Literary Frenemies: Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust
"One has to resolve oneself to face the fact that you are not a true friend"
The man of genius is the man who is capable of everything.
Sometimes a question suddenly arises: Are masterpieces alibis?
—Jean Cocteau, “Essai de critique indirecte”
Throughout 1913, Jean Cocteau had done everything to find a publisher for Proust. Not content with intervening himself at Fasquelle, which had published Zola, he urged Edmond Rostand, who had real influence over that publisher, to push for publication of the complete manuscript, while also putting pressure on the young Maurice Rostand, who desperately wanted to meet Proust. But Fasquelle rejected the manuscript, as did Ollendorff, and since the hostility of the Nouvelle revue française had led to rejection by Gaston Gallimard, whose publishing house was only two years old, Proust had to wait until the end of 1913 for Bernard Grasset to agree to publish Du côté de chez Swann at the author’s expense, and only with cuts. With the book finally sent off to press, Proust determined which critics would report on it: Lucien Daudet for Le Figaro, Jacques-Émile Blanche for L’écho de Paris, Cocteau for L’excelsior, and, through Cocteau, Maurice Rostand for Comoedia. All of the critics were gay. A coherent campaign and aggressive distribution would create quite a stir about the great work, largely thanks to the unexpected, if somewhat reserved, reinforcement of the influential Paul Souday in Le temps, predecessor to Le monde.
Cocteau had already come to Proust’s apartment on the boulevard Haussmann to read him the “paper” that had praised his novel and placed it in the company of masterpieces, stressing “the multiplied mirrors of this prodigious open-air labyrinth.” The author of À la recherche du temps perdu felt moved to write to Cocteau again, nine days after the publication of Du côté de chez Swann, when the article appeared in L’excelsior praising his “vast miniature, full of mirages, hanging gardens, plays between space and time, and sweeping, fresh gestures à la Manet”:
Your marvel, gone beyond the sonorous manner in which I first experienced it to a graphic, ornamental silence, seemed new to me in this way, and in the silent astonishment of the letters persisting beyond the gazes that read them (Mallarmé would have expressed this in a line of impenetrable simplicity), seemed to me even more delightful, and how proud I was of it, and touched.
No doubt Proust would have rather been the one to launch Cocteau on the literary scene, but the slowness of Proust’s maturation, the precocity of the prince frivole, and the chances of life led to Cocteau’s helping to make famous his elder by 20 years.
In private, Cocteau was just as enthusiastic. To the Abbé Mugnier, he expressed his admiration for a novel in which everything was placed on the same level, from actions to descriptions, as in the marvelous canvases by Uccello: “a book by an insect with tentacular sensitivity,” a “cross-section of the brain,” he proclaimed. One has only to compare Cocteau’s reaction to that of Reynaldo Hahn, who after just the first line of Swann’s Way asked his friends to get used to the idea that a great genius was at work, or to compare Cocteau’s article to Lucien Daudet’s, to sense that Cocteau might not have taken the full measure of Proust’s genius.
The best of In Search of Lost Time still remained to be written, however—its staggered publication wasn’t complete until 1927—and Cocteau was, obviously, too concerned with his own growth to devote to that first volume all the attention it deserved. “If you had really read Swann . . .,” Proust wrote to him, even six years later. Perhaps too the first draft, with its slow progress, slightly disappointed Cocteau. Proust ruminated so long over his philosophical novel that this opening, which evoked nothing more consequential than his difficulty falling asleep or his taste for the names of towns, may have fallen short of what Cocteau expected. Although Grasset had shortened it by 200 pages, the book was extraordinarily long—at least according to Cocteau, who would always rather inhale than reread; at times it reminded him of a carriage that keeps being loaded but never gets moving. “After seven hundred and twelve pages of this manuscript (at least seven hundred and twelve, since many pages have numbers with b, c, d, e added to them) . . . one has no idea, no idea at all, what it’s about. What’s the point of all this? What does it all mean?” the reader at Fasquelle had asked.
But perhaps the main defect of this printed Swann, for Cocteau, was its failure to convey the atmosphere of Proust’s private readings, especially Proust’s strange voice, muted by the cork lining his walls, rising thinly from the cloud of the hypochondriac’s bedroom fumigations. To any text without voice, gestures, or body, Cocteau would always prefer a flesh-and-blood book. Even if he thought Proust’s vocal timber not very dramatic, and, truthfully, unworthy given their shared passion for actors, he must have missed Proust’s presence as much as the fussy, and finally comical, ritual that surrounded his readings.
