World Literature

Jean Genet

 

BORN: 1910, Paris, France

DIED: 1986, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Drama, Fiction, Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Condemned Man (1942)

Our Lady of the Flowers (1944)

The Maids (1947)

Prisoner of Love (1986)

 

 

Jean Genet. Genet, Jean, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Jean Genet is best known for surreal poetic dramas in which he utilizes the stage as a communal arena for bizarre fantasies involving dominance and submission, sex, and death. Genet, whom Jean Cocteau dubbed France’s ‘‘Black Prince of letters,’’ is linked to such amoral, antitraditional writers as the Marquis de sade and Charles Baudelaire by his use of rich, baroque imagery, his deliberate inversion of traditional Western moral values, and his belief that spiritual glory may be attained through the pursuit of evil. Although Genet first won international recognition for his lyrical novels about prison life, most critics contend that his dramas represent the most refined synthesis of his characteristic style and themes.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Life in Prisons. Although the facts of Genet’s life are so mixed with fiction as to be nearly indistinguishable, it is certain that he was born in 1910 in Paris. His father was unknown, and his mother, Gabrielle Genet, abandoned him at birth. As a ward of the Assistance publique, he spent his early childhood in an orphanage. As a young boy, he was assigned to a peasant family in the Morvan region of France. The foster parents, who were paid by the state to raise him, accused him of theft, and some time between the age of ten and fifteen he was sent to the Mettray Reformatory, a penal colony for adolescents. After escaping from Mettray and joining and being dishonorably discharged from the Foreign Legion (for his homosexuality), Genet spent the next twenty years wandering throughout Europe, where he made his living as a thief and male prostitute.

According to the legend, he began writing his first novels in jail and quickly rose to literary prominence. Having been sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit, he received a presidential pardon from Vincent Auriol in 1948, primarily because of a petition circulated by an elite group of Parisian writers and intellectuals. After 1948 Genet devoted himself to literature, the theater, the arts, and various social causes—particularly those of political underdogs, such as the Black Panther movement for equal rights for African Americans in the United States, or the Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule in the Middle East. He would later memorialize these experiences in his memoir, Prisoner of Love, published posthumously in 1986. Genet’s early days of literary prominence, after the successful but humiliating conclusion ofWorld War II (in which France was liberated—from both German forces and its own Vichy government, a puppet regime controlled by the Nazis—by Allied forces in 1944), were a time of both reconstruction and political instability in France, with the so-called Fourth Republic having more than twenty-one prime ministers over the course of the twelve years of its existence.

Poetry, Novels, Plays... and One Fictional Autobiography. It is frequently noted of Genet that his development as a writer was from poetry to novels to plays. According to the legend, his initial creative effort was a poem written in prison, and, in fact, his first published work was his poem The Condemned Man. Between 1942 and 1948, Genet proceeded to write four major novels and one fictionalized autobiography. He also wrote two plays, of which one, The Maids, was produced by Louis Jouvet in 1947. And while Genet went on to make two films between 1949 and 1956 (Imagenetions and Song of Love), his most successful theatrical period was from 1956 to 1962. During that time, he wrote and presented three plays—all successful productions. Various ballets, mimes, films, aesthetic criticism and sociopolitical statements were interspersed throughout his years of productivity, from about 1937 to 1979. Weakened by ill health, Genet published little after 1979. He was found dead on the floor of his Paris hotel room on April 15, 1986, and buried in the Spanish cemetery in Larache, Morocco.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Genet's famous contemporaries include:

Fritz Hochwaelder (1911-1986): An Austrian dramatist whose work was affected by his brush with the Nazis prior to World War II.

L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986): An American science fiction author who also founded the controversial Church of Scientology.

Chinua Achebe (1930-): A Nigerian novelist, poet, and literary critic, Achebe is perhaps the most significant African writer in English of the twentieth century.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): A Mexican painter whose work includes elements of several schools of art, including Surrealism and Symbolism.

Dominique Pire (1910-1969): The Belgian monk whose efforts in helping World War II refugees earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958.

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995): The Israeli prime minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and was assassinated in 1995.

