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 journeys in the company of a gendarme or Welfare official. Finally, in 1926, following forty-five days in the town jail at Meaux, his first extended stint in prison (he would eventually spend a total of forty-four and one half months in adult prisons), Genet was sent to the agricultural reform school for boys at Mettray. Although he also attempted unsuccessfully to escape from this institution it clearly had a central role in his life; he spent two and a half years there, and the martial, penal, and exclusively male characteristics of the place are treated at some length and with a degree of nostalgic affection in his later writings.
The reform school at Mettray, established in 1840 as an agricultural colony, was run on principles derived from Pestalozzi; it combined a paternalist notion of moral reform, the boys grouped in “family houses” run by a resident adult and subject to a rigorous regime of study, prayer, and manual labor, with the disciplinary, hierarchical, and homosexual ambiance of a minor English public school. Older boys controlled, disciplined, and “protected” younger inmates. Escape was close to impossible: even though the settlement lacked walls and had the outward appearance of a collective farm, youths who wandered into the woods and fields surrounding it were almost invariably found and reported by local farmers and returned to their warders. Despite all this, and the panopticon-like surveillance techniques of the guardians, Genet came to feel at home in this, the only family he ever acknowledged.
He describes the cruel and humiliating system of punishments in Miracle of the Rose, and in later years he decried the literally colonial nature of the institution and its purposes. But it was at Mettray that he first experienced the confusion of sentiments and observations which he would later collect and shape into novels. In his own words, “If to write means that you feel emotions or feelings so strong that your whole life is shaped by them, if they’re so strong that only by describing them or evoking or analyzing them can you understand them—if so, then it was at Mettray that I started, when I was fifteen—it was then I started to write.”
From 1929, when he left Mettray to enroll in the army, Genet’s adult life falls into four distinct episodes. Until 1942 he did various periods of service in the French army in Syria and Morocco, interspersed with attempts at desertion, penniless travels through Spain and Eastern Europe, and a steady sequence of arrests and brief incarcerations for crimes varying from theft to vagrancy. It was in these years that he accumulated the experiences and the associations, notably with criminals, prisoners, and homosexual prostitutes, which would figure so prominently in his early novels and with which he would forever be linked. By 1941 he was back in Paris and habitually stealing books from stores and bookstalls. He does not seem to have been a very good thief—he was nearly always caught and spent about twenty-one months of the Occupation in prison on a variety of counts—but his growing fascination with books is wellattested; after his release from jail in March 1942 he sought and found work as a bookstall-keeper’s assistant.
By then, however, his imprisonments were being put to good use. Our Lady of the Flowers, his first novel, was largely written during his 1942 stays in Fresnes prison. Through a chance contact at the bookstall where he worked (and stole) Genet met Jean Cocteau and entered a new stage in his life. At their first encounter Genet read to him an unpublished poem, “The Sleeping Boxer.” Even by his own standards, Cocteau’s reaction was enthusiastic: “There are lines so beautiful that Bérard and I burst out laughing…. Elegance, balance, wisdom, that’s what emanates from this maniac and prodigy. For me his poems are the only great event of the period.”1
From 1943 Genet’s career took off. Thanks to Cocteau he obtained his first contract; in the spring of 1944 he was “discovered” by Jean-Paul Sartre, who read an excerpt of Our Lady published in an obscure literary journal. Thenceforward, and increasingly so with the completion between 1942 and 1947 of five novels,2 Genet became the fashionable darling of various Parisian circles, first the smart homosexual literati around Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, and Boris Kochno, then the Saint-Germain group led by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom he met in May 1944. His relations with de Beauvoir in particular were not always easy: she was to describe him as a “bitchy queen, fairy, gossip,” surrounded by a “silly fairy entourage,” and she held it against him that he was (probably in ascending order of unacceptability) a “thief, juvenile delinquent, bastard, and protégé of Sartre.”3 But she and her friends were sufficiently impressed by their new friend to sign, together with Cocteau and others, a petition to President Vincent Auriol to pardon him for his accumulated and continuing criminal offenses on the uniquely French grounds that he was a literary genius.
