The Genius of Jean Genet

Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove Press, 256 pp., $6.50

Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

It was from Sartre that I first heard of Jean Genet. This was some years back, in 1947, if I remember rightly. Sartre was visiting New York, and the editors of Partisan Review asked me to a luncheon for him. For most of the luncheon not much was said, mainly, I think, because of the language difficulty—our French was labored and uncertain, and Sartre did not know English at all; then too, at the start, Sartre wanted to feel out what we, the Americans, were like—especially what our attitude was to him; and we, for our part, were not at all sure about the existentialist views he had proclaimed, or what his philosophy could mean in this country, or to us. Anyway, the conversation went haltingly until I said something about Camus, who was already enjoying a great vogue here; Sartre responded swiftly: “Camus is a very fine writer, but France has many other fine writers. Camus is not a great writer, not a genius.” He added, “There is only one genius in France today.” Who was that, we wanted to know. Sartre’s answer was: “Jean Genet.”

After which Sartre went on to speak of Genet, and suddenly became himself. For Sartre, it seems to me, is himself when he praises or decries; he needs moral pretexts to show his wit, his eloquence. And there was no question about his loyal support of the writer almost none of us knew at the time; we could not but be impressed when he compared Genet to Lautréaumont, then to Rimbaud, and even intimated that Genet was the greatest of the three—also the most “accursed.” (I see from Sartre’s book, Saint Genet, just out in English translation, that he has changed his mind about Genet’s forerunners and now places him in the line of Baudelaire and Mallarmé.) Sartre talked of Genet’s life: a foundling, brought up by foster parents, he had been sent to a reformatory at a very early age; after that he had resolutely embraced a life of crime: he was a hoodlum, a thief, a male whore. (With about twenty-seven convictions to his credit, Genet, under French law, would have been sentenced to prison for life had not French writers, notably Sartre himself and Jean Cocteau, obtained a pardon for him from the President of the Republic.) We all tend to be incredulous, I suppose, when told that someone we do not know is great. But Sartre spoke most convincingly, and there was certainly something about Genet’s story which suggested that he might be another Lautréaumont, even a Rimbaud. But then Sartre made a remark which startled me. Of Genet he said: “He has the style of Descartes.”

The style of Descartes? Years after that luncheon, when, in Paris, I had read a novel or two by Genet and also seen a play of his, I still could not understand why Sartre…

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