top of page

BOOK REVIEW: Jean Cocteau, Le livre blanc

I actually first came across Le Livre Blanc in Gosport Municipal Library when I was about 15. Since it’s a vivid, sometimes poetic account of longing for handsome schoolboys and sex with teasing pimps and muscular sailors it turned me on a lot. Indeed, there must have been a very homophile librarian because I also picked up Mishima’s similarly homoerotic Confessions of a Mask and one of 2 editions of The Male Nude. But Cocteau’s book stuck in my mind – not least because of the beautifully butch woodcuts that went with the text.

Rereading it 15 years later for this review, I have to say I’m less turned on.

Admittedly this new edition is minus 5 of the original 9 woodcuts, (including – if my memory serves me correctly – the sexiest one of the hunky sailor) and doubtless my palate has also become more voluptuous in the intervening years but nontheless Cocteau’s 50 page account of gay sexuality can sometimes be lapidary to the point of coldness.

Of course in 1928 when it was written, the 39-year-old Cocteau was associated with the Ballet Russe and the bright acerbic modernism that Diaghilev fostered. He was championing a precise and polished style in sharp contrast to the excesses of 19th Century Romanticism. And without a doubt this anonymously-published work detailing gay love affairs exemplifies that aesthetic.

Indeed there is much literary beauty to be found in Le livre blanc. For example, the narrator sums up his schooldays in the nugatory phrase: “The classroom smelled of gas, chalk and sperm” which seems to me a perfect. And he describes Alfred, the young hansome pimp with whom he first has sex, as having : “a perfect body, rigged out with muscles like a ship with ropes, its limbs appearing to open up like star around that fleece where there rises… the only thing about a man which cannot lie.”

But this excess of style sometimes strikes us as frigid. The narrator seems unable to de-frost and join the the spontaneous, uninhibited masculinity that attracts him throughout the book. Hew blames this on a “society which condemns anything out of the ordinary as a crime and forces us to reform our natural inclinations.” But looking at the catalogue of disastrous affairs — two boys die, two are left broken hearted, another shoots himself. — one wonders if it is French society that blights his love or the narrator’s own psychic messiness.

Starting with his infatuation with his virile schoolmate Dargelos (a real contemporary of Cocteau’s who re-appears in other writings) the narrator seems to fixate on a remote ideal of masculinity and repeatedly scuppers any attempts of intimacy that brings that ideal into his bed. This is the curse that darkens his sex life, rather than the pressure of society.

Indeed 1920s France seems rather raunchy. In the sunlit Sodom of Toulon for example, the narrator describes how “some nocturnal salt” turns the most brutal looking sailors into pliant, happy sexual partners. Without the slightest social opprobium, he dances and later sleeps with a touchingly vulnerable sailor with PAS DE CHANCE tatooed on his chest. But rather than enjoy the youth’s physical beauty, he runs away:

“No, I thought, we don’t belong to the same order. He’s already beautiful enough to move a flower, a tree, an animal. Impossible to live with.”

And this is the pattern that characterises all his relationships with the men in the book. Still. perhaps that’s exactly what makes Le livre blanc what it is. An exquisitely anguished account of masculinity idolised and real love glimpsed and then lost. That was certainly the poignancy that chimed with the 15 year old in Gosport and in an age where Alfred, Dargelos and PAS DE CHANCE are used to sell underwear and gay boys are 10 a penny on Old Compton steeet, I guess that’s a poignancy we can still cherish.

1 view0 comments

Related Posts

See All
bottom of page