 

Works in Literary Context

Genet’s work is most fruitfully viewed in terms of its subversion of both traditional structure and heteronormative themes. Indeed, his novels—which lack traditional chronology and smooth transitions—have been linked with a movement in literature called the ‘‘new novels.’’ ‘‘New novelists’’ attempted to rethink the traditional structure of the novel in order to reflect the increasingly complicated human psyche in the post-World War II era. In addition to experimenting with the form of the novel, Genet also opened that form up to what has been called ‘‘homosexual eros.’’ That is to say, not only does Genet invert traditional conceptions about the structure of the novel, he also challenges the perspective that heterosexuality is or should be ‘‘normative’’ or dominant.

The ‘‘New Novelists”. Of Genet’s five novels, counting the fictionalized autobiography, The Thief’s Journal, critics consider Our Lady of the Flowers and The Miracle of the Rose to be his best. His first novel was brought to Jean Cocteau’s attention by three young men who had become acquainted with Genet, who was then selling books (some stolen) from a bookstall along the Seine. Cocteau recognized the literary merit of Our Lady, which is a tour de force. This novel is unique for several reasons: its basic philosophy, its sophisticated literary technique, and its composite central character Genet-Divine-Culafroy. Genet’s works, like those of the well-known ‘‘new novelists’’ Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor, may be considered nontraditional in their disregard of conventional psychology, their lack of careful transitions, their confused chronologies, and their disdain for coherent plot structures.

Homosexual Eros and an Ethic of Evil. Genet’s novels, which are fraught with exotic imagery and metaphors, French slang, and scatological language, all take the form of non-chronological, semiautobiographical narratives that alternate between the first and third person. According to Richard Howard, Genet’s novels ‘‘are the great affair in his career primarily because they are the first and perhaps the only texts to set forth for the Western imagination an explicit realization of homosexual eros.’’ By rejecting the morality of what he perceives to be a repressive, hypocritical society that punishes its least powerful social castes for crimes universal to all classes of humanity, Genet seeks to create in his literature what Sartre termed in his influential study, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, ‘‘a black ethic, with precepts and rules, pitiless constraints, a Jansenism of evil.’’ In his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet inverts traditional Western values to replace ideals of goodness with ideals of evil, courage with cowardice, love with betrayal. Thus, evil is transformed into good, suffering into joy, and shame into glory. The book, described by Sartre as ‘‘the epic of masturbation,’’ was written beneath a blanket in Genet’s cell at the prison of La Fresne. Through his fantasies, Genet describes the loving revenge of a submissive homosexual prisoner, Divine, on his dominant pimps and cellmates, Darling and Our Lady, whom he resents supporting through male prostitution. Genet ultimately deems Divine’s betrayal of Our Lady, a murderer whom Divine delivers to prison officials for execution, to be a tribute to supreme evil. By betraying his lover, Divine is able to identify with both victim and executioner and to assume the universal burden of criminal responsibility.

Granddaddy to the Beats. Given Genet’s open discussion of homosexuality and his refusal to conform to the conventions of the novel, it is fair to say that his work opened the door for the success of a number of Beat writers, antiestablishment American writers who rose to prominence in the 1950s. If American poet Allen Ginsberg has been described as the Father of Beat literature, Genet must surely have been its Granddaddy. Beat writer Jack Keruouac’s famous autobiographical novel, On the Road, certainly benefited from Genet’s groundbreaking work, and William S. Burroughs, for example, wrote openly both about bisexuality and drug use in his novel Naked Lunch, a work held together only thematically—there is no clear chronology and the characters that inhabit the pages are connected to one another in only the smallest of ways.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Genet's work was notable for its open treatment of homosexuality. Here are some more books and films dealing with homosexual themes:

The Charioteer (1959), a novel by Mary Renault. This historical novel offers a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II and stands as a classic work of gay literature.

The Dying Gaul (2005), a film directed by Craig Lucas. In this film—based on a play by the same name—a young homosexual screenwriter enters a sexual relationship with a movie producer in part, at least, to gain favor with him in order to get his film made.

Long Life (2004), a series of essays by Mary Oliver. In this collection of essays, Mary Oliver explores the meaning of her long life in terms of her homosexuality, her ecological concerns, and her career as an author.

