cover image Letter to the Americans

Letter to the Americans

Jean Cocteau, trans. from the French by Alex Wermer-Colan. New Directions, $12.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3159-6

A brief 1949 trip to New York City serves as the inspiration for an enjoyable series of letters from French novelist and filmmaker Cocteau (The Holy Terrors) (1889–1963) to “Americans,” first published in France more than 70 years ago, but appearing for the first time in English. “You’ll tell me that one can’t judge a country by a city... But in some cases the first look you cast over a face reveals more than a prolonged study,” Cocteau writes, and clarifies that the “you” he’s writing to is “the world of easy money and instantaneous gratification.” He puts to paper his thoughts on literature (“Your book sales are in crisis. So be it”), France (where “everyone thinks”), and New York City (where “everything is paradoxical. One needs the new but wants nothing to change”). Cocteau recounts some anecdotes from his stay, as when he describes seeing a group of young girls making their own painting at the Museum of Modern Art, and spotting a woman asleep, “face caught in a beard of orchids.” On a line level, his sentences are a joy to read: “But the mind has robust teeth. Chew things with its robust teeth. Don’t let them only serve as the ornamental smiles of the stars.” Cocteau’s fans won’t regret making room for this short but sweet outing on their shelves. (Apr.)