The fact remains, however, that in 1913 not many people were proclaiming Proust’s genius. The majority of readers confirmed the verdict of the big publishing houses: Proust’s work suffered from a radical lack of action, an abundance of impressions-within-impressions, endless sentences collapsing beneath the weight of parenthetical clauses. As for the more experienced critics, they regarded the countless beginnings and re-beginnings of this pure Right Bank product with much detachment. Like the Nouvelle revue française coterie of Schlumberger, Gide, and Ghéon, who were just as much dwellers in Sodom as Proust’s coterie, they remained radically allergic to the mincing, perfumed homosexuality of Proust, whom Gide had long regarded as “the most fanatical of snobs”—a reproach that would also for a long time afflict Cocteau. Just as the critics at the Nouvelle revue française had been discouraging about the triumph of the Ballets Russes, they persisted in seeing this wealthy salon habitué as the diametric opposite of the aesthetic austerity that was their ideal. Instead of compromising, they preferred to state its party line and choices in each issue. “By concentrating on focusing its opera glasses,” said Cocteau, “La nouvelle revue française never watches the performance.”
Cocteau’s insistence on praising Swann’s Way, however, may well have contributed to rattling the Nouvelle revue française team. Early in 1914, Ghéon suddenly let it be known that Proust’s “work of leisure,” while it stubbornly persisted in constituting “the very opposite of a work of art, that is, an inventory of sensations,” had managed to trap, like a net thrown into the ocean of time, all the flora and fauna emerging from his memory. Gide too, whom Cocteau suspected of fearing being dethroned by the author of Swann in the halls of Gallimard, was beginning to regret his rejection of the manuscript, which was due mainly to Schlumberger’s negative report on this “book full of duchesses.” Was Cocteau the key to this reversal, which led Gide to give the most abject apologies? Proust in any case was very grateful to Cocteau for his support, even though it was given without his bothering to reread the book—À la recherche du temps perdu never served as a literary model for Cocteau.
Having fallen in love with Agostinelli, an out-of-work chauffeur whom he had just made his secretary, Proust had already complained to Cocteau in June 1913, a time when he had to abridge his work even more, that “Life is so cruel to me, now.” In December, after Paul Souday’s critical essay drawing attention to the novel, but also noting its weaknesses, naïvety, and improprieties, it was again Cocteau to whom Proust turned as confidante: “I saw my book in it as in a mirror advising suicide,” Proust had written, anticipating the highs and lows that Cocteau himself would experience every time he published a book.
Then life brought Proust back to his masterpiece, and Cocteau back to his flight into society, which still had the power for him to suspend all the questions that he would ask himself in literature. Women like Mme de Chevigné, it is true, treated the young effeminate man (whose powder she once so feared) a little better every day, on the staircase on the rue d’Anjou. Since the countess was overflowing with gratitude for anyone capable of amusing her—and Cocteau’s electric insolence did wonders in this respect—she had attached him to herself like a devoted escort. At the Opéra, at dinners in town, it was a Cocteau very elegantly dressed by Henry Pool and Charvet who now accompanied her; at the English ambassador’s, Cocteau boasted, the messenger in livery would announce them with the flattering title “Count and Countess of Anjou,” from the name of the street delimiting their little kingdom—an ennobling that must have doubly satisfied Mme Cocteau, since her son risked nothing but flattery with the comtesse—even when they stuffed their sleeves with silver cutlery so that they could play at being a couple of thieves unmasked by the subjects of Her Majesty. Cocteau could even take the liberty of shutting the countess’s dog Kiss behind a glass fire-screen, and setting sugar cubes all around it, without the Countess being offended: appeasing her page’s allergies came before the comforts of her Pomeranian.
These remarkable favors soon aroused the jealousy of “petit Marcel,” who tirelessly persisted in courting their common friend, with less success every year. His way of doing so was strange, admittedly; while plying Mme de Chevigné with compliments so convoluted and adulatory as to be irreverent, he persisted in demanding details about, say, the straw hat dotted with cornflowers that she wore on such-or-such a day in 1903—insisting that she recall a scene that sometimes went back to the previous century. This zeal only imperfectly flattered the countess, who would end up interrupting his fastidious demand for inventory by proclaiming, in her gendarme’s voice: “Only Mother Daudet keeps her old hats!”
