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by Bamber Gascoigne

Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923)


Precocious French writer and poet, whose best-known work is Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh), a love story between a schoolboy and a young married woman. As Rimbaud had done years before, Raymond Radiguet made his breakthrough as a writer in his adolescence. Radiguet finished the book when he only eighteen; by twenty he was dead.

"I've never been one to dream. What to others, more gullible, appears to be a dream, to me seems more real than cheese does to a cat, despite the glass lid that covers it. And yet the glass cover is still there." (from The Devil in the Flesh, translated by Christopher Moncrieff, 2010)

Raymond Radiguet was born in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (Seine), a meteorological station some eight miles from Paris. His father, Maurice Radiguet (1866-1941), was a cartoonist. Radiguet's mother was Jeanne Marie Louise Tournier (1884-1958).

Almost nothing is known of Radiguet's childhood and education; he grew up during World War I and the home front climate also left traces on his writing. At very early age he started to write poetry and draw, saying that his father was not the only artist in the family. Radiguet did well at school, but while at the Lycée, he lost interest in his lessons and eventually was discovered spending his time reading in his father's boat on the Marne. Moreover, he was often seen in the company of a young schoolteacher named Alice. Her husband said decades later that Radiguet's The Devil in the Flesh, which fictionalized this relationship, had ruined his life.

André Salmon, editor of the L'Intrasigeant, published some of Radiguet's drawings and introduced him to the poet Max Jacob. In 1918 Radiguet arrived Paris, where his career was short but astonishing. Both Picasso and  Jean Cocteau painted his portrait, but physically he wasn't particularly imposing: he  was short, near-sighted, and his skin was pale. Radiguet himself felt uncomfortable of being a child prodigy; at fifteen he pretended he was nineteen. He used a monocle, wore ill-fitting clothes, and shaved his head completely with an oyster-shell.

At the age of 16 Radiguet became a member of Dadaist and Cubist circles, and then a protégé on Cocteau. One of Cocteau's friends, Jean Hugo, called him "silent, sulky, arrogant, amazingly mature in his judgements, certainly not affectionate." (When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends by Mary McAuliffe, 2016) Behind Cocteau's back, his colleagues nicknamed Radiguet "Monsieur Bébé". With Cocteau, he established an anti-Dada magazine, Le Coq. Radiguet had also a number of affairs with women. In 1921, he got into a tumultuous relationship with the English poet Beatrice Hastings, who had been Amadeo Modigliani's mistress between 1914 and 1916. Hastings posed for Modigliani in several paintings. One includes a portrait of Madam Pompadour (1915). It is believed that she was bisexual and a lover of the author Katherine Mansfield

Along with such writers as Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Philippe Soupault, Radiguet contibuted to the magazine Sic. Radiguet's first book was Les Joues en feu (published 1925), a collection of poems, which he had written at fifteen. "At my age, it looks dumb to cry; / I'll climb near the sun, up in the attic, / So that my tears will quickly dry." ('Time Will Fade It,' in Cheeks on Fire, translated by Alan Stone, 2012) The poems showed influence of the surrealists and their interest in dreams and automatic writing. However, Radiguet was not very interested in the many "isms" that connected and separated intellectuals during those years, but was drawn to the classic tradition of poetry, especially 18th-century neoclassicism. In 'The Language of the Flowers or the Stars' he wrote: "When summer came, we all went for walks outdoors. We'd count the stars, each of us using his own method. When I counted one too many, I kept silent." (Cheeks on Fire, translated by Alan Stone, 2012)

In 1920 Radiguet moved to the fishing village of Carqueiranne, near Toulon, and then to Piquet. There he wrote several poems and started to work on his first novel, The Devil in the Flesh. Before the book was published, Cocteau read parts of it at Jean Hugo's studio at the Palais-Royal. Picasso among others was present; but Madame de Beaumont fell asleep during the reading. Four years earlier Apollinaire teased Radiguet: "Don't despair; Monsieur Rimbaud waited until he was seventeen before writing his masterpiece." (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 1988) The book made the author rich and famous. Radiguet's second collection of poems, Devoirs de vacances, came out in 1921. His two-act play Les Pélican was performed in the same year at the Théâtre Michel in Paris. Georges Auric, who had also been a child prodigy, composed music for the play. "Debts, alcohol, insomnia, heaps of dirty linen, moving about hotel to hotel," Cocteau summarized Radiguet's life at the peak of his fame. (A Life of Picasso III: The Triumphant Years: 1917-1932 by John Richardson, 2008)