The pardon was granted in August 1949. By 1951 the prestigious publishing house Gallimard was preparing to put out Genet’s “Collected Works.” The introduction was to be written by Sartre and would eventually grow into a six-hundred-page analytical essay, Saint Genet: comédien et martyr. This triple success—a presidential pardon, the publication of his collected works, and sanctification by France’s leading intellectual—seems to have led to an understandable period of self-questioning and inactivity which lasted until the mid-1950s; in his own words, he feared he might have emptied himself and have nothing left to say: “Every authentic writer discovers not only a new style, but a form of narrative which belongs to him alone, and which generally he exhausts, that is, he draws from it all possible effects.”
Moreover, Genet was no longer the attractive Parisian dandy, trading on his youthful looks and scabrous reputation, an image he cultivated during his “Cocteau” period and through the completion of his novels. By 1955, when he started writing again, he was a small, bald, middle-aged man with bad teeth and a taste for featureless provincial towns, where he stayed in cheap railway hotels (he never lost his early passion for travel and escape). In Paris his new image would be that of the ascetic, dressed in dirty old clothes, associating with “pure” artists like Giacometti and abjuring all material comforts.
In this new guise Genet turned to theater and wrote, in the years 1955–1957, his three best-known plays: Le Balcon, Les Nègres, and Les Paravents (The Screens). Les Bonnes (The Maids), which had its Paris premiere in 1947, belongs to an earlier period, although it anticipates some of the later works in its concern with inversion, betrayal, and murder. The three new plays were in a distinctively different key—they abandoned the realist and relatively conventional shape of Les Bonnes and introduced a distinctly denser stagecraft and dialogue—and when performed they further enhanced Genet’s reputation; the underworld aura was now overlaid by a new and broader subject matter, at once more political and more emotionally complex.
By 1965 (when he was refused a visa to visit the US) his active interest in the theatre was declining and he was to enter another fallow period, in part as the result of the suicide of his young friend Abdallah. This personal tragedy—Abdallah Bentaga was one of a small number of young men with whom Genet formed close relationships in later life—can in retrospect be seen to have come at a time when Genet was already preparing the way for the final, enduring concerns of his adult life, a shift away from writing and toward political activism, associating himself first with the Black Panthers and then, with even more wholehearted enthusiasm, aligning himself with the Palestinians, whom he first encountered in 1970 during a visit to Jordan in the aftermath of Black September. These experiences would provide material for his final work, Prisoner of Love, a perceptive narrative of his political involvements from the late Sixties until his death—it was published within a month of the discovery of Genet’s body in a Paris hotel room in April 1986.
The first turning-point in Genet’s progress, the hinge on which both his life and his reputation has swung, was Sartre’s study of him. Until then his early career, as recounted in the novels (notably A Thief’s Journal and The Miracle of the Rose) had a certain troubled coherence. As White summarizes it, “Genet’s is a world of beautiful, violent, treacherous criminals; pampered, cowardly, not very intelligent pimps; and valiant if hysterical transvestites,” with no “dull normals” and a Dostoevskian concern with crime, prison, penal colonies, and revolt. To the extent that the novels provide a faithful image of the youth which Genet perennially recycled in his fiction, the experience of the prison life of Mettray was crucial. The “Colony,” as remembered and imagined in Genet’s writings, provided a model and example of the hierarchical, masculine community, with innocent youths entering and traversing a dark adult universe of violence and virility, the setting in which Genet was most comfortable. It was also a metaphor for such communities, an “idealized” version of the life of prisons, armies, penal colonies, and “rough trade” as Genet knew and imagined it.
A fascination with death—through murder, suicide, or execution—and an atmosphere of thick social detail compensate for the interchangeable and underdeveloped characterizations, as does the language Genet employs—rich, ripe (a bit “inflated,” according to Gide), extreme, metaphorical, and aggressively, scabrously, slangily homoerotic. It is a language whose originality and appeal is not easily captured in translation, though its shock value to his first readers may be imagined. It is quite well conveyed in the excerpt from Our Lady of the Flowers included in the Selected Writings, where the character Mimosa is introduced to the reader:
The two queens were chirping away. Their talk was dull compared to the play of their eyes. The eyelids did not flutter, nor did the temples crinkle. Their eyeballs flowed from right to left, left to right, rotated, and their glances were manipulated by a system of ball bearings. Let us listen now as they whisper so that Darling may draw near and, standing beside them, pachyderm that he is, make titanic efforts to understand. Mimosa whispers:
“My dear, it’s when the Cuties still have their pants on that I like them. You just look at them and they get all stiff. It drives you mad, simply mad! It starts a crease that goes on and on and on, all the way down to their feet. When you touch it, you keep following the crease, without pressing on it, right to the toes. My love, you’d think that the Beaut was going straight down. For that, I recommend sailors especially.”
