Anna de Noailles

"La Voix Humaine" by Jean Cocteau — By Marie-Lise Allard

Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine is clearly inspired by Duo à une seule voix by Anna de Noailles, of whom he was a fervent admirer. If the stories differ (in the first, the woman endures the end of a love affair whereas in the second she sidesteps the persistent advances of her lover), the two works share a number of similarities. Both retain the dialogue of the female character alone, both underscore the power of words, and both make the theme of love—be it salutary or destructive—their principal subject.

In 1911, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) was 22 years old when he first met Anna de Noailles (1876-1933). That furtive introduction took place in a car… At the time, de Noailles, a young woman of the world and icon of the Third Republic, had already published six hugely successful works (three collections of poems and three novels). Her fame was such that many young writers came to her hoping to be recognised by a woman who had utterly transformed their adolescence through her startlingly new imagery and the suggestiveness of her verse. From the outset, Jean Cocteau was one of her greatest admirers. Even before they met, he had demonstrated his esteem for her by sending her his book Le Prince frivole, featuring some of her verses as an epigraph. Fascinated and “dumbfounded (…) by the beauty of the petite person and the grace of her tone of voice”1, Cocteau was quick to associate with the people who were close to Anna de Noailles - people like Marcel Proust, Edmond Rostand or Maurice Barrès... Having quickly become a familiar face in the house, he pushed his admiration to the point where he even began to adopt her ways - something one of her close friends was quick to notice when they nicknamed him “Anna-mâle”!2 In a letter to his mother in 1912, Cocteau bestowed himself with the title of the poetess’s “page”. From that day forward, and for almost twenty years, the two were bound by a special relationship - “one of those friendships which endure beyond the grave”3 in a spirit of genuine collaboration. Cocteau was more than familiar with the works of the woman he called his “big sister,” as letters and sketches corroborate. In 1963, as a final tribute, his adoration would lead him to devote his last work to her : La Comtesse de Noailles, oui et non.

After the success of Cœur innombrable, Anna de Noailles tried her hand at novels. Three titles would follow between 1903 and 1905. However, in this new exercise, she soon realized that she found neither the fluency nor the pleasure of poetry. Moreover, even if the public seemed to appreciate her three works, the same was not the case for the professional critics who recommended that she should stick to poetry... Offended yet obstinate, Anna de Noailles opted for poetic prose. The end result was three original titles - each a form of anthology comprised of published press articles with excerpts from an abandoned novel and memories of the past. Her prose works include the 1923 volume, Les Innocentes ou La Sagesse des femmes made up of short texts in a variety of literary forms (letters, declarations of love or separation, narratives, etc.) all of which are the fruit of the poet’s exploration of the notion of love and its tumultuous complexities.

La Voix humaine is clearly modelled on a piece of prose from this book entitled Duo à une seule voix. In effect, like the Cocteau text, Duo à une seule voix takes the form of a truncated dialogue in which only the words of the female character are given. The story can be summarised as such: a woman sidesteps the advances of her lover and skilfully refuses to yield despite the man’s persistent urging.

The two titles raise a question: what is a voice described by Cocteau as “human” and thus, what would a non-human voice be; or for Noailles, what is the meaning of the opposition “duo à une seule voix”? The two authors refer to a phenomenon unique to man—the voice—which also has a place in musical terminology. Nevertheless, in the case of the poetess, her “duo” is more akin to a soliloquy or a solo. If this musical reference had not been so flagrant, the text could have belonged to a screenplay or, even more easily, to lines of text from another genre, namely, theatre. Perhaps Cocteau understood this, for he clearly intended his text to be adapted for the stage—in his introduction, he describes the set, the attitude of his character and the tone: “The scene […] shows the unequal angle of a woman’s bedroom […] the nervous tension, the discomfort. […] bathrobe, negligee, ceiling, door, armchair, slipcovers, white lampshades”. In addition, the question of genre also arises in the directions set out by the dramatist himself, who describes the text as a “monologue-dialogue”. This unusual designation only leaves us wondering as to the author’s intentions and about this new and intermediate form born out of the use of a telephone.

Beyond this literary device, the authors deliver a solid argumentative discourse on love and the power of words.

In Duo à une seule voix, we know practically nothing about the woman who rejects the passing concupiscence of a man whom she—like Cocteau—calls “my darling” or “my friend”. The circumstances are similar in both texts: each scene takes place in a bedroom one evening; a woman is talking to a man whom she loves. The presence/absence of the latter—either by way of a telephone or through the non-transcription of his words—the very hollowness of his existence deflects attention away from him. Instead, we focus twice as much on the female character: firstly, attempting to reconstruct, through the unequivocal bias of her words the parts of the discourse that have eluded us; and secondly, to understand her reactions and comments. The emphasis then is on the evolving nature of her attitude and her reasoning throughout the text. Moreover, the heroines are faceless and of no specific appearance. In La Voix humaine, she is only vaguely characterised: there is no mention of her features or her physical description. She is nothing more than “a woman in a long negligee”, nervous, “in love and a mediocre victim”. These references confirm that the author is placing more of an emphasis on the psychological dimension of the character, as underscored by the distinctive yet ultimately commonplace situation. So we are indeed dealing with a common heroine caught in an everyday story of romantic separation. De Noailles, for her part, proves more eloquent concerning her character.

