Raymond Radiguet: the 18-year-old novelist who seduced the avant-garde and outraged 1920s France

When he wasn’t carousing with Brancusi and Modigliani, Jean Cocteau’s lover — who died before his 21st birthday — somehow found time to pen The Devil in the Flesh, one of the most sensational books written about the First World War. An early draft of the instant bestseller is offered at Christie’s in Paris

Left, Raymond Radiguet, circa 1920. Right, Radiguet's working manuscript for Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh)

Left, Raymond Radiguet, circa 1920. Right, Radiguet’s working manuscript for Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh). Sold for €352,800 on 22 November 2023 at Christie's in Paris. Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris. Photo: © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

In 1920 the publisher Bernard Grasset met the precocious poet Raymond Radiguet. ‘For the first and only time in my life I felt certain I was in the presence of a genius,’ he recalled. Small and pale-faced, with unruly hair and a cruel, sensuous mouth, Radiguet was not a prepossessing figure, and his arrogance made him distant. Yet there was something truly desirable and, said Igor Stravinsky, ‘disturbingly handsome’ about him.

What Grasset saw in this awkward, belligerent boy was opportunity. ‘I did not say: “I have found a great novelist”,’ he wrote later. ‘I simply said: “I have discovered a 17-year-old author.”’ It worked. The public’s curiosity was aroused, and when Radiguet’s first novel was published in 1923, it became an instant bestseller.

The Devil in the Flesh is written in the first person, and recounts the sexual awakening of a teenage boy with a married woman whose husband is away fighting at the front. The work was described as ‘a false autobiography’ by Radiguet, and much of the plot came from the author’s own illicit love affair at the age of 15 with a married teacher called Alice Saunier during the First World War.

Although the war is only mentioned in passing, the lovers’ doomed relationship is played out in the shadow of a greater catastrophe, and there is a sense it will end badly. On publication, it was declared a masterpiece. Jean Cocteau believed it was ‘truer than Balzac’.

Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), An autograph draft for Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh). Written on 13 school notebooks. This very first manuscript is extensively corrected by the author and retouched with annotations by Jean Cocteau. Sold for €352,800 on 22 November 2023 at Christie's in Paris

Others, however, argued that it was an immoral book, the likes of which had not been seen since Les Liaisons dangereuses. It outraged veterans of the First World War, who considered it both perverse and provocative. Yet Radiguet’s defence against such criticism appears early in the novel, when he writes: ‘people who reproach me should try and imagine what the war was for so many young boys — a four-year-long holiday’.

On 22 November 2023, an early draft of The Devil in the Flesh will be offered in Livres rares et Manuscrits, incluant une sélection de la bibliothèque de la famille Rothschild at Christie’s in Paris. Inscribed in 13 exercise books, with notes in the margins and annotations by Jean Cocteau, it is a manuscript that expresses all the anguish, joy and misery of adolescence, observed with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality.

Raymond Radiguet grew up in the drab suburb of Saint-Maur, a few kilometres outside Paris. He was the oldest of seven children, born into a mildly bohemian family. His father, Maurice Radiguet, was a satirical artist whose work was published in all the major newspapers and magazines.

Jacques-Emile Blanche, Portrait of Raymond Radiguet, 1922, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France

Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), Portrait of Raymond Radiguet, 1922. Oil on canvas. 143 x 112 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France. Photo: Bridgeman Images

A clever child, Radiguet was also wayward. By the age of 12 he was playing truant, skipping school to chase girls and hang out on his father’s boat on the Marne, reading all the ‘wrong’ authors: Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire.

At 14 he had determined to become a poet, and persuaded the editor of the Parisian journal Le Canard enchaîné (‘The Chained Duck’) to publish his work. In 1919 he was introduced (possibly by André Breton) to Jean Cocteau in an art gallery, and the two became lovers. Cocteau was enchanted by the unruly lad whom he nicknamed ‘Monsieur Bébé’, and likened to the Chinese scholars ‘who wear on their timeless masks an expression of precocious old age’.

Jean Cocteau, left, and Raymond Radiguet in Le Lavandou

Jean Cocteau, left, and Raymond Radiguet in Le Lavandou. Photo: © All Rights Reserved

Through Cocteau, Radiguet was inducted into the dazzling world of the Parisian avant-garde. He drank heavily to hide his shyness and held himself slightly aloof from the crowd, but that didn’t stop him carousing with Constantin Brancusi at the cabaret bar Le Boeuf sur le Toit, or getting stoned with Amedeo Modigliani. He was sketched by Picasso, photographed by Man Ray and sculpted by Jacques Lipchitz.

A consummate womaniser, he seduced the society beauty Mary Beerbohm and the Polish model Bronia Perlmutter, while Modigliani’s muse Beatrice Hastings stalked him obsessively. These relationships drove Cocteau to despair. ‘It takes a diamond to scratch his heart,’ he said in anguish.

Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Portrait de Raymond Radiguet, 1920. Terracotta. Height: 11½ in (29.2 cm). Sold for $47,500 on 13 November 2015 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: All Rights Reserved — Estate of Jacques Lipchitz

Concerned that Radiguet would squander his talents, Cocteau enticed him to the seaside town of Le Piquey, where he locked him in his hotel room to write. ‘He used to escape through the window, and if he had promised to write he would scribble something, just anything, in illegible handwriting,’ Cocteau recalled.

Eventually Radiguet did apply himself, and out of the ‘terrifying chaos’ came the masterpiece The Devil in the Flesh. Its publication made the 20-year-old author famous, and he immediately embarked on a second novel.

Then tragedy struck. While on holiday in Le Piquey, he caught typhoid fever and never recovered, dying in Paris on 12 December 1923.

Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, circa 1920, pen and ink on paper

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), Raymond Radiguet, circa 1920. Pen and ink on paper. Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris. Photo: © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © DACS / Comité Cocteau, Paris 2023

Cocteau was devastated and descended into drug addiction. It was left to Coco Chanel and the society hostess Misia Sert to organise his lover’s funeral — with the coffin, flowers and hearse all in white — and the artist Nina Hamnett remembered the wake as a roll-call of the Paris avant-garde.

In the aftermath, the grief-stricken Cocteau reimagined Radiguet as an immortal youth, an angel named Heurtebise, after the manufacturer of the lift in Picasso’s studio on the rue La Boëtie. For the rest of his life, Radiguet was to appear to Cocteau in various forms, even as the elevator that carries Orpheus down into the underworld in his 1950 film Orphée.

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Radiguet’s second novel, Count d’Orgel’s Ball, was published posthumously in 1924. Cocteau considered it another masterpiece, saying he thought it better than Marcel Proust’s ‘countless pages about society people’. However, it is for The Devil in the Flesh that the author is still celebrated as a genius. A novel written by a teenager about a terrible dilemma during a time of unprecedented crisis, its triumph is its ability to convey that complexity with an incisive, precocious lucidity.

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