In the words of Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre’s Saint Genet was “nearly a rape.”4 (Genet would have appreciated the metaphor.) In this work, which then became Volume One of Genet’s Collected Works—surely a unique case of reverse literary appropriation!—Sartre accepted all of Genet’s exaggerations and distortions of his past—that he had been unloved, uneducated, that he joined the Foreign Legion—and then used them to invent a Genet who would confirm not only Sartre’s own narcissistic need to subvert all bourgeois values, but also the existentialist conception of the “self-made” man. For Sartre, Genet “chose” to become a thief and “chose” to become a homosexual, in both cases in order to shape his own life and work as an inversion and rejection of all normal values. Above all, Genet was a “traitor,” who owed no loyalty, acknowledged no debts, and who assiduously practiced treachery in all its forms. He stole from his friends, for example (as indeed he did—Sartre was not misled here) because that is the highest form of betrayal. This coherence of his personality, his life, and his writings gave to Genet, in Sartre’s eyes, a special place in the Pantheon of inversion: “Trahir, c’est, par des mots, faire naître un Destin.”5
Genet was not amused. He denied that he “decided to become what crime made of me,” as Sartre would have it. For his own reasons he needed to believe that he was a product of his fate, and that his misfortunes, among which he counted his homosexuality, were not of his own making. Only thus could he invest in his account of that fate the curious tone, at once mordant and self-aggrandizing, moralistic and self-pitying, which gives his novels their unique flavor. As a result of Sartre’s “real freak of a book” (Simone de Beauvoir), Genet was in danger of becoming, as he rightly noted, little more than “an illustration of his [Sartre’s] theories about freedom.”
Sartre did not always miss the mark, however; far from it. He is characteristically acute about Genet’s literary style, and perceptive in his emphasis upon the theme of betrayal, which looms as large in Genet’s oeuvre as it does in that of Sartre. Genet betrayed personal acquaintances by using their names in his fiction to near slanderous effect, he betrayed his foster parents in his denial of their feelings for him, and he was always drawn to artists and works of art which, in his sense, contradicted themselves; his admiration for Giacometti especially seems to have derived in part from his feeling that the sculptor had come closer than most to seeing the beauty in a wound and the glory of deathly solitude. This shared obsession with “treason” in all its forms, together with Sartre’s voyeuristic fascination with the sordid details of Genet’s private life, was after all what accounted for much of the mutual attraction. (Simone de Beauvoir, no less a voyeur when it suited her, was repelled by the erotic, violent, and fecal obsessions in his novels and gossip.) It is also worth recording that the destructive impact upon Genet of Sartre’s adoption of him as a protégé and a projection of his own ideas has a later parallel in Genet’s own Pygmalion-like efforts to adopt various young discoveries of his own, and shape their future careers as virile young sportsmen or circus performers.
Genet is reported to have protested to Cocteau that “you and Sartre have turned me into a monument. I am somebody else and this somebody else must find something to say.”6 As it turned out, he did not so much find something new to say but rather a distinctively different way of saying it. Genet’s novels deal with power, violence, betrayal, and exploitation through the medium of a community of social and sexual outcasts, prostitutes, transvestites, prisoners, or sailors whose tragedies and affections are confined to a restricted social and dramatic landscape. His plays, in contrast, work the same themes through a dramatization of contemporary Manichaean pairings: Blacks and Whites, Masters and Slaves, Colonizers and Natives, Rulers and Revolutionaries. There is a continuing concern with the sufferings of outcasts and victims, of course, and an unbroken fascination with extremes, but these are now spread over a broader canvas, and it is through social and political victims and violators that Genet speaks, rather than through the behavioral excesses of marginal characters. But death, murder, betrayal remained central to Genet’s attentions, and the paradoxes of transvestite sexuality—two competing identities collapsing into a third, which exists only in ephemeral, illusory moments—have their analogues in the masks and misrepresentations of blacks playing whites, or policemen masquerading as revolutionaries.
