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Jean Cocteau
Cover of Jean Cocteau
Jean Cocteau
A Life
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This passionate and monumental biography reassesses the life and legacy of one of the most significant cultural figures of the twentieth century

Unevenly respected, easily hated, almost always suspected of being inferior to his reputation, Jean Cocteau has often been thought of as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. In this landmark biography, Claude Arnaud thoroughly contests this characterization, as he celebrates Cocteau's "fragile genius—a combination almost unlivable in art" but in his case so fertile.

Arnaud narrates the life of this legendary French novelist, poet, playwright, director, filmmaker, and designer who, as a young man, pretended to be a sort of a god, but who died as a humble and exhausted craftsman. His moving and compassionate account examines the nature of Cocteau's chameleon-like genius, his romantic attachments, his controversial politics, and his intimate involvement with many of the century's leading artistic lights, including Picasso, Proust, Hemingway, Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams. Already published to great critical acclaim in France, Arnaud's penetrating and deeply researched work reveals a uniquely gifted artist while offering a magnificent cultural history of the twentieth century.

This passionate and monumental biography reassesses the life and legacy of one of the most significant cultural figures of the twentieth century

Unevenly respected, easily hated, almost always suspected of being inferior to his reputation, Jean Cocteau has often been thought of as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. In this landmark biography, Claude Arnaud thoroughly contests this characterization, as he celebrates Cocteau's "fragile genius—a combination almost unlivable in art" but in his case so fertile.

Arnaud narrates the life of this legendary French novelist, poet, playwright, director, filmmaker, and designer who, as a young man, pretended to be a sort of a god, but who died as a humble and exhausted craftsman. His moving and compassionate account examines the nature of Cocteau's chameleon-like genius, his romantic attachments, his controversial politics, and his intimate involvement with many of the century's leading artistic lights, including Picasso, Proust, Hemingway, Stravinsky, and Tennessee Williams. Already published to great critical acclaim in France, Arnaud's penetrating and deeply researched work reveals a uniquely gifted artist while offering a magnificent cultural history of the twentieth century.

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  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 22, 2016
    Originally released in France in 2003, this sweeping biography of Jean Cocteau is now available in English for the first time. Arnaud (Chamfort: A Biography) has composed an insightful profile, rich in detail and exhaustive in its scope, that honors and illuminates its multifaceted subject, who was a poet, playwright, author, designer, and filmmaker. The dense tome traces the stormy trajectory of Cocteau’s life, beginning with an idyllic childhood shattered by his father’s suicide. Amid tragedy, Cocteau developed limitless imagination and fortitude while nurturing a versatile artistic vision that would span five decades and survive two world wars. His questionable politics, complicated sexuality, and well-documented opium addiction have often overshadowed his work, but in this passionate retelling of a life fully lived, Cocteau emerges as a butterfly from a tangled cocoon. He inspired awe and affection from a circle of artistic and intellectual luminaries that included Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, and Erik Satie, to name a few. Arnaud’s poetic prose, skillfully translated by Elkin and Mandell, sharp observations, and devotion to his subject make this an endlessly rewarding read and invaluable addition to readers’ understanding and appreciation of Cocteau, the masked Harlequin of French arts and letters.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from July 15, 2016
    The first substantial life of the French surrealist writer and artist to appear in English since 1970.You might not have known that Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was an angst-y, tormented artist to look at him: he "always tried to put himself forward as happy and detached," writes French biographer Arnaud (Chamfort: A Biography, 1992), and he had a happy childhood without much drama. Still, as Arnaud remarks, Cocteau wrestled for a long time with his homosexuality, a preference for men that "remained more acted than lived," no small thing in a time when the law still weighed heavily against same-sex relationships. Arnaud accomplishes several things in this overstuffed life of the writer, artist, and filmmaker. He does much, for example, to correct the emphasis on Cocteau as eccentric artist--he was, after all, a shining light of Dadaism--that comes "to the detriment of the creator." Focusing closely on Cocteau's works, Arnaud ventures that he was often at his best as a collaborator, whether encouraging Marcel Proust during the long years of his writing Recherche, even if Proust may have thought of him as "a piece of furniture," or concocting strange experiments with Pablo Picasso. In the end, Arnaud provides a portrait of a committed, seasoned artist who was, in Ezra Pound's phrase, a vortex of energy, constantly at work, writing "on invitations, record jackets, cigarette boxes, theater programs, book covers." If Cocteau was not well-understood in his own time, and often savaged critically, he is unjustly overlooked today. Although, for instance, he was long considered one of the trio of "uncle Jeans" of French film, the others being Renoir and Epstein, many students know him only for Orphee (1950), and although his literary production was steady, he remains known today mostly for his middle-period novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929). Concludes Arnaud, a touch hopefully, "we haven't yet finished with Cocteau." Arnaud's biography provides a useful corrective and will inspire renewed interest in Cocteau's work.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from October 15, 2016

    It took 13 years for an English translation of this impressive biography to appear. Arnaud (Chamfort: A Biography) takes readers on a journey that presents the extraordinary but also complicated life of Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) who experienced the Roaring Twenties, two World Wars, and the rise of French cinema. Cocteau's friends, associates, and contemporaries included such notables as Jean Genet, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. The author's use of personal interviews and correspondence creates an exhaustive work. Despite a prolific and eclectic career as a playwright, director, novelist, librettist, and filmmaker, Cocteau struggled to establish his literary reputation, especially as a poet. Arnaud describes an individual who was often misunderstood and unfairly considered an opportunist or imitator of other writers. His depiction of Cocteau's opium addiction and attempts at detox is particularly fascinating. This work is also an excellent study of human dynamics with friends coming in and out of the artist's life. Openly gay during a time when homosexuality was still considered taboo, Cocteau always had a strong desire to please, even when it was futile. VERDICT An outstanding portrait of a chameleonic individual, this work will appeal to individuals interested in LGBTQ history, French culture, and literature.--Erica Swenson Danowitz, Delaware Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Media, PA

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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    Yale University Press
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