Cocteau’s poetic protégé was a louche literary wunderkind the world lost too soon
Raymond Radiguet was born in a banlieue of Paris, not far from the Marne, in June 1903. He wrote nothing of First World War battles, and little of the conflict. His theme was cruel, illicit, destructive love, spun out across the home front in his first novel The Devil in the Flesh (Le Diable au Corps), and surfacing in different forms throughout his notebooks, short prose pieces, poetry, and second novel Count D’Orgel’s Ball. When he died from typhoid at the age of 20 (the tragic consequence of feasting on contaminated oysters), he was still striving to secure a reputation for himself beyond that which he earned as a protégé of Jean Cocteau.
The two men met at a party held in honour of Apollinaire in 1919, a few years after the première of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Parade, for which Cocteau had collaborated with Apollinaire, Picasso, and Erik Satie. Cocteau’s valet introduced them. “Monsieur, c’est un enfant avec une canne,” he announced, eyeing the unkempt, squinting, cane-wielding youth of 15. Like his father, a celebrated cartoonist, Radiguet knew well how to fashion a caricature. His props and appearance were less a disguise than an exaggeration of his character, which was to say that Radiguet was a prodigy who rejected childhood.
The eldest of seven children, he affected maturity in both his lifestyle and his writing, only to reveal himself for the boy he was by acknowledging his own precociousness. Convinced of his talent, and thoroughly smitten, Cocteau took him under his wing soon after their first meeting. It was on one of their many writing holidays that Radiguet produced The Devil in the Flesh. While Radiguet claimed that it was only “falsely autobiographical”, the male protagonist exhibits the same desire as the author had to present himself as older than his years. At the beginning of the book, he luxuriates in his youthful transgression, which will form the basis of the plot: “Was it any fault of mine that I attained my twelfth year a few months before the declaration of the war?” he asks. “Let those already hostile to me consider what the war meant to many very young boys: a four-year holiday.” In the course of his holiday, the boy turns 16 and seduces Marthe, the 19-year-old wife of a soldier. She becomes pregnant with his child.
Radiguet was 14 when he began an affair with a 24-year-old soldier’s wife named Alice Saunier. In late 1918, when he was 15, she gave birth to a boy. Was the baby his? Was it fatherhood that gave him the wisdom to observe, at the ripe old age of 19, that “16, 17 and 18 years old” was “the age proper to ingratitude . . . at that time of life, months have the value of years”? Alice Saunier denied that the child was his, but the rumours have never gone away.
The obsession with age and maturity that found parallels in Radiguet’s life and work sprang from his belief that “sensuality, which is in us from birth, although blindly manifest” grows stronger with each passing year. His first novel is the most penetrating illustration of this. One may discern a parallel with Stephen Vizinczey’s 1966 novel In Praise of Older Women, in which a young man discovers his latent sensuality. But where Vizinczey would write with warmth and passion about the women who nurtured him, Radiguet’s prose was taut and unflinching, his protagonist wholly devoid of sentiment. The metaphor that falls on the second page of his novel bears the full weight of the story to come:
I was never a dreamer. What seemed dreams to others more credulous than I, seemed to me as real as cheese is to the cat, despite the glass bell that covers it. The bell, nevertheless, is there. If the bell breaks, the cat is gainer, even though it be the master who breaks it and cuts his own hands.
War shatters the glass bell. The boy becomes the master, consumes the cheese, survives the fall. Childish ignorance prevents him from recognising the wartime affair as something commonplace, while childish manipulation of the woman he claims to love forces her hands onto the broken glass, not his. For this he shows little remorse.
The Devil in the Flesh has twice been adapted as a film, in 1947 by Claude Autant-Lara, and in 1986 by Marco Bellocchio. The boy’s age, lack of patriotism, but above all his lack of tenderness, continues to make the story commanding. The first time he sleeps with Marthe, he is distressed at not finding a halo about her face “as in religious paintings”. Again, envious of the husband who had been there before him, he “resented Marthe’s grateful face”. The novel, almost entirely linear in plot, is carried by this intensifying hammering of confession and declaration — confession the boy can only voice as a result of his utter detachment from emotion and feeling.