Howl (1956), a poetry collection by Allen Ginsberg. This collection of poems describes frankly, among other things, the pleasures of homosexual love; for that frankness, its author was charged with obscenity and threatened with prison time.

 

Works in Critical Context

Genet’s early success as a novelist may certainly be attributed to various factors—to the support of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, to the scandal arising from his subject matter, and to his notoriety as a thief and novelist. The critics long continued to accept the simplistic legend of the unlettered convict genius despite the classical references and other literary allusions, the sophisticated structures, and the sheer volume of work purportedly created between 1942 and 1948. The legend persisted until 1970 when Richard N. Coe published, in The Theatre of Jean Genet: A Casebook, an essay by Lily Pringsheim in which she reported that the Genet she had known in Germany in 1937 was of ‘‘a truly astonishing intelligence.... I could scarcely believe the extent of his knowledge of literature.’’ She also revealed that Genet begged her ‘‘to store away a number of manuscripts ... and that he shared [with her friend Leuschner] an uncontrollable thirst for knowledge, for Leuschner, like Genet, carried books about with him everywhere he went: Shakespeare, language textbooks, scientific treatises.’’

Early critical response, then, was focused on Genet as a person, but in recent years, critics have shifted their focus from the man to the work and have affirmed the complexity and beauty of Genet’s themes and the intricate structure of his novels. The diversity of the critical response to Genet is best illustrated by an examination of the body of work that seeks to explain and judge his novel Our Lady of the Flowers.

Our Lady of the Flowers. Francis L. Kunkle in his Passion and the Passion: Sex and Religion in Modern Literature is representative of those critics who reject Genet’s work; Kunkle finds Our Lady to be ‘‘a kind of endless linguistic onanism which often collapses into obscene blasphemy.’’ Most critics, however, consider Our Lady innovative in its treatment of time and its concept of gesture-as-act, and sophisticated in its selfconscious aesthetic. In Jean Genet: A Critical Appraisal, Philip Thody defends the worth of the book: ‘‘There are a number of reasons for considering Our Lady of the Flowers as Genet’s best novel, and the work in which his vision of reality is given its most effective expression. It has a unity which stems from its concentration upon a single character, and Genet’s projection of his own problems on to Divine creates a detachment and irony that are not repeated in any other of his works.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read Our Lady of the Flowers. Genet’s work has been described as nontraditional in its presentation of chronology and its transitions from scene to scene. How would you describe your reaction to these facets of this novel? In what ways does Genet’s structure, meant to represent the fracturing of the human psyche in the wake of two World Wars, continue to speak to the modern experience of selfhood? In what ways might it be obsolete?

2. Little is known for sure about Genet’s life. What exists is a set of legends designed to support an image of the author as a lonesome, self-taught, underprivileged genius. Since so much was made of this legend during his lifetime, his work was often interpreted in terms of it. After having read Our Lady of the Flowers or one of Genet’s other novels, do you think you would respond differently to the text if you knew that Genet had lived a privileged, bourgeois life? Is it fair to judge the effectiveness of a work based on the biography of its author? Write an essay supporting your position on this issue.

3. Research the ‘‘new novelists’’ on the Internet and in the library. In your opinion, in what ways does Genet exemplify the beliefs of those who follow this tradition, and in what ways does Genet’s work represent some other literary trend or movement? Analyze examples from Genet’s work to support your response.

4. At the time of publication, Genet’s work was seen by many as immoral and, for that reason, flawed. Is ‘‘morality’’ an appropriate category for judging the quality of a literary work?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: PrenticeHall, 1979.

Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. New York: Norton, 1967.

Cetta, Lewis T., ed. Profane Play, Ritual and Jean Genet: A Study of His Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974.

Driver, Tom F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.

Hayman, Ronald. Theatre and Anti-theatre: New Movements since Beckett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Kunkle, Francis. Passion and the Passion: Sex and Religion in Modern Literature. Fredericton, N.B., Canada: Westminster, 1975.

McMahon, J. H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. Translation by Bernard Frenchtman. New York: Braziller, 1963.

Thody, Phillip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein & Day, 1969.