The Devil in the Flesh, a modern version of the Daphnis and Chloë, was first published under the title Cœur vert (Green heart). The work shocked many critics, not because of its undeveloped style, but because they found it hard to accept its bold attitude and the scandalous character of the narrator. Most of the events take place in the northern suburbs of Paris. The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old boy. "Each day, after dinner, we went to the station at J-, about two miles from our house, to watch the troop trains go by. We picked bluebells on the way and threw them to the soldiers. Ladies in smocks poured red wine into their canteens, spilling quarts of it on the flower-strewn platform. The whole scene left me with the same impression as a firework display. Never was there so much wasted wine, so many dead flowers." (The Devil in the Flesh, translated by Robert Baldick, 1971)

The narrator lives at F . . . , beside the River Marne. He takes a day off from attending school in Paris to accompany a nineteen-year-old woman, Martha Lacombe. (Kathryn E. Wildgren has noted in her article in The Rocky Mountain Review in 2005, that the novel contains a vast number of occurences of the suite of letters MAR, starting from the fact that Radiguet himself lived in the Marne River town of Saint-Maur.) She is about to be married and shops for furniture. On their first meeting he and Martha find they share a liking for Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Martha's husband is stationed at the front during the First World War. The love affair of the narrator and the woman starts with shy approaches, but develops into violent sensuality, including lovers' quarrels and the immature boy's cruelty. The lovers take a disastrous trip to Paris, where they wander endlessly. Just after the general armistice, Martha dies giving birth to the narrator's child – largely from the effects of being forced to walk through Paris in cold weather. The young man do not have the courage to ask for a hotel room.

Since its publication, Devil in the Flesh has fascinated generations of young readers, and like with J.D. Salinger's first novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), they have identified themselves with the characters. In 1952 an irate reader stepped forward and presented himself as the cuckolded soldier in question. The work has also inspired such filmmakers as Claude Autant-Lara and Marco Belloccio.

Radiguet's last novel, Count Orgel Opens the Ball (1924), was a reminiscent of Mme. De La Fayette's La Princesse de Cléves (1677). The protagonist, François de Séryeuse, falls in love with Countess d'Orgel. Although they never meet in the flesh, the woman feels guilty and confesses her to her husband. François's mother also is drawn to Paris to resolve the situation. Like Radiguet's first young hero, François is not able successfully to break free from home and family. The novel ends as the count passes the matter off lightly. He continues planning costumes and entrances for the masked ball of the novel's title.

It is most likely that Cocteau made more than minor revisions in both of Radiguet's novels, when they spent summer vacations writing side by side. Cocteau said later that Radiguet was torn between the certainty of writing something marvellous and the moodiness of a lazy schoolboy and by treating him like a schoolboy, he was persuaded to work. Jealous over his protégé, Cocteau could not accept his other lovers. To avoid him, Radiguet hide out with Bronia Perlmutter, a young model, at the  Hôtel Foyot on the rue de Tournon. Its celebrated restaurant but the rooms were not too expensive. The Foyot was also the residence from time to time of such writers as Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, George Moore, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Radiguet's career was short. He caught typhoid fever in Paris in 1923 and was taken from the Foyot to a clinic in the sixteenth arrondissement. Radiguet died on December 12, 1923, at the age 20. On December 9, he had told Cocteau: "Listen to something terrible. In three days I am to be executed by God's firing squad. . . . The order was given. I heard the order." (Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters by Rosanna Warren, 2020) Coco Chanel arranged his funeral, where not only the flowers were white, but also the coffin, the horses, and the harness. Cocteau, devastated by grief, did not attend the ceremony. Vers libres, a collection of erotic poems illustrated by Rojan (Fedor Rojankowski), was published posthumously in 1925. Radiguet's friends and relatives alike denouced the book, in which poems take the level of genitalia. A 1937 French illustrated publication of this rare work has been actioned at Christie's for $31,000.

