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Jean Cocteau: Les Enfants terribles (Children of the Game (UK); The Holy Terrors (US); Les enfants terribles)

Cocteau’s best-known novel was written when he was in a clinic, recovering from opium addition. It is based on real life brother and sister Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint, though Cocteau also said that he based Elisabeth on the young Garbo. The book is famous, particularly among the French, for its famous opening scene – the description of the area in Paris where the school came out, followed by a snowball fight – but, more particularly for revealing aspects of adolescence to French people who may have not thought about their adolescence fully. As Cocteau stated, it opens and closes with a ball, opening with a snowball and closing with a bullet.

The story is, of course, about adolescence but it is also about obsession and living when cut off from the world. The famous snowball scene has Dargelos throwing a snowball at Paul. Dargelos is the tough, masculine hero but also, at least for Cocteau, someone to whom he could be attracted sexually. Dargelos seems to injure Paul and Paul is taken home. At home, where his mother is dying, he shares a room with his sister, Elisabeth. Cocteau’s portrait of the brother and sister is masterful. They love each other. They hate each other. All the time, they are either bickering at one another or loving one another. While Paul is ill – he has to leave school – Elisabeth looks after him. The situation is complicated as Dargelos falls in love with Elisabeth and half moves in with them, particularly when his uncle (with whom he lives) is away on business. The death of their mother changes nothing. But still they bicker, still they love one another.

This continues for some time (three years, to be precise) when Elisabeth decides she needs to get a job and Dargelos helps her get a job modelling dresses in a women’s clothing shop. Here she meets Agathe, another orphan, and takes her under her wing. Inevitably, Paul falls for Agathe, arousing his sister’s jealousy. However, Elisabeth meets Michael, a rich American, and they marry. Almost immediately after the wedding, Michael has a car crash and is killed, leaving Elisabeth a rich widow. Everything is now as before, except with more money. The four live together, with Paul and Elisabeth playing their games. Elisabeth’s jealousy is again aroused and everything ends tragically, with Cocteau’s bullet. Cocteau has left us with a moving work on love, and obsession and, indeed, incest and a work which has influenced many young people.

Publishing history

First published in French 1929 by Grasset
First published in English 1955 by Harvill
Translated by Rosamond Lehmann; Samuel Putnam (Brewer & Warren)