Genet’s plays aroused strong feelings in their early audiences, and not only because of their novelty and their power to shock. When The Screens was first performed in Paris, in April 1966, the Odéon theatre was the scene of huge demonstrations and violent assaults on the stage. In a Paris still recovering from the Algerian war, its angry mockery of European colonists and its sympathetic portrayal of their victims caused a political crisis and gave conservative politicians an occasion to denounce the theatre and its government subsidies. Like Les Nègres and (to a lesser extent) Le Balcon, Genet’s play was a “lyric outburst of stylized hatred”7 that placed Genet along with Beckett and Ionesco in the forefront of postwar theatre. Genet’s theatrical works were at least as difficult, even for a sophisticated audience, as those of Beckett, perhaps more so. Like his novels they were very long; they were technically difficult to perform; and while undoubtedly inflammatory they were not violent enough in their political message for those, like Sartre, who favored an “engaged” theatre.
It is hard not to wonder whether they will all still have appeal in years to come. Certainly The Balcony and The Maids seem sure of their place in the modern dramatic canon; in the latter case because it is more readily recognizable as a contemporary transcription of classical themes, in the case of Le Balcon because it lends itself well and flexibly to a broad range of theatrical and interpretative readings. For me, The Blacks and The Screens have begun to acquire a period flavor. This makes some sense, for in the two later plays their author’s growing political preoccupations can already be seen at work; this gives them a didactic aura curiously analogous to that now surrounding the plays of George Bernard Shaw, and with Genet as with Shaw this may make it harder for future audiences to understand their initial impact and importance.
Genet hated France—you must “vomit it up,” as he put it. He never missed an occasion to deny his affiliation to the country and its values—by traveling abroad, by writing of a France unknown to his readers and calculated to shock them, by identifying himself with everything and anything antisocial or antinational. Yet there had been nothing in his past that was explicitly political; certainly he tried in retrospect to present his prison years as a form of unarticulated political protest, but this was done largely in order to match the mood of the hour and to capture the imagination of his new friends. In his plays, however, he had moved on to broader issues, associating France and its ruling elites with a universe of white oppressors, a hypocritical civilization at odds with its own claims and the experience of its victims.
He had initially shared some of the illusions of his contemporaries about the aspirations and possibilities of the Sixties in general and May 1968 in particular, although characteristically he denied this in later years, never wishing to be identified with any moment or movement of faith or optimism. But he found his true calling in the violent alienation and opposition of American blacks and landless Palestinian Arabs. In this respect he had more in common with Sartre than he might have cared to admit, seeking as he did elective affinities with the wretched of the earth in their “authenticity” and their rejection of a white, European West, and abandoning his art in favor of a life of political activism.
Of course Genet remained Genet. He managed to shock his US readers by beginning an article attacking the Chicago police with a paean of praise for the erotic appeal of their thighs, and he was predictably scornful of the academic and other radicals who sought his company; at one Bay Area party he was asked by a professor, “What can we do to fight racism in America? We’re helpless,” and replied dismissively: “I’m a foreigner and you have the nerve to ask me that question?” He was also icily contemptuous of idiotic interviewers who wondered why he persisted in writing such elegant French—the “language of the oppressor.” He admired the Panthers at least as much for their machismo as for their political radicalism, and he is quite instructive on the reasons for their decline. In Prisoner of Love he noted that, swept along by the momentum of its own power,
the movement overshot the goal it had set itself…. It grew weak through its rainbow fringe, its fund-raising methods, the quantity and inevitable evanescence of its TV images, its use of a rough yet moving rhetoric not backed up by rigorous thought, its empty theatricality—or theatricality tout court!—and its rapidly exhausted symbolism.8
With the Panthers as with the Palestinians he never completely submerged his identity; they spoke for the world’s losers, which was part of their appeal to him, but he recognized that they were doomed to strive for that very political success which, if they won it, would oblige him to betray them. He had an Orwellian instinct for the ease with which the powerless can acquire power and become like their oppressors. And of course, as he admitted in a 1982 interview, he would be the first to abandon the Palestinians should they ever get their land back. In his own words, his identification with them as with everyone and everything else was never total: “my faith never complete and myself never undivided.”
