Their Favorite Thief

Genet: A Biography

by Edmund White
Knopf, 820 pp., $35.00

The Selected Writings of Jean Genet

edited and with an introduction by Edmund White
Ecco Press, 456 pp., $27.50

From Baudelaire to Simone de Beauvoir there has been something unmistakably bourgeois about even the most outré Parisian intellectuals, not least in a common sentiment of vengeful anger felt toward their privileged origins. Symbolists, Décadents, Surrealists, and Existentialists were at home in the world they scorned; they traveled comfortably back and forth across the permeable frontier separating middle-class convention from Bohemian revolt. To this pattern there has been, in this century, one outstanding exception. Jean Genet—bastard, thief, homosexual, prostitute, novelist, playwright, and radical political activist—was as aggressively anti-conventional in his life as he was in his writings. Indeed he took pride in this correspondence between his life and his work and cultivated it with care; the invention and re-invention of his own asocial identity, through his writings and his actions alike, was crucial to his continuing (il)legitimacy. Genet never stopped writing his life.

This does nothing to facilitate the task of his biographer, and Edmund White deserves unstinting praise for his painstaking efforts to unravel the threads that Genet so assiduously knotted and crossed in his various writings and interviews. It is not so much that he lied about his earlier life as that he attached misleading emphases to selected elements within it, the better to present himself in later years as the ultimate outsider without family, love, or formal education. In this guise, unconnected to the conventional world of sentimental ties and moral sensibilities, he presented himself and was understood by his admirers as a sort of idiot savant, a force of nature loose in a world of hyper-civilized scribblers, a self-created counterpart and negation of conventional values and mores, Sartre’s “Saint Genet.”

Jean Genet was born in Paris in 1910. Abandoned by his mother (his father is unknown) he became a ward of the French state and was placed with foster parents in a village some one hundred and fifty miles southeast of the capital. There he passed a fairly uneventful Catholic childhood, apparently the object of much affectionate attention from his foster mother and other women in the family (until he was nine most of the adult men in the village were serving in the army on the Western Front). Although he committed a few petty thefts in these years he was generally a model child and outperformed the other village children in the primary-school leaving examinations when he was twelve. At that point, and like most other rural children of his era, his schooling came to an end and he was apprenticed to a printing shop near Paris (his outstanding school record excused him from the fate of most foster children, who ended up as agricultural laborers in the region to which they had been assigned as babies).

Genet ran away from his new home ten days after arriving there. This was the first of many such attempts to escape, nearly all of them taking the form of an unticketed train journey to exotic ports (Nice, Bordeaux, Marseilles), followed by ignominious return …

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