Rose and Alfred
The following piece is from the February 1969 edition of The London Magazine edited by Alan Ross. French poet, novelist, playwright and artist Jean Cocteau was a pioneering creative associated with the surrealist and Dadaist movements in the early 20th Century. ‘Rose and Alfred’ is an extract from the novel ‘Le Livre Blanc’, published anonymously in 1925, but a later edition included both Cocteau’s homoerotic drawings and a foreword and the novel was included in the author’s Oeuvres Completes after his death in 1963. Homosexuality was legalised in the United Kingdom in 1967.
One night when I was going back to my father’s house later than usual, a woman with a soft voice accosted me in the place de la Madeleine. I looked at her, found her delightful, young and fresh. Her name was Rose, she enjoyed talking and we walked up and down until the time when the market people, sitting sleepily on their vegetable-carts, drove their horses across a deserted Paris.
…….I was leaving for Switzerland next day. I gave Rose my name and address. She sent me letters on squared paper enclosing a stamp for my reply. I wrote back willingly. When I returned I was happier than Thomas De Quincey at finding Rose at the place where we had first met. She asked me to come to her hotel in the place Pigalle.
…….The Hotel M. was dismal. The staircase stank of ether, which provides consolation for whores who come home too tired to speak. The bedroom was typical of those in which the bed is never made. Rose smoked in bed. I complimented her on her looks.
…….‘You mustn’t see me without make-up,’ she said. ‘I haven’t any eyelashes. I look like a white rabbit.’
…….I became her lover. She would refuse the smallest gift. Really! However, she did accept one dress, merely because it was no good for le business — it was too smart and she would keep it in her wardrobe as a souvenir.
…….One Sunday there was a knock at the door. I quickly got out of bed. Rose told me not to worry, it was her brother and he would be delighted to see me.
…….This brother resembled the farm-boy and the Gustave of my child hood. He was nineteen and everything about him was in the worst possible taste. He was called Alfred or Alfredo and spoke an odd kind of French, but I didn’t worry about his nationality; he seemed to me to belong to the country of prostitution which has its own patriotism, and possibly this was its language.
…….The slope which led me towards the sister was slightly uphill, but it is easy to guess the headlong descent which took me to the brother. He was, as his compatriots say, on the ball, and we soon resorted to using apache-like tricks so that we could meet without Rose’s knowledge.
…….For me, Alfred’s body was more like the one I saw in my dreams than the young, powerfully equipped body of an adolescent: a perfect body, rigged out with muscles like a ship with ropes, its limbs appear ing to open out like a star around that fleece where there rises, in contrast to woman, who is built for concealment, the only thing about a man which cannot lie.
…….I realized I had taken the wrong turning. I vowed that I would not get lost again, that in future I would go straight along my own path instead of going astray on someone else’s, and that I would listen more to the dictates of my senses than to the counsels of morality.
…….Alfred returned my caresses. He confessed to me that he was not Rose’s brother. He was her pimp. Rose continued to play her part and we ours. Alfred would wink, dig me in the ribs and sometimes start to giggle. Rose looked at him with surprise, not suspecting that we were in league and that there existed between us links that were strengthened by deceit.
…….One day the hotel bell-boy came in and found us lying together, with Rose between us. ‘You see, Jules,’ she cried, indicating both of us, ‘my brother and my fancy-man! Everything I love.’
…….Alfred, who was lazy, began to find lying wearisome. He confided to me that he could not go on with this life, working on one side of the road while Rose worked on the other, and walking up and down this open-air shop where the sellers are themselves for sale. In other words, he asked me to extricate him from it.
…….Nothing could have pleased me more. We decided that I would book a hotel room in the Ternes district; Alfred would occupy it at once, and I would go to join him after dinner and stay the night. Meanwhile I would pretend to Rose that I thought he had disappeared and go to look for him, which would set me free and allow us much valuable time.
…….I booked the room, settled Alfred in and dined with my father. After dinner I rushed to the hotel. Alfred had flown. I waited from nine o’clock until one in the morning. Alfred did not return and I went back home with a broken heart.
…….At about eleven o’clock next morning I went to find out what was happening. Alfred was asleep in his room. He woke up, and whimperingly told me that he couldn’t help going back to his old habits that he couldn’t do without Rose and that he’d been looking for her all night, first at her hotel where she was no longer living, then from one pavement to another, in every brasserie in the faubourg Montmartre and in the dance halls of the rue de Lappe.
…….‘Of course,’ I told him, ‘Rose is out of her mind, she’s got a temperature. She’s living with one of her girl friends in the rue de Budapest.’
…….He begged me to take him there at once.
