Monday, April 07, 2008
book review - Les Enfants Terribles
There is something deeply disturbing about this story of two orphaned siblings. Along with the text there are images drawn by the author Jean Cocteau and these tend to add only a brief amount because they are line sketches that provide an impression but not much more for the reader.
But perhaps that is the idea – these are two figures that can never be caught - and for anyone who tries they are doomed to failure.
Driven on by their own rules and imaginary world the siblings Paul and Elisabeth start the story without a father and before too long are left without a mother after the bed-ridden woman dies of an illness.
The children hardly pause for their mother’s death because Paul is ill after having a snowball with a stone inside thrown at him by his school hero Delgado. There is a lot of hero worship throughout the book with Paul obsessing over Delgado and then his female lookalike Agatha. In turn Paul’s school friend Gerard seems to hang off every word of the siblings and is prepared to be with them when they run riot as part of the “game”.
The game appears to be something that is fundamentally devised by Paul and Elsabeth and the rules appear to be totally selfish with them excluding the outside world in order to entertain themselves. The game becomes one of stealing when they are on holiday with Gerard’s uncle and at other times concentrates on the siblings hurting each other's feelings. The winner seems to be the one that leaves the contest with the last word, a sense of superiority and ideally having caused a display of angry frustration from the other.
But as they grow and develop into a man and a woman the inevitable happens and love comes between them. Elisabeth is first to get married to a wealthy young man who dies on his way to a business meeting before the married couple can even enjoy a honeymoon. The result of the marriage is that the siblings inherit a large house.
Inside the game moves towards its end. Elisabeth, who has worked in a store brings home another orphan and Paul falls in love with her. Elisabeth cannot stand to see her brother happy, but there is also an element of it being a game to see how much hurt she can inflict. She manages to bully Gerard, who is in love with her, into marrying Agatha and as a result helps break her brother’s heart.
Things go full circle and Gerard reintroduces the name Delgado into Paul’s life after he recounts a meeting with the man who now collects poisons. One of which he has sent as a gift for Paul. That poison is taken by Paul to end his life after writing of his love to Agatha. In a panic-stricken moment Elisabeth makes the mistake of leaving the two would be lovers together and they soon realise what the sister has done. In her final moments, knowing that Paul is dying, Elisabeth senses that this is yet another twist in the game and by dying he has beaten her to the final move. She shoots herself and by a matter of seconds beats him to it.
This is a book that is setting out an argument, although extreme, for a certain approach to life. No doubt what you are meant to feel some sense of admiration for two people who refuse to live by the normal rules of society and maybe you too have a longing to escape into the world of the game.
Maybe if I had read this when slightly younger I might have felt that. But as someone stuck very much in the grind of the nine to five the idea of two rich self-centred children flouncing around in an imaginary world is one that provokes a sense of cynical loathing rather than joyous respect.
This feels too contrived with the game being in some cases forced and without an end point. Keep playing the game into your 30s, 40s and 50s and it starts to look ridiculous. Death seems to be the only option for the siblings who refuse to grow up.
Version read – Vintage Classics paperback