It seems clear in retrospect that anticolonialism was Genet’s salvation. He had run out of autobiographical material, and his deep need to find nothing but ill in the world had led him to occasionally absurd outbursts, as in a 1949 statement opposing prison reform on the grounds that the old, unreformed regime had the virtue of making hardened criminals of little children.9 Naturally there was an element of mischief in such propositions (which Edmund White takes perhaps a little too much at face value), but they are indicative of the dilemma Genet would have faced had he not sought and found political outlets for his emotions.
Through almost all of the complex thickets of Genet’s life and work his latest biographer is a sure-footed and astonishingly well-informed guide. Indeed, Edmund White is becoming something of a one-man Genet industry: in addition to the biography he wrote an introduction to the English translation of Prisoner of Love, published last year by Wesleyan University Press10 and h writings put out by the Ecco Press. He has unearthed much information on Genet’s reading, which was voluminous and mostly conventional, in a classic French sense, ranging from Rousseau to Proust and taking in Ronsard and Stendhal along the way. He is informative on the subject of Genet’s generosity; Genet was unstinting in the support he gave to young men whom he had befriended, buying them cars, houses, and professional equipment at great expense, an attribute which contrasts tellingly with his lifelong desire to believe ill of himself and others. White also describes in an entertaining manner Genet’s cultivated vagabond asceticism—he cadged mercilessly from friends and acquaintances, and would sometimes just walk out of the dowdy hotels where he snt most of his life, leaving the management to send his pajamas and bill to Gallimard. The portrait that emerges is of a man for whom authentic existence consisted of playing out his chosen roles with admirable if annoying consistency.
Certainly, there was much that was unappealing about Genet, and White makes no attempt to conceal the fact. He was ungrateful to those who displeased him for any reason, however minor—his later cold-shouldering of Bernard Frechtman, the English-language translator of much of his early work (including most of the material in the Selected Works) was shameful. He saw the world in two dimensions—good and evil, rich and poor, victim and aggressor, criminal and martyr—which was an advantage in his characterizations of social and personal extremes but deprived him of any sustained insight into human frailty or moral ambiguity, much less psychological complexity.
He was also a creature of prejudice, not least concerning Jews. Genet was suspicious of Jews, associated them with money, and on more than one occasion expressed admiration for the achievements of Hitler. But as White notes, this has less to do with anti-Semitism than with Genet’s fascination with things military and with the general air of virility associated with the Nazis (who had, in his eyes, the exemplary virtue of having humiliated France). Sartre speculated that Genet’s proclaimed refusal ever to have sex with a Jew derived from the Jews’ status as victims. In that capacity Genet found them unerotic—and threatening competitors.
We come here to some aspects of Genet’s personality with which White seems uncomfortable, and to which he does perhaps less than full justice. Jean Genet was not pleased to be a homosexual, particularly once he lost his looks, and White claims that he was largely unsuccessful in his efforts to make the move from “femme” to “butch” status. He was not attracted to homosexuals, but preferred to seduce attractive heterosexual men—usually without success. Other homosexuals he mostly treated as objects of scorn, ripe for mugging. His solidarity, such as it was, lay with the thief. He had virtually no interest in Gay Liberation, and tartly informed a 1972 interviewer that “one is not a revolutionary just because one is a homosexual.” White is too honest a biographer to ignore this, but he occasionally writes against it, driven as it sometimes seems by surges of conventional rightmindedness.