…….Rose’s room at the Hotel M. was a festive place compared to her friend’s. We argued in a thick fog of smells, washing and dubious sentiments. The women were in their shifts. Alfred lay on the floor in front of Rose, groaning and kissing her knees. I was pale. Rose turned towards me, her face streaked with make-up and tears. She stretched her arms out to me: ‘Come on,’ she cried, ‘let’s go back to the place Pigalle and live together. I’m sure Alfred agrees. Don’t you, Alfred?’ she added, pulling his hair. He remained silent.
I was due to follow my father to Toulon in order to attend the wedding of my cousin, daughter of Vice-Admiral G. F. The future looked dark to me. I told Rose about this family expedition and left her, with a still silent Alfred, at the hotel in the place Pigalle and promised to come and see them when I was back.
…….At Toulon I noticed that Alfred had taken a little gold chain of mine. It was my lucky charm. I had put it round his wrist and had forgotten doing so, while he had taken good care not to remind me.
…….When I returned I went to the hotel. As I entered the room Rose flung her arms round me. It was dark. At first glance I did not recognize Alfred. What was so different about him?
…….The police were scouring Montmartre. Alfred and Rose were afraid because of their doubtful nationality. They had obtained false passports and were preparing to make their getaway while Alfred, intoxicated by the romance of the cinema, had had his hair dyed.
…….Beneath these inky-black locks his small, fair-skinned face stood out with anthropometric clarity. I demanded my chain back from him. He denied ever having had it. Rose gave him away. He threw a tantrum, swore, threatened her, threatened me and brandished a weapon. I rushed out and went down the stairs four at a time with Alfred on my heels. In the street I hailed a taxi. I called out my address, jumped in quickly and as the taxi moved off I looked round. Alfred was standing motionless outside the door of the hotel. Tears were running down his cheeks. He stretched out his arms; he called my name. Beneath his badly dyed hair he was pitifully wan.
…….I wanted to tap on the window and stop the driver. Confronted by this solitary distress I was undecided about returning like a coward to my home comforts, but then I thought of the chain, the weapon, the false passports, the flight in which Rose would surely ask me to join. I closed my eyes. And even now I have only to close my eyes in a taxi to conjure up the small figure of Alfred and his tearful face beneath that gangster’s hair-style.
Since the Admiral was ill and my cousin away on her honeymoon I had to return to Toulon. It would be tedious to describe that delightful Sodom where the fire of heaven falls without danger, striking by means of caressing sunshine. Before dusk an even softer atmosphere floods the town and, as in Naples and Venice, a fairground crowd moves through the squares ornamented with fountains, noisy shops, waffle-stalls and street hawkers. Men in love with masculine beauty come from all corners of the globe to admire the sailors who walk about idly, alone or in groups, respond to glances with a smile and never refuse an offer of love. Some nocturnal salt transforms the most brutal jailbird, the roughest Breton, the most savage Corsican, into those tall, flower-decked girl with low décolletés and loose limbs who like dancing and lead their partners, without the slightest embarrassment, into the shady hotels by the port.
…….One of the cafes with a dance floor was kept by a former cafe–concert singer who had a woman’s voice and used to exhibit himself in women’s clothes. Now he sported a pullover and rings. He was flanked by colossal men wearing caps with red pompoms; they worshipped him and he ill-treated them; his wife called out lists of drinks in a harsh, naive voice, and he noted them down in large, childish handwriting, with his tongue hanging out.
…….One evening when I opened the door to the place kept by this astonishing creature, surrounded by the respectful attentions of his wife and his n1en, I remained rooted to the spot. I had just caught sight of the ghost of Dargelos, a man I could see from the side leaning against the pianola. Dargelos in sailor’s uniform. This double possessed in particular the arrogance, the insolent and absent-minded air of Dargelos. On his cap, which was tilted forward over his left eyebrow, could be read in gold letters Tapageuse. He wore a tight black scarf round his neck and those trousers with tabs which in the past allowed sailors to roll them up to their thighs and are today forbidden by regulations on the pretext that they are worn by pimps.
…….In any other place I would never have dared stand in the orbit of that arrogant gaze. But Toulon is Toulon; dancing avoids the awkwardness of introductions, it throws strangers into each other’s arms and forms a prelude to love. To music full of ringlets and kiss-curls we danced a waltz. The backward-leaning bodies were linked together at the groin, profiles were grave and eyes lowered, faces moved round more slowly than the feet which wove in and out and sometimes came down like horses’ hooves. The free hands assumed the graceful pose affected by the working class when they drink a glass of wine and when they piss it away. A springtime ecstasy excited these bodies. Branches grew in them, hardness crushed hardness, sweat mingled together and the couples would leave for the bedroon1s with clock-case lan1pshades and eiderdowns.
Translated by Margaret Crosland, from Le Livre Blanc, published anonymously in 1928 by Maurice Sachs. Cocteau never formally acknowledged authorship of the book, due here this spring from Peter Owen, but he allowed it to appear in the authorized bibliography drawn up for his Oeuvres Completes.
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