Deeper into Jeopardy! XXXIII: French Lit – $2000

Jeopardy! category: FRENCH LIT (11-12-2014)

$2000 clue: 2 siblings create a sinister, unreal world of their own in Cocteau’s tale of these “enfants”

Correct response

The gist: They’re just not great kids, is the basic idea. Author, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau* wrote Les Enfants Terribles (“The Holy Terrors” in one translation) in 1929, in the middle of a crippling opium weaning at the age of 40 – and the book’s about as dark as you might expect something coming out of that setting to be. It follows brother and sister Paul and Elisabeth starting in their late childhood, already fatherless and with a severely ailing mother. Elisabeth spends most of her time at home caring for her mother. Paul attends school where he falls in love the effeminate boy Dargelos, who ends up throwing a snowball – with a rock inside – at Paul, causing enough harm (both physical and emotional) that he starts staying home with Elisabeth instead. It’s when the siblings spend all day in close quarters that the details of “The Game” come out, a sadistic competition in which each attempts to annoy, goad on, and generally torture the other, the winner being the person who inflicts the most, and the final, damage. After their mother dies, Elisabeth takes a job as a model and meets the beautiful orphan Agathe, who moves in with the siblings, and immediately enthralls Paul, not least because she bears a striking resemblance to his lost love Dargelos. When Elisabeth learns of Paul’s infatuation, she moves to win The Game once and for all by convincing their childhood friend Gerard, long obsessed with the eccentric siblings, to marry Agathe, causing no end of grief to Paul. Around the same time, Dargelos, who has become an avid collector of illicit pharmacology, re-enters the picture, and gives a vial of opium to Paul as a gift, which he uses to commit suicide. Finding him slowly dying, Elisabeth is scandalized – she worries that Paul’s suicide is his coup de grâce. Seeing only one way to redeem herself and leave the world as the victor, Elisabeth quickly shoots herself and dies seconds before Paul, ostensibly winning The Game, but leaving Agathe, and the real world, with two dead bodies and a messy situation.

The novel was a success among the avant-garde crowd of the late ’20s and ’30s, and was adapted to a number of other media. Cocteau and director Jean-Pierre Melville made a film version in 1950. Experimental composer Philip Glass adapted it as an opera, and the ballet La Boule de Neige by Pierluigi Castellano is based on the novel as well.

Cover of the 1955 translation, with an illustration by Cocteau himself

The clue: This actually seems like quite an easy clue for the $2000 slot. Without even having heard of the book at all, “terribles” is a simple guess, seeing as it’s the only word that really goes with “enfants” when speaking English, as in the phrase “enfant terrible” from which the novel of course takes its name. And that ‘s’ at the end of the word isn’t even a pronunciation problem, since it’s silent in French and “terrible” and “terribles” are pronounced the same. Normally, $2000 clues are straightforward knowledge questions, and I would have expected to see a clue that boiled down to “who wrote Les enfants terribles” instead of this one, which would conform to my personal difficulty scale. In any case, although I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of the novel before, I definitely got this one from the phrase instead.

In Jeopardy!: Cocteau’s novel appears in just three clues including this one in the J!Archive, the other two both giving the title and looking for his name rather than the opposite (or semi-opposite, as in this clue). The phrase “enfant terrible” appears in four more clues. One is about the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the music for the verbally-related ballet “L’Enfant Prodigue” (sometimes called “Le Fils Prodigue,” or “The Prodigal Son“), and another just about the phrase itself. The remaining two are both lame jokes about Pierre L’Enfant, the French planner who designed Washington, D.C.

*Only the most spurious of relations to the Cocteau Twins.

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