In addition to a curiously portentous and clumsy outburst against heterosexual marriage, accompanied by a lyrical hymn to just those qualities of homosexual love which on White’s own evidence Genet rarely experienced,11 White allows himself a pompous attack on “prosperous white men” who favor the study of “universals” and who persecute “feminist, Black and gay” writers who write of minority experience. It is hard to see what this has to do with Genet, whose plays at least were surely built around a discussion of just such universals—injustice, ignorance, fear, power prejudice, beauty—and it leads one to wonder whether Edmund White has fully grasped the nature of his subject.12
White notes that François Mauriac admired Genet’s work, after an initially negative reaction, and hints that this might be related to the fact that after Mauriac’s death evidence surfaced which suggested latent homosexual sympathies. Here White has fallen victim to his own anachronistic concern with sexual preference as a key to aesthetic appreciation, and he displays a tin ear for the nuances of French culture. Mauriac had no illusions about Genet’s standing—as White notes, he thought him a lesser writer than Proust and Gide, and classed him as a follower of Cocteau: “Poet of the penitentiary, Orpheus of the underworld, he is an inspired masturbator: his morose pleasure feeds off images whose mechanism is derived from Jean Cocteau’s clockwork.”13
But what Mauriac the Catholic moralist heard and found fascinating in Genet was not the brassy noise of sado-masochistic homoeroticism, but rather the seductive sounds of pure evil. White dutifully records Mauriac’s fascination with Evil but underestimates its implications for an appreciation of Genet. As a consequence he seems unsure when it comes to locating his subject and ends up Americanizing him. His Genet is “a weird sort of political radical,” whose particular combination of traits and prejudices conforms to no familiar model of protest or doctrine. When Genet published in 1977 a stupid and nearcaricatural article in support of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, White is at a loss to account for it; here as elsewhere he oscillates between taking seriously Genet’s political pronouncements (but refusing to hold him accountable for them),14 or else relegating them to exercises in self-promotion but in that case attaching altogether too much weight to them as biographically indicative.
Genet is not a “weird radical,” nor is his life an appropriate occasion for ruminations on missed opportunities for sexual liberation. His friendship with Jacques Vergès (the maverick lawyer who defended Klaus Barbie), his admiration for aggression and terrorism, his affection for the brutal wartime Milice (“the ideal point where the thief and the policeman meet and merge” which is indeed a good characterization, but ideal only for Genet), all point to a different set of references of which White seems but dimly aware.
The clue is Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Genet admired Céline very much, and the object of his respect returned the compliment with enthusiasm; Genet respected Céline for his brilliant use of language—“it takes a physician, a doctor to the poor, to dare to write in argot“—while Céline once described Genet as “rotten with genius.”15 Edmund White notes this but misses its significance. Céline was persona non grata in postwar France, thanks to his identification with fascism and anti-Semitism before and during the war. Had this not been so his standing as a significant and original figure in modern French intellectual and literary life would be better appreciated.
The impact upon the interwar generation of his novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (published in 1932), and to a lesser extent the scabrous 1937 pamphlet Bagatelles pour un massacre, was tremendous. His invisibility after the war left an empty space which was promptly filled by a new generation, that of Sartre and his friends, who thereby acquired a monopoly of the cultural terrain; but it is a mistake to suppose that Genet somehow therefore fits into their world.
Before the war a significant number of writers—novelists like Marcel Arland and Drieu la Rochelle, social critics like Robert Aron and Arnaud Dandieu, essayists like Robert Brasillach and Georges Bernanos—some of them Genet’s near contemporaries, had toyed with the themes of decadence, degeneracy, and evil. This was not a generation marked, in White’s revealingly inappropriate phrase, “by its chauvinism,” but by something much more interesting and sinister. Genet undoubtedly outdid most of them in talent and in the sheer audacity of the stories he told, but he belongs with them and through them with the dark side of French cultural uncertainty which so marked the Thirties and Forties, in literature, movies, and politics. His links with the political fashions of the postwar decades are in large measure fortuitous. Mauriac understood this—and so in his way did Genet himself, who refused to be squeezed into any category except that of pure negation.
That is one side of the man. The other is his curiously immature quality, as though he were permanently stuck in the mood swings and obsessions of late adolescence. Edmund White, who is rigorous in recounting the oddities of Genet’s personality, seems reluctant to draw conclusions from it, maintaining a psychological distance which gives his book a strange dual quality, sometimes intrusively judgmental, at other times distractedly disengaged.
Yet White’s sources, both oral and documentary, all point in a single direction. Jean Genet was hypersensitive to rejection or disapproval. He was insecure in the presence of the educated or the influential, his self-doubt taking the form of aggression and deliberate rudeness. He engaged in quarrels, spats, and bitchy gossip with and about everyone, and tried hard to shock—first with his criminal tales, later through his affiliations, and always through the (unfulfilled) threat to destroy his manuscripts. He was a trying house guest—waking his hosts at 6 AM and demanding “my coffee,” or slipping uninvited into bed between—heterosexual—couples and reading them his latest work. A January 1943 court psychiatrist’s report seems to have come close to the truth: “Genet is a boy thirty-two years old…he moves a bit through life as if he were a savage possessed by a freedom in search of goods which have not been forbidden to him according to certain instructions.”
