Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

The French have a reputation for carrying intellectual attitudes to extremes and especially for being doggedly persistent in negativity. They are not motivated in this by any misty kind of Schadenfreude, but rather by intellectual glee at forcing their own logicality on that Janus-faced nonentity known as God or the Devil. “If this is Your creation,” one can hear the French genius saying, “we are damned well going to define it as we see it.” This is the common Frenchness linking the most dissimilar individuals—Jean-Paul Sartre, General de Gaulle, Paul Valéry, François Mauriac, the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire, etc. As for Jean Genet, although he is a real person, he is such a perfect example of thoroughgoing negativity that he might almost have been invented as a synthetic demonstration of this tendency of the French mind. His system of values is as symmetrical as a French formal garden, and his sense of hierarchy and ceremonial detail is almost as acute as if he had been brought up under the ancien régime at Versailles. But what he presents us with is an inverted mirror-image of the “average” world; his is literally an underworld or counter-world, a realm of night or hell which stands in black opposition to the moderately tragic operations of daylight existence.

It is a remarkably consistent development of his personal situation. As a parentless bastard, a reform-school boy from the age of ten, a habitual thief and jailbird for whom social rehabilitation could have no meaning, a familiar of drug-peddlers, a homosexual prostitute with a despairing view of homosexuality, he was an almost ideal dropout character, or Existentialist outsider, or poète maudit, or rogue genius, or Bohemian versus the Bourgeois. To complete the pattern, he should also perhaps have been a Jewish Negro. He has done his best, as his plays testify, to become an honorary or spiritual Negro, although, for the sake of the peace of the world, it is to be hoped that most Negroes reject his view of them with loathing. I don’t remember any pronouncement by him on Jewishness, but I suppose he considers Jews, in spite of their persecuted wing, to be too firmly ensconced in the citadels of power and riches and average morality to rank among the irredeemable have-nots. At any rate, there are no Jews as such in his novels, whose heroes are criminal riff-raff, often with exotic names indicating international origins. But they all speak French argot, and over them all Genet spreads the rich decoration of his own sumptuous literary French.

Not the least surprising thing about him is that a child brought up in what one imagines to be a desert of illiteracy should have acquired this unerring distinction of language. His underworld speaks its own peculiar tongue, which is also, of course, his own native idiom, but he himself constantly describes it in the most refined style of the upper world. If, as Valéry says, syntax is a faculty of the soul, Genet was born with the soul of a medieval aristocrat, and it was only an accident of his situation which made his knightly sword a burglar’s jimmy and his coat of arms a lavatory graffito—buttocks, testicles, and a penis rampant. Aristocrats, after all, are only people who are confident that they are the best. Genet decides to have this confidence, at least linguistically, and so he turns prison yards into courts of love, condemned murderers into holy martyrs, and tattooed thugs into Lancelots and Guineveres. This extraordinary imaginative effort succeeds to a surprising extent, and it is none the worse for also containing its own ironic negation. Genet’s books are typically modern works of art in that they build up a deliberate illusion as if it were the truth, while at the same time suggesting that, in matters of this kind there is no truth other than varietie of willed illusion.

Although there are no bibliographical details in the French edition, Miracle de la Rose seems to come after Notre Dame des Fleurs (already translated as Our Lady of the Flowers) and before Pompes Funèbres and Querelle de Brest (both untranslated) and Journal d’un voleur (already translated as The Thief’s Journal). All five books belong to the same kind of writing and might in fact be considered as different volumes of the same work. They take the form of rambling, fantastic memoirs, which dodge about between the first person and the third, and show no respect for clarity of narrative. They are not ordinary books written with an eye to the reader, but rather private ruminations or celebrations in which Genet goes over the past and works it up to the poetic pitch at which he can, in a sense, become reconciled to it. A special feature of Miracle of the Rose is that it deals with childhood and early adolescence in the reformatory, as well as with adult life in prison or on the streets. This almost puts it into the category of “confessions of an old boy”; it reminds one a little of accounts of English boarding schools in their worst phases, when the masters were as remote as warders and the detailed government of the community was carried on by the “bloods,” behaving like pashas among their feminized underlings. No doubt, all closed monosexual societies, when they go wrong, deteriorate in the same way, and old-fashioned reform schools and prisons, being permanently wrong, develop elaborate rituals of power and perversion. Parts of Miracle of the Rose read very much like the account of the English boarding school in Céline’s Mort à crédit or Julien Blanc’s nightmarish description of the practices of the Foreign Legion.


The difference is, perhaps, that Genet’s writing expresses strong emotion only in the direction of sublimity. He is so steeped in pornography and dirt that he deals with it quite unself-consciously. It is there and, whenever the need arises, he refers to it directly by means of the obscene terms (which the translator, the late Bernard Frechtman, struggles with—shall we say?—manfully). But his real interest is in psychological detail and the poetic superstructure. He both wants to see the situation as it is and to transmute it into noble terms. Hence a very curious oscillation; Cinderella turns into the Princess but, before we know where we are, she is Cinderella again, or even one of the Ugly Sisters. Moreover, she is a boy playing the part of a girl, just as the Prince, who flexes his muscles so charmingly, may suddenly become somebody else’s Princess. To read Genet is to be whirled through a succession of appearances: male changes into female and vice versa, darkness into light, horror into ecstasy. And the doomed sump of humanity appears more moving and obscene through being lit by this fitful glow than if it were described with straight and conscientious sordidness.

Unlike most of the under-the-counter authors, Genet actually claims to be a stimulating, masturbatory writer, but I doubt whether he is, even for the homosexual reader. His most memorable scenes have a sad, detached poetry about them, and sex and excretions are present only because these are what his imagination has found to work on. I am thinking for instance, of the touching episode in Miracle of the Rose in which Villeroy tries to introduce the narrator to the manly delights of active fornication, and valiantly covers up the fiasco of the occasion. Genet has a marvelous way of suggesting the strange and ludicrous aspects of sex as well as its lyricism and mystery. This comes out most clearly not in Miracle of the Rose but in the astonishing copulation scene in Querelle de Brest, which is like an amplification, in poetic prose, of Rimbaud’s powerful homosexual sonnet.

Since I have a high opinion of Genet’s writing and, indeed, think he is quite unique within his given range, I would like to indicate his limitations. Being a rapturous monologuist like Céline or Henry Miller, he has little sense of over-all literary structure. You just have to accept each “novel” as a flux in which he moves from incident to incident without warning or explanation. Sometimes an episode is completely elaborated, but often the scenes are merely hinted at or not developed enough to become fully intelligible. Some readers may feel that this adds to the literary effect of sinister chiaroscuro, but I often find it disappointing and think it arises from the fact that Genet is writing primarily for himself and not completely objectifying his experience. Also like Céline or Miller, he is an egoist with little or no gift of characterization; in Miracle of the Rose, he keeps referring to different boys by name—Villeroy, Divers, Bulkaien, and Botchako—but it is impossible to get an individualized picture of any of them. They are all in a sense the same boy, and no doubt versions of the author, wavering between masculinity and femininity, fidelity and betrayal, courage and cowardice, defiance and abjection. They have hardly more substance to them than figures in a courtly romance, such as L’Astrée or The Faerie Queene.

This may be because petty criminals, even when they commit murder, are not evolved enough to be really interesting as individuals. More probably the reason is that Genet is only concerned with their sexuality and the emotions of power and humility connected with sex. They have no personal quirks, no ideas, hobbies, or ambitions. Even burglary is, in the first place, a form of sexual excitement; the burglar is a representative of the nether world raping the upper world and leaving the stains of his virility on bourgeois silks and satins. The murderer, even though he may have strangled only some defenseless little girl or decrepit old man, has committed supreme rape against the bourgeois social order and, by paying for it with his life, is raised to the level of a saint and martyr. Those of us who live within the bourgeois social order may wonder at this simplicity of approach, which sees the social order as such a coherent entity that it becomes a sort of person with sexual attributes. But for Genet, respectable society is a compact, foreign bloc, like capitalist America for a naïve Russian Communist or Soviet Russia for a naïve American right-winger. In Miracle of the Rose, he can thus build up Harcamone, the condemned criminal, into an august sacrificial figure, around whom the prison community moves, like the faithful around the figure of Christ during the Passion. This is the ultimate point of inverted Romanticism, and I don’t believe in it for one moment, but I think I see why he needs it to complete his topsy-turvy psychological structure and maintain his imaginative stance.


To my mind, the real quality of his writing lies not in his description of the opposition between the nether and the upper worlds but in the instinctive way in which he shows how, in the masculine nether world itself, there is a hopeless straining after happiness and fulfillment through the creation of an artificial polarity between the “sexes” and a pattern of dignity and tenderness, which is a sort of heart-rending parody of the pattern in the “normal” world. Although Genet will not admit the fact in so many words, the whole enterprise is a failure from the start, since a convicted criminal, however potent, has been classified as an object, and therefore feminized, by society. The dandyism of the “big shots” in their carefully modified prison uniforms is pathetic, since they are to some extent false males, virile within captivity, and their persecution of the “females” is a form of overcompensation. The “females,” on the other hand, can never become women; their receptivity, being psychological and not part of a physiological cycle, has no end to it, and so, if they do not revert to masculinity, they can only sink further and further into defilement, as they fumble toward an absolute in submission, betrayal, and abjection. Genet himself clearly followed this downward path, and he suggests the stages of the descent in beautiful and appalling scenes.

Perhaps most jailbirds are mercifully spared the ability to see their plight as Genet describes it. It may even be that what Genet says about them is only true for those who, like himself, have got their predicament inextricably involved with their sexuality; this may not be the case with the majority. But statistics are not very important in this connection; if his account is valid only for a small minority or for himself, it gives one of the most convincing and moving visions of psychological distress to be found in contemporary literature.

This Issue

August 24, 1967