For further reading: Histoire du roman français depuis 1918 by C.-E. Magny (1959); Introduction to the Devil in the Flesh by A. Huxley (1932); Raymond Radiguet by D. Noakes (1968); Raymond Radiguet by M. Crosland (1976); Raymond Radiguet: A Biographical Study With Selections from His Work by Margaret Crosland (1982); Raymond Radiguet by James P. McNab (1984); Radiguet: L'enfant avec une canne by François Bott (1994); 'Radiguet, Raymond,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Raymond Radiguet, ou, La jeunesse contredite by Marie-Christine Movilliat (2000); Raymond Radiguet by Monique Nemer (2002); Raymond Radiguet: un jeune homme sérieux dans les années folles by Chloé Radiguet (2003); 'MAR: Mars, Mare, and Mater in Raymond Radiguet's Le Diable au corps' by Kathryn E. Wildgen, in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 59, No. 1 (2005); 'Radiguet, Raymond (1903-1923)' in The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen L. Taylor (2007); Bronia, dernier amour de Raymond Radiguet: un entretien avec Bronia Clair by Pierre Barillet (2012); Cocteau Radiguet: sous le soleil du Cap-Ferret by Denis Blanchard-Dignac (2017)  

Selected works:

  • Les Joues en feu, 1920
    - Cheeks on Fire (translated from the French by Alan Stone, 1976)
  • Devoirs de vacances, 1921
  • Les Pélican. Pièce en deux actes, 1921 (play)
    - The Pelicans (in Modern French Theatre: The Avant-garde, Dada, and Surrealism, translated by Michael Benedikt and George E. Wellwarth, 1964)
  • Le Diable au corps, 1923
    - The Devil in Flesh (translated by Kay Boyle, 1932; A.M. Sheridan Smith, 1968; Robert Baldick, 1971; Christopher Moncrieff, 2010)
    - Paholainen ruumiissa (suom. Helena Anhava, 1958)
    - films: Le diable au corps (1947),  screenplay by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, directed by Claude Autant-Lara, starring Gérard Philipe, Micheline Presle, Denise Grey; Diavolo in corpo (1986), dir. Marco Belloccio, starring Maruschka Detmers, Federico Pitzalis, Anita Laurenzi; Devil in the Flesh (1989), dir. by Scott Murray, starring Katia Caballero, Keith Smith; Le diable au corps (TV film 1990), dir.  Gérard Vergez, starring Corinne Dacla, Jean-Michel Portal and Jean-Marie Winling
  • Le Bal du comte d'Orgel, 1924
    - The Count’s Ball (translated by Malcolm Cowley, 1929) / Count Orgel Opens the Ball (pref. by Jean Cocteau; translated by Violet Schiff, 1952) / Count d’Orgel (pref. by Jean Cocteau; translated by Violet Schiff, 1953) / Count d’Orgel’s Ball / (translated by Annapaola Cancogni, 2005)
    - film: Le bal du comte d'Orgel (1970), prod. Cocinor, Les Films Marceau, dir. Marc Allégret, starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Sylvie Fennec, Bruno Garcin, Micheline Presle  
  • Les joues en feu; poèmes anciens et poèmes inédits 1917-1921, 1925
  • Vers libres, 1925 (illustrated by Rojan = Fedor Rojankowski)
  • Œuvres complètes: Le diable au corps. Le bal du comte d’Orgel. Les joues en feu, 1952
  • Règle du jeu, 1957
  • Œuvres complètes, 1959 (2 vols.)
  • Paul et Virginie, 1973 (with Jean Cocteau)
  • Vers libres & jeux innocents, 1988 (preface by Jean-Paul Corsetti)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1993 (edited by Chloé Radiguet and Julien Cendres)
  • Lettres retrouvées, 2012 (edited by Chloé Radiguet and Julien Cendres)
  • Vers libres, 2016 (translated from the French by J. R. Phillips)

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