Cocteau, however, distracted her and made her feel younger: to Chevigné, he spoke less about her past than about the glories of the day, from Anna de Noailles to Nijinsky and Diaghilev. The little consort of Mme Cocteau soon became, despite himself, the one in whom Mme de Chevigné confided her increasing boredom with Proust. “He bores us to death with those scribbles,” exclaimed this woman unscathed by any artistic ambition, and who required of her court only a maximum of entertainment. This rejection obsessed Proust for years on end, and made him renew his campaign obsessively, but the more he insisted, the more Chevigné, completely ignorant of his literary prowess, tended to see him as a social climber who knew nothing about the world he claimed to be describing—as well as an antiquarian of the absurd who sought to coax old memories from her by ridiculous flattery. Swallowing his pride, Proust asked Cocteau to act as his advocate to bring him closer to the countess. But Chevigné, a good walker, didn’t like to feel she was being followed, and Cocteau had to invent ever more subtle pretexts not to wound “petit Marcel.” Caught between the threads of the wounded spider and the fire of the heraldic dragon, Cocteau no longer knew which saint to swear by. “You are an admirable person, but one has to resolve oneself to face the fact that you are not a true friend,” a piqued Proust finally wrote to Cocteau, in July 1913.
Did Cocteau lack respect for Proust, whom he saw one day, through a half-open door on boulevard Haussmann, wolfing down a dish of noodles while standing up, then buttoning a velvet waistcoat over “a poor square torso that seemed to contain his working parts”? Proust would later reproach Cocteau for his “affectation of indifference” toward those who loved him, and accuse him of trying to puff himself up by treating others with contempt (“Cocteau grated on his nerves,” confirmed Paul Morand). One wonders what Proust would have said had he known that the Comtesse de Chevigné had stopped opening his interminable letters, which she had no capacity to understand, employing them mainly to “test” the curling irons with which her maid curled the small amount of hair that her hats had left visible.
It is also not out of the question that Proust may have guessed, through a confidence of Lucien Daudet’s or a slip of the tongue, the pleasure that Cocteau took in imitating him, after their meetings. Perhaps Proust had forgotten how he and Daudet had amused themselves imitating Montesquieu, 15 years earlier. Proust instead decided that Cocteau was one of those men “who so long as they are near you understand you, cherish you, grow tender to the point of tears, yet take their revenge a few hours later by making a cruel joke about you, but who come back to you, always more understanding, just as charming, just as temporarily like yourselves”—a group to which Proust knew he was himself condemned to inhabit ever since the death of his mother, and which he described with all the more intelligence since he was part of it.
Perhaps too the way in which Cocteau addressed his letters seemed a little offhand to Proust: imitating Mallarmé, he decorated his letters with comments like “Mailman, carry these words, ridding yourself of them / At the boulevard Haussmann at the home of Marcel Proust, 102,” said one. “102, boulevard Haussmann, oust! / Run, mailman, to the home of Marcel Proust,” stated another. More likely, Cocteau made the mistake of not always respecting the absurd rituals surrounding Proust’s outings; unlike so many others, he was unimpressed by Proust’s legendary tardiness and eccentricity about time. When Proust was very late, Cocteau was content to wait for him at Mme de Chevigné’s place, two floors down—which only irritated Proust more. One night as Cocteau returned to his apartment from hers, around midnight, he found Proust plunged in the shadows, on the wicker seat he shared with his mother. “Why didn’t you at least wait for me in my apartment? You know the door’s always open!” Cocteau asked. “Dear Jean,” Proust replied, “Napoleon had a man killed who waited for him at his house. Obviously, I’d only have read the Larousse, but there might have been letters lying around.” There were other laughable arguments, too, all thick with threats.
These rebuffs, which would have made Proust suffer horribly 20 years earlier, had become a part of his philosophy of love. “He would rather have been scorned than not loved,” wrote Pietro Citati; “and if he was loved, he remained overwhelmed by it, almost at a loss.” By confirming the impossibility, in friendship and in love, of bridging the radical separation of worlds where even the closest beings lived, Cocteau and Chevigné encouraged him to dissociate feelings and pleasure, to make friends only in complete independence, and to content himself physically with the company of men who were foreign to his milieu, if not to his tastes, like Agostinelli. Proust, it is true, found the knowledge that two people he loved were together very difficult to bear: for Chevigné’s refusal to tell him about her hats, out of fear of seeming old, Proust took his revenge in À la recherche du temps perdu by equipping Oriane de Guermantes with a lineage going back through the ages like a “yellowing” tower, and with cheeks that were “composite like a nougat,” overcome by verdigris.
From Jean Cocteau: A Life. Used with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Claude Arnaud. Translation copyright © 2016 by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell.