The other night I woke up around 4:30 AM so enraged at a book that I could not go back to sleep until I had told the internet how terrible it was. What came out was a one paragraph rant about how poor in quality the book is, which I still maintain encapsulates the technical and moral failings of the book totally. However, bowing to the vox populi, who did not consider that review to be worthwhile, I have decided to rewrite it in a more conventional format. My feelings, however, remain the same.
"Les Enfants Terribles" was published in 1929, and was written by Jean Cocteau, who has a long resume as a French intellectual and artist. This book is considered to be quite impressive in whatever literary style or movement he encapsulates, which to my somewhat jaded view I would describe as "affectedly French". Let us take a look at some of the basics of how a book is developed, and see how "Les Enfants Terribles" develops them, or fails to.
- Characterization: Who is in this book? And more importantly, why does the reader care? The central characters of the book are Elisabeth and Paul, two adolescents with a lot of money and no morality.They also have two hangers on, Gerard and Agatha. Elisabeth and Paul's mother dies early in the book, something that is treated with no importance. Other than being immoral, Paul and Elisabeth aren't really developed. I think, but am not sure that Paul might be gay, or perhaps he is just obsessed with a boy named Dargelos in a non-sexual way. In any case, the characterization is done in a rather shoddy way, a way that I would expect from the Lifetime Movie Network more than a supposedly avant-garde book. Paul is tormented because he is (gasp) gay. Agatha is tormented because she is (gasp) the daughter of drug addicts. Adding in some shocking fact about someone in between affectlessness and monotony does not count as character development. Even being bad does not count as character development. Paul and Elisabeth enjoy shoplifting and scaring babies (yes, seriously). But that again, is not character development.
- Plot: I have no idea what the plot was about. In my original review, I harped upon the snowball episode, where Paul hits (or is hit by) the snowball of a boy he has a crush on. In the 8th grade or so. For some reason that is unclear to me, this snowball episode is one of the driving forces of the book, and is constantly referred back to throughout the book. Unlike the death of the sibling's parents, which is barely mentioned, the snowball incident appears to have some great meaning, since it is constantly referred to. Also, the siblings are involved in something called "The Game", which is never explained. Neither is "The Room". These are mentioned, but never explained. Oh, and the plot seems to pick up around the end, because the characters fall in wuv with each other.
One of the basics of writing is Show, Don't Tell. One of the things that Twilight is rightfully derided for is for being a love story where the love is just stated as a fact, instead of demonstrated. Edward wuvs Bella because she...smells good! Twilight, of course, is a piece of popular fiction with a socially regressive background. "Les Enfants Terribles" is an avant-garde book written by a French author. And yet it uses wuv the same way: we are told of the wuv between characters, and that is what drives the final "tragic" conclusion, which involves a double suicide. None of which is believable, because it seems contrived in the most basic and ridiculous way. There is nothing in the characterization that makes the plot make sense, and nothing in the plot that makes the characterization make sense.
- Thematics: What is this book about? It could be that the author has been very successful, in that he was attempting to write a book that would make me hate the dissolution and stupidity of the characters. But I read the book as an irrelevancy, because the main issue in it seems to be an obsession with the difference between conformity and deviance. And the examples of deviance presented to us leave me, as a 21st century reader, yawning. And it makes me angry because while the peculiarities of their hedonism seemed to important to a subset of French intellectuals, Europe was descending into a madness and chaos that would lead to destruction and genocide. So I loathe this book because it shows a smug interest in very bourgeois concepts of dissolution and deviance, all while the world was starting to fall apart around it.
And again: everything I wrote in my first, deleted review describes the book perfectly. But hopefully this more articulate review will impress on the reader that this is a very, very, very terrible book.