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This review is taken from PN Review 78, Volume 17 Number 4, March - April 1991.

A DEAD MAN SPEAKING Jean Cocteau, Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries, Volume Two, annotated by Pierre Chanel and translated by Richard Howard (Methuen) £18.50

As usual, Cocteau is one step ahead. You might have thought that by reading Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries, Volume Two you would learn something about Jean Cocteau's private thoughts, that you might be spying him through a keyhole or overhearing him when he thought he was alone and you might also feel slightly ambivalent about the activity of reading someone else's diary. Instead Cocteau declares to you:

You may be surprised at my frankness. A dead man is speaking to you.


For as he explains on several occasions, he wrote this diary expecting it to be read after his death as long as, he wonders at one point, it's actually legible. Not that he's expecting to be intelligible: 'one is never understood,' he quotes from Delacroix, 'one is accepted.' Not that Cocteau feels accepted for himself, rather that a myth about him has been created despite his own words.

I may seem to be throwing you into this diary rather than introducing you to it; I'm only echoing the way it presents itself. It's a bit like a comment Cocteau makes on Sunday June 21. 'I tell Picasso: "You sign your canvas first and then you paint the picture to honor your signature."' Similarly, this volume is sold on the strength of Cocteau's name (and a wonderful drawing by him in an eye-catching yellow and white dust wrapper). 'And here I am,' opens his entry for November 26; and here it is, ...


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