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In praise of older teens: Poster for the 1947 film adaptation of  "The Devil in the Flesh"

Raymond Radiguet was born in a banlieue of Paris, not far from the Marne, in June 1903. He wrote nothing of First World War battles, and little of the conflict. His theme was cruel, illicit, destructive love, spun out across the home front in his first novel The Devil in the Flesh (Le Diable au Corps), and surfacing in different forms throughout his notebooks, short prose pieces, poetry, and second novel Count D’Orgel’s Ball. When he died from typhoid at the age of 20 (the tragic consequence of feasting on contaminated oysters), he was still striving to secure a reputation for himself beyond that which he earned as a protégé of Jean Cocteau.

The two men met at a party held in honour of Apollinaire in 1919, a few years after the première of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Parade, for which Cocteau had collaborated with Apollinaire, Picasso, and Erik Satie. Cocteau’s valet introduced them. “Monsieur, c’est un enfant avec une canne,” he announced, eyeing the unkempt, squinting, cane-wielding youth of 15. Like his father, a celebrated cartoonist, Radiguet knew well how to fashion a caricature. His props and appearance were less a disguise than an exaggeration of his character, which was to say that Radiguet was a prodigy who rejected childhood. 

The eldest of seven children, he affected maturity in both his lifestyle and his writing, only to reveal himself for the boy he was by acknowledging his own precociousness. Convinced of his talent, and thoroughly smitten, Cocteau took him under his wing soon after their first meeting. It was on one of their many writing holidays that Radiguet produced The Devil in the Flesh. While Radiguet claimed that it was only “falsely autobiographical”, the male protagonist exhibits the same desire as the author had to present himself as older than his years. At the beginning of the book, he luxuriates in his youthful transgression, which will form the basis of the plot: “Was it any fault of mine that I attained my twelfth year a few months before the declaration of the war?” he asks. “Let those already hostile to me consider what the war meant to many very young boys: a four-year holiday.” In the course of his holiday, the boy turns 16 and seduces Marthe, the 19-year-old wife of a soldier. She becomes pregnant with his child.

Radiguet was 14 when he began an affair with a 24-year-old soldier’s wife named Alice Saunier. In late 1918, when he was 15, she gave birth to a boy. Was the baby his? Was it fatherhood that gave him the wisdom to observe, at the ripe old age of 19, that “16, 17 and 18 years old” was “the age proper to ingratitude . . . at that time of life, months have the value of years”? Alice Saunier denied that the child was his, but the rumours have never gone away.
The obsession with age and maturity that found parallels in Radiguet’s life and work sprang from his belief that “sensuality, which is in us from birth, although blindly manifest” grows stronger with each passing year. His first novel is the most penetrating illustration of this. One may discern a parallel with Stephen Vizinczey’s 1966 novel In Praise of Older Women, in which a young man discovers his latent sensuality. But where Vizinczey would write with warmth and passion about the women who nurtured him, Radiguet’s prose was taut and unflinching, his protagonist wholly devoid of sentiment. The metaphor that falls on the second page of his novel bears the full weight of the story to come: 

I was never a dreamer. What seemed dreams to others more credulous than I, seemed to me as real as cheese is to the cat, despite the glass bell that covers it. The bell, nevertheless, is there. If the bell breaks, the cat is gainer, even though it be the master who breaks it and cuts his own hands.

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