Author: Jean Cocteau
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
Jean Cocteau was a famous French artist, actor, writer, and film director. Cocteau was gay and had a long relationship with his muse, actor Jean Marais (Criterion). With Cocteau as the director, Marais starred as the beast in a gorgeous rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the titular character in Orpheus (1950) (Criterion).
Although Jean Cocteau never explicitly conceded his authorship of The White Book, it is now widely accepted that he was the book’s author. The book was published anonymously in 1928. For the 1957 edition of the book, Cocteau wrote a preface and contributed several illustrations, but he remained coy about whether he was the book’s author.
Another translation of this book is The White Paper, which is a term used to describe a government briefing document. The title means that that author is not trying to persuade his audience but rather to inform them about the reality of being a gay man.
What is the plot of this novel?
The story begins in 1920s France with the nameless narrator acknowledging his own homosexuality. The narrator then briefly describes experiences from his childhood that help him realize that he is gay. He faints when he happens to see a naked farmer taking a break from work to swim. He fondly remembers seeing naked gypsies climbing trees on his family’s property. He even draws a picture of a naked woman to lure the interest of a beautiful male servant named Gustave. When the narrator reveals his true feelings of same-sex desire to Gustave, the latter quickly rebuffs the former.
At school, the boy forms a crush on a virile, arrogant bully named Dargelos. At first the narrator avoids Dargelos, afraid of disclosing his true feelings. Eventually, the narrator tells another boy at school about his crush on Dargelos. Surprisingly, the boy advises the narrator to reveal his desire and overwhelm Dargelos with flattery. The friend believes that Dargelos will embrace the narrator passionately.
One day the narrator invites Dargelos to talk with him in an empty classroom after school. Dargelos arrives, but the narrator can see in his cruel smile that Dargelos knows why he has been summoned. Nervous, the narrator makes up a lie and says that the vice principal is watching Dargelos closely. Dargelos retorts that if the narrator wastes his time again with a stupid story he will physically beat him. After this encounter, Dargelos develops angina from bathing in the Seine River during a camping trip. Dargelos dies, and the narrator weeps for the loss, not thinking of Dargelos’s threat of violence.
As the narrator and his peers mature, other boys become very interested in girls. In turn, the narrator feels the peer pressure to be interested in girls. The narrator starts joyless affairs with women, knowing that he is not pursuing his heart’s desires.
The narrator advances into young adulthood, and he begins seeing a woman named Rose. When the narrator meets Alfred, Rose’s brother, the two men fall in love with each other. Alfred confesses that he is Rose’s pimp, not her brother, and that he wants to run off with the narrator. Before this plan can come to fruition, Alfred aborts the plans because he cannot abandon Rose. After the narrator accuses Alfred of stealing his gold chain, Alfred threatens the narrator with a weapon. The narrator flees in a taxi, with a crying Alfred running after him in despair and grief.
In the town of Toulon, the narrator has an affair with a sailor who was wrongfully imprisoned for a mutiny that he did not commit. The morning after the affair, the narrator leaves the sailor, but he forgets his gloves. When he returns to retrieve the gloves, he sees the sailor weeping into the gloves through the keyhole. He also sees the face of Alfred “superimposed” on the sailor’s face. The narrator quickly leaves without getting his gloves.
Seeking comfort at the beach, the narrator meets a man who is bathing nude in the ocean. The men both believe in God, and they fall in love, believing that “God loves love,” even their love. They return to Paris together, and the narrator discovers that the man has a mistress. In fact, the man has multiple affairs with women. Each time the narrator discovers a new tryst with a woman, the narrator and his lover argue, with the lover profusely apologizing and assuring the narrator that he only loves him. Eventually the lover perishes from a drug addiction. Before doing so, the lover tells the narrator that he never loved women and that he only loved the narrator. He explains to the narrator that he had affairs with women to prove to himself that he was “free.”
After his lover’s death, the narrator is distraught, but he nevertheless wants to get married. He does not seek love or romance, just marriage; therefore, he manages to become engaged to a very masculine female friend with whom he got along well while he was studying at the Sorbonne. The narrator once again falls in love with a woman’s brother. His fiancée’s brother loves him in return, and the brother begs him to cancel the engagement to his sister. Before he can act, the brother reveals the truth to his sister in a cruel and confrontational manner. Due to his excessive cruelty, the narrator hits the brother across the face. As the narrator consoles his fiancée, her brother promptly goes into the next room and kills himself. Of course, the marriage never happens.
After this sudden tragic death, the narrator sinks into depression and a feeling of hopelessness. Because he remains Catholic, suicide is not an option. He briefly considers joining a monastery, but he does not do so because of the severity of that lifestyle. The novel ends with the narrator’s gratitude with not facing criminal penalty in France for being gay, but also with his frustration with merely being tolerated and not accepted.
How is this book queer?
Although this book is very short, it powerfully addresses the fear of commitment, the stereotyping of queer men, and the angst of being queer in a society that merely tolerates.
The narrator cannot escape the haunting resemblance of his lovers. Alfred resembles the servant named Gustave and the farmer whom the narrator observes swimming naked. The narrator also sees Alfred in the face of the sailor that the narrator leaves crying into his gloves. Perhaps Gustave’s initial rejection of his homosexuality indelibly marks the narrator’s feelings of commitment and intimacy. Furthermore, one of the narrator’s most tumultuous encounters happens with the man who does not stop having affairs with women, despite his many apologies to the narrator. When the man claims that he only had affairs with women to feel “free,” readers wonder whether he actually had the affairs to feel equal in worth to his male heterosexual compatriots.
Indeed the narrator knows the Catholic Church rejects his same-sex desires, and the narrator realizes that his country merely shrugs at these desires. Nevertheless, the narrator remains Catholic and French, hating himself as the major institutions in his country strive to ignore his queerness. From his earliest memories, the narrator knows deeply that he is a gay man. It is this innate conviction about the naturalness of his queer feelings that eventually help the narrator triumph over the bigotry of his religion and nation. By the novel’s end, the narrator observes that his country, which does not criminalize homosexuality, does not sufficiently embrace and welcome queer people. Even as much of the world enacts anti-discrimination laws, many queer people today feel that schools, religious institutions, and other public spaces do not do enough to promote queer acceptance.
Nevertheless, despite the forward-thinking central message of this book, the narrator also succumbs to stereotyping. Even as a queer person, the narrator draws conclusions based on stereotypes about queer people. For example, the narrator believes that his father is secretly gay because of the way that he walks and the unusual phrases that he uses in conversation. In addition, the narrator draws conclusions about his male lover that cause great anguish. The narrator assumes that his male lover is gay because the lover primarily socializes with women. According to the narrator, gay men are primarily friends with women while heterosexual men are only friends with other heterosexual men. This assumption crumbles when the narrator discovers that his lover has affairs with women. The narrator does not anticipate the possibility that his lover could be sexually fluid, and he commands his lover to choose between loving him or women. The narrative portrays the lover as confused and burdened with drug addiction when the narrator is actually the unreasonable party. After all, love and relationships should happen with a mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations, regardless of the lovers’ specific sexual orientations.
Cocteau, Jean. The White Book = Le Livre Blanc. City Lights Books, 1989.
“Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais’s Creative Marriage.” The Criterion Collection, 2017, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4501-jean-cocteau-and-jean-marais-s-creative-marriage.