With a fine eye for aphorism, Radiguet proved himself the master of the psychological novel, marrying his rich but spare prose to the sociopathic detachment of his protagonists. He was just as capable of maintaining his intense focus on their intentions over the space of 50,000 words as he was over 50.
Denise, a short prose piece, is a masterpiece in cold concision. Through boredom, and little else, the male protagonist pursues Denise, a “Venus” of negligible beauty, whom he insists must lose her virginity before coming to his bed — “I wanted someone other than myself to leave her with unpleasant memories.” When it is his turn, he lies in bed thinking, “As others take communion at this time, I like to smoke a cigarette in order to imagine, before eating, the bitterness this hour must hold for someone about to be guillotined.”
The Birth of Venus, “which must not be confused with the Birth of Love”, had been the theme of a series of poems he wrote while holidaying with Cocteau. In Cheeks on Fire, the resulting collection, we find much the same detachment as characterises Denise and The Devil in the Flesh, but it is veiled beneath richer lyricism. In the first poem of the collection, “The Language of the Flowers or the Stars”, the poet is allowed to dance with 12 young girls, “each of whom resembled a month of the year”, but to go no further. As the collection progresses in soothing octosyllabics, Venus fades in and out of view. The imagery develops from Botticelli’s Primavera, with its dancing Graces, to the more lustful Birth, with all the sexualised imagery Botticelli bestowed upon it:
Those marble breasts, my swollen fruit,
ripened by the sultry sun,
if they turn red, the deed is done
— hence I christen them apples of love.
Radiguet was able to use the language of the classical poets, in this case Propertius, to communicate the crudest intentions. In one respect, his efforts represented a return to tradition. Ronsard, La Fontaine, Malherbe were the poets he admired, more so than the avant-garde writers who surrounded him.
Soon after meeting Radiguet for the first time, Cocteau determined to draw out of his poems the precepts that lay behind them. Cocteau’s verse had tended be richer, more dynamic, than Radiguet’s, though the more time they spent together, the more they began to see eye-to-eye over the direction “modern” poetry should take. Radiguet became involved with Cocteau’s new anti-Dadaist review Le Coq, which contained contributions from Erik Satie and Georges Auric, among others. With its varied typography and disparate statements of intent, it resembled a Vorticist manifesto in everything but belief: “Return to poetry. Disappearance of the skyscraper. Reappearance of the rose.” Radiguet wanted most of all to move forward by looking back beyond the concrete poetry of Apollinaire, which he had formerly admired, and embrace poetic clarity with new vigour. It was an aim he broadly succeeded in.
His most important contribution, however, remains his prose, which he turned to exclusively from 1921. If Radiguet was happy because Cocteau now gave him the space and support he needed to write at length, then his parents were less so. Cocteau found himself compelled to write letters of assurance to Radiguet’s father, explaining that nothing inappropriate was going on; during their writing holidays, they would sleep in separate hotel rooms.
There is no doubt that Cocteau felt an intense sexual attraction to Radiguet, whose sprezzatura and magnetism are obvious from the portraits which Modigliani and Man Ray made of him. But what, if anything, Radiguet felt for Cocteau is harder to gauge. At least until the publication of the first novel, he did little to discourage him. Convinced of Radiguet’s genius, Cocteau poured everything into publicising him, introducing him to his writer and artist friends, helping him to secure a publication contract with Bernard Grasset, founder of the eponymous publishing house, and igniting the attention of the press. Naturally, they could not help but to be mesmerised by the enfant terrible. The Devil in the Flesh sold 46,000 copies in the first month of publication, and was awarded Le Prix du Nouveau Monde.