This striking combination of adolescent emotional drives and a sophisticated nihilist aesthetic is what makes Genet an intrinsically interesting personality, and it is what has maintained about him an aura of fascination even after the language of his novels or the dramatic complexity and stylistic originality of his plays have ceased to shock or enthrall. It also provides rich material for irony—not so much in the image of a fifty-year-old man hopping into bed with a married couple as in their earnest strivings to accommodate his whims without protest. But Edmund White has managed to write a very long book without emitting a single humorous line—except by inadvertence: his introduction contains the sententiously inappropriate observation that “Few people may think a sexual and social deviate…can provide an example to others, but this biography shows how such a transformation can be wrought.”
Genet, whose own taste in rolemodels ran to the Marquis de Sade, would doubtless have found something suitably corrosive to offer by way of a retort. To suggest seriously that he might “provide an example to others” would be to travesty his art and life alike; it is hard to see how his career offers any sort of a lesson, or why it should. This, after all, is a man who made it very clear that he meant it when he said, “I would like the world not to change, so that I can be against the world.” To conscript him posthumously as a political or sexual exemplar, to make of him a spokesman for a cause or the occasion for any social or moral lesson, is to betray everything he refused to stand for. On the other hand, it is exactly what Genet feared would happen to his beloved Palestinians should they ever succeed, and we may therefore suppose that such a “normalization” was something he would have understood all too well.
October 21, 1993
Jean Cocteau, Journal: 1942–1945 (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), p. 269, quoted by White, p. 223. ↩
Most of which were initially published clandestinely, their material and language making them subject to censorship in France as elsewhere. ↩
See Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 402, 448. Genet in turn thought she had the “sensitivity of a fork.” ↩
Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life (Pantheon, 1987), p. 315. ↩
“To betray is to forge a Destiny, with words.” Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, comédien et martyr, in Oeuvres Complètes de Jean Genet I (Paris: Gallimard, 1952), p. 173. ↩
Cohen-Solal, Sartre: A Life, p. 317. ↩
Thomas Bishop, “28 October, 1959: The Theater of the Absurd,” in A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier (Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 1,006–1,011. ↩
Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love (Picador, 1989; Wesleyan University Press, 1992), p. 42. ↩
As it had of him, at least in his fictional self-representation: “Je me suis fait un âme à la mesure de ma demeure,” Jean Genet, Notre-Dame des Fleurs, in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), p. 205. ↩
Reviewed in these pages, November 19, 1992. ↩
Noting that complex constellations of friendship are “more familiar in love affairs amongst men than in those between men and women,” White surmises that this is because “male homosexuality is based primarily on the model of friendship (mutual esteem, friendly competition but only intermittent envy or jealousy, few demands, loose but enduring bonds) and only secondarily and temporarily on the model of marriage (in which roles are reciprocal, not identical, and in which jealousy safeguards a legalized union designed primarily to raise children and guarantee sexual availability and economic security),” p. 361. ↩
Edmund White seems to agree with Genet in admiring Jacques Derrida’s approach in his commentary on Genet in Glas (1974). The structure of that work allows Derrida to “drop into” a subject and avoid the sort of “logical organization” of material which “dominates” a subject in a way White appears to find distasteful (see pp. 649–651). This is in admirable conformity with recent fashions in postmodern thought but is surely inappropriate for White, who appears to have “dominated” Genet rather successfully. ↩
François Mauriac, “Le cas Jean Genet,” in Le Figaro Littéraire, March 26, 1949, quoted by White, p. 415. ↩
To suggest that Genet had a “master view of history,” as White does on page 83, is absurd, unless meant ironically—which does not appear to be the case. The same remark applies to White’s apparently serious effort on page 722 to compare Prisoner of Love with the Bible. This undertaking is especially confusing because it is immediately followed with the claim that, in Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet “has invented a new sort of book altogether—a new kind of prose and a new genre.” This takes us from the unintentionally funny to the downright silly. ↩
Typically, neither man was consistent in his praise—at one point Genet accused Céline of merely “playing” with foul language while he, Genet, truly incorporated it into the body of his prose; Céline lost interest in Genet once he was taken up by Sartre. ↩