Saturday, December 29, 2012

Silhouettes from Paris

Paris Album, 1900 1914 

"I have only retained memories of individuals and groups who were desperate for survival, whose frivolity arose from tragedy, whose lightness was prodigious and whose silhouettes, to use the expression of Thomas Mann in that masterpiece The Magic Mountain, were silhouettes on a grand scale. 
Souvenir portraits on a grand scale.  That is a project that tempts me.  I wonder if I can pull it off?"  -  Jean Cocteau, Paris Album, p 16.

The short essais or vignettes that comprise Jean Cocteau's Paris Album, 1900-1914 were originally written for the Paris newspaper "Le Figaro". Thus they form an album of memories that include both intimate personal details and cultural details that inform the reader about Paris in the years immediately preceding the Great War. The portraits of individual persons are fascinating whether they are family, people of renown or friends who appear in slightly different form in Cocteau's fiction. He brings to life personages like Sara Bernhardt, Edmond Rostand, and Colette. Likewise he introduces his family. 
 He also explores the world of Paris with waltzers at the skating rink and beyond.  He follows the changes, discusses obscure authors, recalls events which made news, such as the disastrous fire at the Bazaar del la Charite and lets unexpected floodlights play over a vanished world.  It reminded me of the picture drawn by Stefan Zweig in his magnificent memoir, The World of Yesterday.  
I found Cocteau's portraits of musicians like Sarasate and Reynaldo Hahn the most interesting. The souvenirs in this book are articles that may be no more than caricatures, but also may contain some grains of truth. They are definitely entertaining.

Paris Album, 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau, trans. by Margaret Crosland. W. H. Allen & Co., 1987 (1956)

No comments: