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Book Review: The Difficulty of Being, by Jean Cocteau

Cocteau takes us by the hand and shows us the dance of his accomplishments

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It’s easy to forget these days, as copies of Happy Happy Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander sell by the jon-boatload, that memoir can be a radically intimate form of expression. Specifically I mean the rambling, meandering, stay-with-me-here kind of memoir exemplified in The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau (Melville House), which could well have been titled “The Difficulty of Being Jean Cocteau.” Dude was self-conscious in a way that only serially misunderstood people can be, but even with a hand hiding his face he looks us dead in the eye.

Cocteau was no dilettante. He didn’t just dip a toe into poetry and fiction and plays and ballet and drawing and film—he cannonballed into each of those mediums in the first half of the 20th century, an artist terrified of getting too comfortable with his talent. “I know little about this breath within me,” he writes of his creative impulse, “but it is not gentle.” Divided into 31 brief essays under loose-fitting topics (“On my style,” “On frivolity”), The Difficulty of Being is light and heavy reading at the same time, saturated by Cocteau’s hyper-intelligence but leavened by one-liners, aphorisms, and anecdotes of a life spent running around with the most brilliant artists of his time. The effect combines Camus’ motor-mouthed narrator of The Fall with Hemingway’s ensemble cast rendering of Paris in A Moveable Feast. (Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, and I headed down the Rue de Charles for Gauloises and Red Bull at Royal Farms. . . that kind of thing.)

But more than just reminiscence of glittering and gloomy days gone by, The Difficulty of Being is a kind of detective story where the mystery lies in the identity of the author himself. Cocteau plays both investigator and suspect in this existential drama, grilling himself under the bright lights of his candid prose, slapping himself around a little bit, before giving it all up—and each confession only deepens the case by revealing more clues. “I have spent my life . . . opposing an ill-starred destiny,” he writes. “What a dance it has led me!” And despite our (and his) difficulty in apprehending the author of this life, Cocteau takes us by the hand and shows us the dance of his accomplishments, going so far as to turn the double-sided violence of his self-investigation into a dance itself.

“I am so closely merged with my ink that my pulse beats into it,” Cocteau says. Yes, the Duck Commander may offer down-home wisdom and mirth, but Jean Cocteau offers communion, the “difference between a book that is simply a book and this book, which is a person changed into a book. Changed into a book and crying out for help, for the spell to be broken and he reincarnated in the person of the reader.” Quack quack, right?

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