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Jean Cocteau: Thomas l’imposteur (The Imposter)

Most French World War 1novels, indeed most World War 1 novels, portray that conflict as bloody, horrible and cruel. Think of Barbusse‘s Le Feu (Under Fire), for example. Though Cocteau was himself an ambulance driver in World War I – an experience he puts to good use in this novel – and must have seen some fairly horrific sights, he still treats the war somewhat lightly, even though we do see heavy shelling, major property damage and death and injury.

The story starts off with the Princess de Bormes. She is Polish by origin. She became a widow two years after her marriage to the prince, when he was killed in a hunting accident. They have one daughter, Henriette. Now, when World War 1 breaks out, she decides to help and sets up an ambulance service with various friends and her daughter. She has a doctor, Dr Verne. She even has advisers, such as Pesquel-Duport, managing editor of the newspaper, Le Jour, who is in love with her. Guillaume Thomas is a sixteen-year old orphan. He lives with his aunt, who is concerned with his soul but generally lets him live freely. He wants to join up but is too young. One day, he borrows a uniform from a friend. Someone asks him his name. He says Guillaume Thomas de Fontenoy, i.e. Guillaume Thomas (his name), from Fontenoy, where he lives. The person mistakenly thinks that Guillaume Thomas de Fontenoy is his full name and ask him if he is related to the famous general de Fontenoy who is, at that time, repulsing the German advance. He says he is his nephew. As Cocteau tells us and as we also learn for ourselves, Guillaume is an easy liar, by which I mean he has no difficulty or shame in lying but is not an evil or compulsive liar. When he meets the Princess de Bormes, he repeats the lie and says that he is currently assistant to a general who is recuperating so has a lot of spare time and joins her ambulance service.

He proves to be a major addition for two reasons. Firstly, his (false) name opens up doors. When the ambulance convoy is blocked or needs supplies, the name de Fontenoy opens up roads or produces supplies. Secondly, Guillaume is an easy-going and affable young man, who gets on with all classes of society, from the lowliest soldiers to the princess’ high-class friends and is able to charm all of them. Even when things go wrong, he somehow gets out of it. When he gets drunk one day and insults someone, he is soon exonerated and the complainant is made to feel he is wrong. When his aunt comes to see Dr. Verne and reveals the real identity of her nephew, the doctor begs her to keep quiet about it, being well aware of the advantage of the de Fontenoy name. When the doctor mentions to Guillaume that he has seen his aunt, not only does Guillaume not blush at the possibility of his identity having been revealed, he starts chatting to the doctor about how wonderful a person his aunt is.

We follow the adventures of the group, including attacks on places where they are working, injuries and even deaths and a variety of problems dealing with wounded men in such circumstances. But it is all handled in a light-hearted manner. For example, when one force is shelling a house where the Germans are located, it is asked to stop as it belongs to a friend and they do, indeed, stop. There is soon a sub-plot. Both the princess and her daughter, Henriette, fall in love with Guillaume. He is, naturally, more in love with the daughter. Eventually, there is a serious discussion between mother and daughter and it is agreed that Henriette will marry Guillaume. She writes to Guillaume, who is away at the front at the time, to tell him of her decision but, before she gets his reply, he is killed. Even that is handled light-heartedly. He is hit and says to himself I am lost if I don’t pretend to be dead but, as Cocteau points out, he was already dead. Light-hearted it is but Cocteau is such a fine writer that it more or less works and Guillaume remains such a charming impostor.

Publishing history

First published in French 1923 by Gallimard
First published in English 1925 by D. Appleton and Company
Translated by Lewis Galantière (earlier editions); Dorothy Williams (later editions)