Le Livre Blanc by Jean Cocteau
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
Le Livre Blanc was first published anonymously in 1928. Many people immediately attributed the work to Cocteau, based on its themes, style, and presence of characters from other Cocteau works; however, Cocteau remained coy about whether or not the work was his, even going so far as to pretend to accept unearned credit for it. Margaret Crosland tells us that Cocteau, in a letter regarding authorship of the book, says: “. . . be not uneasy if you find it in you to attribute this book to me. I’d not be in the least bit ashamed of it. And I simply beg the unknown author’s forgiveness for thus taking unfair usurping advantage of his anonymity.” Of course, Cocteau is doing what he does in his stories, which is to blend a certain amount of fact with a necessary amount of fiction. His works are not autobiographical, but they certainly draw from his real life experiences. Similarly, he would have taken credit for this book if he could have, but it was too dangerous. The book describes the life of a homosexual, freely and in no uncertain terms, including various sexual escapades. It also makes a passionate plea, in the end, not just for “tolerance” of homosexuals, but for free, un-arguable acceptance. The topic, today, is still touchy for many people, but in 1928 it could have been suicidal and career-damaging to put one’s name to such thoughts.
The term “Le Livre Blanc” is used in France to describe official legal (parliamentary) documents; it is the same (“White Paper”) term used for the same types of documents in England. So, though the conclusion of the story is an emotional crying-out for social and political change, in regards to how this certain group of people are viewed and treated, the majority of the text itself is presented not in emotional terms, but as pure fact. This lends itself well to that final passage because the point or moral, if you will, is that “we people just happen to exist.” It is almost a sociological documentary in print, particularly after the inclusion of the semi-erotic (although, in my opinion, they are not so much erotic as they are explicit, which could also be said of this story) ink drawings included in the later editions of the book.
There is not much to be said about characterization, since it is rather limited. This is acceptable, however, because the story is not so much about the narrator’s personal journey or the growth/development of any one person within the tale; rather, it is about the presence, acknowledgment and acceptance of an entire group of people as members of the human community and as typical people experiencing the human condition as anyone else would. The descriptions are sparse but raw and to the point, mirroring the uncomplicated, direct prose and the simple style. Cocteau does not want to complicate his message with tricky construction or complicated language, which turns out to be not only the appropriate choice, but the most effective one.
Ultimately, the book works as both a descriptive narrative which one can enjoy and also as a historically significant and socially important case study on homosexual culture. It presents the existence of gay men and women as being a fact of life, then takes us on a journey with a young man who travels the ups-and-downs of life and love, as we all do. He tries and fails at relationships and love; he tries and fails at discovering and rediscovering himself. At one point, he seeks out a place in the Abbey, grasping onto religion with both hands, in hopes that this new focus would cure him and allow him to re-enter the world as a “pure” and renewed (normal) man. This, of course, does not work, and the final pages reflect a truer self-realization for the narrator which coincides with the authors wish that he and this group of people be viewed as simply people. For readers interested in the history of gay literature, this book is a necessity.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Homosexuality, Cultural Studies, GLBT History, Art and Literature, France.
“I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty.”
“The world accepts dangerous experiments in the realm of art because it does not take art seriously; but it condemns them in life.”
“In exiling myself I am not exiling a monster, but a man whom society will not allow to live, since it considers one of the mysterious cogs in God’s masterpiece to be a mistake.”
It’s funny. I was just looking ahead at what kinds of awareness months and celebratory months were coming up to see if there was any kind of subject I wanted to follow in what I read and I saw that October is LGBT History Month. I was trying to think of anything that I could read for that, and your review shows up in my inbox. Fate!
Ah, yes! I was thinking of hosting a reading event for it this year, actually, but I didn’t know if anyone would be interested.
Well, if you would like any other suggestions, let me know! I’m fairly well-read in gay literature (and some poetry, if that’s an interest, too). I’m also working on my Ph.D. right now, and my sub-emphasis (under American Lit) is Gay Lit.
I’ve got a starting list from the Literary Others post, but I would always welcome any more suggestions you have.