Cocteau once said that Radiguet was so hard that “it would take a diamond to scratch his heart”. Given the way Radiguet behaved following his first flush of success, one can well believe him. It was not that Radiguet owed his career to Cocteau. Given his talent and ruthless determination, it is clear that he was capable of succeeding on his own. But the fact was, time was short, and had Cocteau not hurried him, Radiguet would not have finished two books before he was 20. Whether suffocated by Cocteau’s attentions, or simply mischievous, Radiguet determined to give him the slip on at least one occasion.
The writer and artist Nina Hamnett, one of Radiguet’s many lovers, recalled a champagne-soaked evening in Paris with Picasso, Cocteau, Brancusi and Radiguet. Seizing the moment, Brancusi and Radiguet decided to take a train to Marseilles, and head thence for Corsica. Only days later, they sent a telegram back to Paris, assuring their friends that they were quite safe “with the peasants and the Corsican brandy”. They were gone for two weeks. Cocteau was crestfallen.
In The Devil in the Flesh, Marthe and her lover try to abscond by night. The cast of Radiguet’s second novel suffer the claustrophobia of high society. At heart, Radiguet knew that escape was futile.
Count D’Orgel’s Ball, a less satisfying and complete novel than the first, reflected the company in which Radiguet found himself following his overnight success. He is thought to have based the character of Count Anne D’Orgel loosely upon Comte Étienne de Beaumont, who was famous for his lavish Mardi Gras celebrations, one of which Radiguet attended dressed in a “shooting gallery” costume designed by Picasso. In the book, D’Orgel and his wife Mahaut host a grand, post-war ball, attended by royals, diplomats, and hangers-on. Some attend for the “slander”, others for the “distraction”, among the latter, Mahaut herself. The ball becomes a stage upon which her stifling marriage to the Count is played out. Although the Comtesse Edith de Beaumont is said to have fallen asleep when Radiguet gave a reading of some of his earlier work, she and her husband seem to have taken his second novel in good humour.
Indeed, with Count D’Orgel’s Ball, Radiguet honed his skills as a satirist. The jokes were not always at the expense of the wealthy and privileged, but at that of unwitting outsiders. Mahaut d’Orgel’s mother, who came from Martinique, “developed a nervous disorder which turned her into a typical Creole, spending her life on a sofa”. It was an affectionate observation which Radiguet could justify, as the son of a “typical Creole” mother himself. Count d’Orgel, meanwhile, “was only expert at expressing what he did not feel”.
Radiguet’s interest in these characters was historical rather than sycophantic. It was his belief that families such as the de Beaumonts could trace their heritage back to a time when life was meaningful and profound, as opposed to merely frivolous, that fascinated him more than their wealth and circumstance. He took inspiration for the novel from the 17th-century classic La Princesse de Clèves, which is usually attributed to Madame de La Fayette. Set at the court of Henry II of France in the late 1550s, La Princesse was a story of forbidden yearning and self-enforced chastity. Where these themes are revived in Count D’Orgel’s Ball, the characters are too whimsical to be worthy of their agonies.
The novel was first published in two instalments in La Nouvelle Revue Française, six months after Radiguet died. He had revised it while holidaying in Le Piquey, near Bordeaux, which is where he is believed to have contracted typhoid. Upon his return to Paris, he was nursed by Bronia Perlmutter, a Polish life model whom he had taken as a lover, but it was too late. By the time the doctor diagnosed typhoid, Radiguet was failing. “In three days I shall be shot by the soldiers of God,” he told Cocteau, “I heard the order.” He was right.
On December 12, 1923, Radiguet died. Among the hundreds who attended his funeral were Picasso and Brancusi, but not Cocteau. His influence on Radiguet had been formative, but more literal than literary. Since giving Radiguet’s work its first audience, he had felt superfluous to his needs, an impediment even, to the isolation of his prose. Radiguet, one feels, would have forgiven Cocteau his absence. The last thing he needed was a long, quivering shadow cast across his corpse.
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