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Past Tense

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

By 1953, Jean Cocteau was a mature artist, his reputation established in part by such classic films as ORFEE, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and BLOOD OF A POET. Also an accomplished novelist, critic, poet, and painter, he was one of a few individuals who compelled Pablo Picasso’s respect. And he was tough: Having grown “accustomed to ... private tributes and public vituperations” from critics and rival artists, the controversial Cocteau had formed “a moral armor ... strong enough to withstand the blows and protect the heart.”

Still, he confided in volume 2 of his journal how upset he felt when journalists put words in his mouth; and he complained about the pressures of an excessive workload. In 1953 he composed the long, difficult poem CLAIR-OBSCUR and arranged the poetry anthology APPOGIATURES, helped bring two of his other books to publication, took part in several film and stage productions, and traveled extensively. In the midst of this hectic schedule, he suffered an excruciating attack of kidney stones and scoliosis.

For the time being at least, however, Cocteau won out over physical infirmities, and also over the spiritual vulnerability he revealed in volume 1 of PAST TENSE (covering 1951-1952). In the earlier journal he had hinted at an uncertainty whether he was a genius or was merely riding the coattails of true geniuses. Here, he appears more self-assured as an artist, although despite his fame he continued to feel essentially misunderstood and unappreciated. He chided himself for over-generosity in promoting younger artists at the expense of his own creative energy.

This journal also has its lighter moments. To illustrate the attitude of many Spaniards toward the Church, Cocteau shows his Spanish friend Edgar Neville explaining that he never takes communion because “I’m already overweight.” Encompassing everyday gossip and world-political observations alongside soaring aesthetic meditations, PAST TENSE reveals the full range of Cocteau’s humanity behind the public persona. One awaits eagerly the remaining four volumes.