cover image Jean Cocteau: A Life

Jean Cocteau: A Life

Claude Arnaud, trans. from the French by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell. Yale Univ., $40 (1,040p) ISBN 978-0-300-17057-3

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. (Oct.)