The Upper Depths

The Thief's Journal

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove, 268 pp., $6.00

Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

The Thief’s Journal, which was first published in 1948 at the mid-point in Jean Genet’s career, stands between his earlier works of fiction and his later works of drama, and points in both directions. It is a long meditation on “betrayal, theft and homosexuality,” that is to say on Genet’s tastes and inclinations, on Genet himself. In part it is a fragmentary account of Genet’s life during the Thirties and early Forties. Its scenes, such as they are, are set in various European places, and we catch glimpses of Genet wandering through Barcelona, Antwerp, Gibralter, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and their respective prisons. Its characters, apart from Genet himself, are his associates in beggary, buggery, and assorted crimes. The activities in which these persons engage include thefts of various kinds, prostitution—homosexual and other—rolling homosexual clients, dope-peddling and running, pimping, passing counterfeit money, getting into and out of jail, and loving and betraying one another. It is a journal in the sense that it follows a roughly chronological order, that the narrator of the journal and the writer are clearly versions of the same person, that most of its episodes seem actually to have happened, and that it is written largely as a work of self-examination, self-justification, and self-creation. Mixed with the narrative episodes of the book are long passages of meditation; sometimes these passages take the form of lyrical effusion, sometimes of erotic reverie; sometimes they are disquisitions on the moral and metaphysical character of betrayal, theft, and homosexuality; and sometimes they seem to me mere exercises in ratiocination, mutterings on a very high level of sophistication. The real subject of these passages, and of the book as a whole, is always the same—the Genet who develops in the process of writing this book. In its form and structure, The Thief’s Journal most closely resembles Genet’s first work of fiction, Our Lady of the Flowers. Our Lady was largely concerned with Genet’s masturbatory fantasies while he was in prison; behind these daydreams and through gaps in their texture one could make out the figure of Genet himself. In The Thief’s Journal the emphasis has changed; the fantasies are still there, but they have been subdued and incorporated within a larger presence, Genet’s self-reflecting consciousness.

It would be an error, however, to to think of this as exceptional to modern literature. Genet’s work is unquestionably connected with a number of literary traditions. The Thief’s Journal in particular is very much a work of its time. It is a work of the Thirties, and takes its place next to the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, to the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer, to the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London and “Inside the Whale.” “It is the life of vermin that I am going to describe,” Genet remarks in an early passage in The Thief’s Journal; and he also says, “I was…

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