On Jean Cocteau and Translating Appogiatures

Mary-Sherman Willis

When Appogiatures was first published in 1953 by Éditions du Rocher, Jean Cocteau already had an international reputation as a novelist, painter, sculptor, illustrator, playwright, opera librettist, and filmmaker. But his career began with his first published poem, “The Facades,” in 1908 at age eighteen, and he considered himself a poet first. “I am, without a doubt, the least known of poets and the most famous,” he wrote.

Cocteau was sixty-four years old. He had survived the Nazi occupation of Paris as an openly gay man, the death of his young lover Raymond Radiguet, and a tenacious opium habit that necessitated frequent sanatorium cures (during which he was intensely productive). His career was thriving, but his health was precarious. Death shadowed his life and his work. “You’ve never seen death?” he wrote. “Look in the mirror every day and you will see it like bees working in a glass hive.”

In music, an appoggiatura is a grace note sung before a note of melody, embellishing that note. The prose poems in Appogiatures — surreal, almost cinematic mise en scenes — reveal invisible mechanisms that we are blind to in our conscious lives, and which threaten disaster. They depict a heightened sense of reality even as they are obsessed with tragic error — as in “The Traveler” and “The Cock Always Crows Three Times.”

For Cocteau, death is swift and capricious, and only one false move away. But these poems are often absurdly funny and loaded with punning wordplay, a Gallic version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s duende. (Cocteau in fact titles one of his poems “A Farewell Letter to My Friend Federico.”). Their gallows humor appealed to me when I discovered the book in a small bookstore last summer on the coast of Brittany. I’d been thinking about Cocteau’s marvelous 1946 movie “La Belle et la Bête” after spending a week in a friend’s garden-shed-guesthouse. The interior of the greenhouse was covered over with grape vines through which you had to walk to get to the bathroom. It was Belle’s boudoir in my memory, alive and magic. So I was primed for Cocteau when I came upon the book in the bookstore.

The translations and numerous revisions went fast. Cocteau employs a formal French that counterpoints his hallucinatory, sometimes ridiculous images. The syntax of his lush sentences, with long sequences of clauses, makes for a filmic storyboard effect. I worked to preserve the pacing and form of those sentences, down to the punctuation. I also looked into the history of the book’s four editions, all with the same publisher, and discovered variations in many of the poems. So I sought out a 1953 first-edition copy, the only printing in Cocteau’s lifetime. In the poem “Alone,” I discovered the lovely sentence “With a moon that was without being” that was missing in my fourth edition.

Trickier were the wordplay and double entendres of his idiomatic expressions, which simply don’t convey into English. In English they are plainly surreal; in French they make their own logic. And music. In “A Crime of Passion,” Cocteau constructed his poem’s sense from the sound of the words, strung together playfully like improvised jazz. Be sure read the French aloud to hear it.

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