I believe sexuality is the basis of all friendship.”
And they were capable of behaving like a couple, at least as far as having tiffs in public was concerned. They went on holiday together, once to England, where they went shopping for canes and gloves – more Freudian symbolism. The very fact that Jean Hugo and Coco Chanel felt the need to explain Cocteau’s absence from Raymond’s death bed implies they were regarded as a couple by their friends. In an effort to distance himself from Cocteau emotionally, Raymond got engaged in 1923 to a girl called Bronya Perlmutter. He simply “refused to become a forty-year-old man called ‘Madame Jean Cocteau’”, according to the composer Georges Auric. That suggests that there was something to be distanced from.
As far as their professional, literary relationship was concerned, Cocteau was the senior partner, acting as editor and advocate for Raymond. He canvassed for him to win a prestigious literary prize for his masterpiece Le Diable au Corps (as well as pulling strings to get him an exemption from military service). But as artists, Cocteau took as much, if not more, from Raymond – Monsieur Bébé to him – as the other way round. His own representation of this cross-fertilisation of influence was as follows: “Thanks to me Bébé has become obsessed with death in his poems, and thanks to him I have taken on an indecency mania. Bizarre exchange!”
But of course it was Bébé who died. And it was Cocteau who was left behind, according to his own account, “paralysed” and “in shock”. He turned to opium for solace, becoming addicted in Monte Carlo. In a letter to André Gide, he talks of “trying to live, or, rather, I am trying to teach the death within me how to live.” That seems to be quite a good description of the opium-addict’s experience, or even purpose. It also seems to touch upon the Orphic project that held Cocteau’s imagination in thrall. Orpheus descended to the underworld – the realm of death – to bring back his dead wife, Eurydice. To teach, through song, the death within him to live.
Cocteau wrote his play Orphée in 1925, less than two years after Raymond’s death. In the meantime, as well as developing his dependence on opium, he had also flirted with a return to Catholicism. Both the drug and the religion speak of a craving for resurrection and miracle, which found expression in the play.
When the composer Ed Hughes asked me to provide the libretto for an opera inspired in some way by the life and art of Jean Cocteau I had already read Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau from which most of the account above is taken. So I knew about Radiguet and I knew about the opium. I think I’m right in saying that Ed approached Cocteau as a fan of the films, in particular the 1950 film Orphée.
There seemed to be something in this material that struck us both as profoundly and uniquely operatic. However, we made the decision, eventually, to distance ourselves slightly from Cocteau, by calling our protagonist simply ‘The Poet’, whilst the Raymond Radiguet figure became ‘The Loved One’. This liberated us from any representative duty and allowed us to explore the universal aspects of what at first sight seems a highly un-universal story.
In our opera, When The Flame Dies, we bring about at last the resurrection of Raymond that Cocteau was perhaps yearning for – or at least a partial resurrection, a frustrated resurrection, which we feel is closer to the truth of what Cocteau would have actually wanted. Our coctelian poet, in a kind of re-enactment of the Orpheus myth, ultimately fails to bring his loved one back from the dead because he cannot quite bring himself to relinquish his own artistic ambition (and identity) both of which are dependent on accepting the fact of his lover’s death.
In writing the libretto, I imagined Cocteau racked by guilt over his failure to comfort Raymond as he lay dying. For me, the descent into opium addiction and the longing to descend to the underworld that it represents make more sense when driven by guilt than simple grief. Even though our Cocteau figure spends the whole opera wishing for his Raymond to return to life, at the final moment he cannot face the prospect of having Raymond back in his life. Guilt might have played a part in that too.
But our Raymond does at least come back to life for long enough to describe the sensation of resurrection:
Life marauds through me leaving ruin in its wake.
Life is a wound and pain.
When The Flame Dies by Ed Hughes (composer) and Roger Morris (librettist) is available now on CD/DVD from Metier. Catalogue number MSV77203. A clip of Raymond’s aria from this work can be seen here. For more information visit http://edhughes.org.uk/flame-opera
The drawing of Raymond Radiguet by Roger de la Fresnaye is in the public domain, the copyright having expired, and is reproduced from wikigallery.org