New Translation of Jean Cocteau Novel
THE HOLY TERRORS, by Jean Cocteau, translated by Rosamond Lehmann; New Directions; 193 pp.; $3.00.
The Holy Terrors is a brand new translation of Cocteau's widely-known tale, Les Enfants Terribles. It is also the latest addition to New Directions' modern French list. Most important, it is a job of translating which should gain the book an even wider audience than it already enjoys.
Also, for the further glorification of M. Cocteau, this volume may attract to his literary works the attention of many Americans who know him principally or entirely through his movies.
The Holy Terrors is as good an example of his method as one could ask. It is beyond question a literary tour de force. It is the story of a beautiful brother and sister, who, orphaned in adolescence, sink deeper and deeper into an ingrown world of dreams until they destroy themselves and the friends whom they fascinate. The psychological intricacies of this tale and the plausibilities of Cocteau's conclusions are interesting subjects for the discussions of many Cambridge types. But the clinical validity of the book has little bearing on its artistic stature.
The power with which Cocteau captures the reader's attention and directs it at these flamboyant eccentricities is the real measure of the book's success. It is a considerable power. The reader is drawn almost irresistably into the escapist "game" of Paul and Elisabeth, as fascinated by this inversion as are the characters themselves.
The translation, by rights the central subject of a new review, is undoubtedly excellent. The element of melodrama which Cocteau injected into a bizarre and sensitive tale (with an aplomb which indicated his future talents as a moviemaker) is rightly handled:
"It was one of those cars with a low chassis. The wind caught his long scarf, wrapped it round the wheel, and in one savage second strangled him. The car skidded, buckled, reared against a tree, and was nothing but a heap of wreckage with one wheel spinning like a roulette wheel...slower, slower, slower in the silence."
And more important, the essentially evocative power that Cocteau manages to achieve through his choice of words is faithfully transcribed, as in the unwrapping of the lump of poison:
"It was the color of earth, and had a texture not unlike a truffle, apart from one raw reddish gash in it. It gave off an odor as of clay newly dug; also a pungent whiff of onion and of oil of geranium...They stood frozen before this object that drew and yet repelled them, as if a uniform reptillian mass should suddenly uncoil before their eyes and rear a dozen snaky heads. It was death's absolute presence that confronted them."
There seems little more to say of this book. The beautiful horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of les enfants terribles is set before us again. Even if this translation were not as good as it is, we should be grateful for the renewed acquaintance.