The most notable difference between the two works is to be found in the styles used by the authors. Indeed, Anna de Noailles’ pages come alive with a cheerful and humorous tone that is in sharp contrast to Cocteau’s text (and also the other texts in the collection). Whereas the first heroine wards off the overzealous ardour of her companion through loquacious mischievousness, the second immediately reveals herself to be acutely anxious and mired in extreme distress. This particular woman suffers and endures the end of her love affair with great difficulty. At first, she tries to control herself by evoking mundane platitudes (clothes, lunch…) so as to put up a front and prevent herself from revealing her genuine sadness. She obediently answers the questions of her former lover, avoids laying any blame on him, even going so far as to minimise his responsibility: “Don’t apologise, you’re very sweet, but I have nothing to blame you for”. Then we understand the reason for the telephone call: the man wants to retrieve all the love letters he wrote to her before marrying another woman. And then we grasp the distress of a woman outraged by the lack of trust and more importantly by the despoiling of everything that her feelings and her memories represented. Only her lie about the pair of gloves enables her to retain a trace of the man she loved. From that point on, the pervasive uneasiness grows: vacillating between false fronts, lies and sadness, the heroine compares herself to a “sleepwalker”. Most importantly however, in her heartbreak, and with her reason for living severely compromised, she turns to self-deprecation and self-degradation (“idiot, stupid”). The use of homicidal references (“criminal, blow, brutal, die, gun”) attest to the intensity of the shock which in turn is equated with death. Finally, she can no longer conceal her suffering and she ends up admitting to him her desire to die. This slow but steady progression towards the abyss accelerates after she realises that the man, who had pretended to be at home, is lying.

In Noailles’ Duo à une seule voix, the woman is in control of the situation. In the first instance, love does not seem to be as serious or as tragic. There is a more measured, less passionate reaction (the phrases are longer and more constructed), she explains the reasons for her refusal even though all the conditions seem to allow a perfect moment of love. We do not detect any anxiety or panic at first, even if she does say that she feels “uncomfortable and nervous”. And yet, in the final part of her discourse we sense the weariness and sadness mounting in a way as unexpected as it is definitive. Even death and destruction seem to be associated with a rather aggressive question: “What does my health matter to you? It’s not my life that you love but the part of it you could destroy.” That scathing remark underscores the woman’s perspicacity but also genuine pessimism.

Barbara Hannigan (Elle) during the rehearsal of La Voix Humaine, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski
Barbara Hannigan (Elle) during the rehearsal of La Voix Humaine, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski © Eléna Bauer / OnP

Therein lies the one fundamental point in common to both these two works: love is a struggle, a sort of internecine war in which the weapons of choice are words and phrases. Jean Cocteau abandoned his heroine to a real Psychomachia, just as a dying animal wrestles with death. And yet, beyond this conflict both internal and external, these female characters illustrate the vision shared by both of the authors: love remains the sole rampart against the vacuity of existence and the agony of emptiness which gnaws away at the two heroines. If, for Noailles, the situation in the text does not seem as inextricable as it is for Cocteau, it is because the man is there, regardless of whether he has been reduced to a wholly artificial form of mutism. He is physically present and the words connect the two characters—as opposed to “uniting” them in the literal sense—in the same way that the face, the eyes or gestures can. In La Voix humaine, words have an immense power to save (“If you hadn’t called, I would be dead.”) but they also have the capacity to annihilate and destroy the other. Here the polysemous word “coup” in “coup de téléphone” (telephone call), can be likened to the “couperet” (blade) of the guillotine (“coupe” repeated three times at the end of the text). “Now I can breathe because you’re talking to me” whispers the character as she slowly founders—just like Noailles’ heroine who cries that final injunction: “Talk to me!” It genuinely is a question of life or death, and if the life of the woman hangs on a mere thread, it is because she can only fully exist through the words of the other. In conclusion, the situation proves to be totally tragic and the characters presented are not that unlike Racine’s heroine Phèdre, herself trapped by words of passion, between lies, silence and avowal.

As such, Cocteau’s “human” voice is, without question, the one which humanises and sustains the other, it is the one that enables the other to exist beyond distance and silence.  

La Comtesse de Noailles, oui et non, 1963, p. 79.

2 All were struck by his mimetism; Marthe, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco called him “Anna-mâle”. (…) He imitated Anna in everything: head movements, hand gestures, exclamations, the florid writing style (…) with the fountain pen given by her.” p. 18. Cahiers Jean Cocteau II, Jean Cocteau et Anna de Noailles, correspondance 1911-1931, Nrf, Gallimard, compiled by Claude Mignot-Ogliastri.
3 Op. cit , p. 80.

Marie-Lise Allard is a doctor of Literature, and specialist on the 20th century, Marie-Lise Allard is a teacher. She continues her research on Anna de Noailles, rehabilitating the author through her various publications.

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