Dubbed "the Black Prince of letters," by his discoverer, Jean Cocteau, the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910-1986) was obsessed with the illusory, perverse, and grotesque elements of human experience. His works present the world of the isolated and despairing outcast.
According to his own version of events, Jean Genet was born on Dec. 19, 1910, to a Parisian prostitute, who soon abandoned him. Placed in a foster home, Jean was raised in the Morvau region by a farming family. At the age of 10 he began pilfering articles from his benefactors and their neighbors, perhaps to arouse the parental concern he knew to be absent in his life. His ploy failed and, according to Jean Paul Sartre, his resolution to remain a thief constituted a significant existential act: "Thus I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me."
At the age of 16 Genet was sent to the Mettray Reformatory, where the impressionable boy cultivated an admiration for evil and a taste for homosexuality. Escaping from his confinement after five years, Genet contracted for an extended enlistment in the Foreign Legion, collected his bonus and a few days later deserted. During the next decade Genet wandered across Europe, immersing himself in the underworld and surviving as a beggar, thief, narcotics smuggler, forger, and male prostitute. Arrested several times, Genet spent most of World War II in prison, where he began to write.
Genet, however, often lied about his past, and Edmund White took about the task of dispelling many of the clouds surrounding Genet and propagated by Sartre. As even Sartre himself acknowledged, Genet practiced certain economies when it came to self-revelatory truth so White relentlessly seeks out corroboration. Many of the documents, it turns out, refuse to corroborate. White first shows how thoroughly Genet's own version of his childhood—drawn in sharp lines of poverty and abuse—was a myth, an affectation given credibility by Sartre. Born in Paris in 1910, Genet had been abandoned by his unwed mother and made a ward of the state. But the carpenter's family that was entrusted with his care gave Genet ample attention and affection. Raised in a farming village, he was not made to work, prospered in school, had plenty of books, and scored high on examinations. Contrary to his later claim, he did not have to steal to survive. ("You couldn't call them thefts," recalls one classmate. "He took some pennies from his mother to buy sweets, all kids do that.")
The effect of White's first chapters is to suggest Genet largely fabricated a grim childhood to fit his chosen persona as a renegade. Precocious and rebellious, the dandified Genet refused, as he put it, "to become an accountant or a petty official." And so he escaped from every apprenticeship, opting to become a petty thief. This eventually landed him in the notorious reform penitentiary at Mettray, a society of male outcasts governed by a counter-code of homosexuality, theft, and betrayal which Genet would later celebrate.
Concentrating on the ambiguity of morality in a society characterized by repression and hypocrisy, his novels and plays portray the individual trapped in a state of enforced dissolution. Our Lady of the Flowers, composed under almost impossible conditions in Fresnes prison, was published in Lyons in 1943. The novel, peopled by pimps and prostitutes, depicts the author's erotic world of homosexuality, masturbation, bizarre fantasies, and violent murder. Marked by nonconformity and exoticism, the work uses a lyrical delicacy of language to describe an incredibly sordid milieu.
The Miracle of the Rose (1943), written in Santé prison, is an autobiographical narrative in which Genet proclaims a cult of the criminal, praising both crime itself and the perpetrators of it. The religious imagery of the earlier work is intensified, and the ceremony of prison life is closely identified with the satisfactions derived from religious rites. Funeral Rites (1945) and Quarrel of Brest (1946) continue these themes.
Genet's works composed in prison, to which he had been sentenced for life, attracted critical acclaim; such literary notables as Sartre and Jean Cocteau successfully petitioned for his pardon, and he was released in 1948. The Thief's Journal (1949), recounting Genet's adventures in the European underworld of the 1930s, was proclaimed by Sartre to be the author's finest work in both form and substance.
In his drama The Maids (1948) Genet explores the sequence of masks, roles, and conditions assumed by two maids to maintain their constantly shifting identities. Moral values are reversed throughout, with evil achieving a reverence traditionally assigned to goodness. Death-watch (1949) describes the sadomasochistic relationship of three prisoners, ending in nightmarish death. Genet's ritualistic theater continued to explore the deceptive relationship between illusion and reality in The Balcony (1957), The Blacks (1959), and The Screens (1961).
His heart leaned from his "'religious nature" as he confessed in his autobiographical Thief's Journal (1949, English 1965). "I am alone in the world, and I am not sure but that I may not be the king …"
On September 19, 1982, Genet visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila near Beirut. Two nights earlier, Israel had permitted its Lebanese allies to enter the surrounded camp, and they had massacred its Palestinian inhabitants. A walk through Shatila, wrote Genet, "resembled a game of hopscotch …. A photograph doesn't show how you must jump over the bodies as you walk along from one corpse to the next.
The "thick white smell of death" in Shatila inspired Genet to one self-invention. He would be reborn as a witness for the Palestinians. Prisoner of Love, his book-length memoir of the Palestinian fedayeen, appeared a month after his death in 1986. This was the first new writing Genet had produced in years, and it rekindled an interest in his life and work.
Genet's work, while involved with social issues, rejects any form of political commitment. His confrontation with the world has both deeply stirred and repulsed his readers and audiences. Composed outside literary tradition in terms of plot, characterization, and thematic implications, his personal projections possess a psychological truth fused with dramatic imagery.
According to White, Genet, rather than embodying some collective disorder of his time, acted largely upon his own disorder. But his death was as bland as his life was colorful. His obituary, after listing his many credits, simply states, "died in Paris".
Further Reading on Jean Genet
Jean Paul Sartre, Saint Genet (1952; trans. 1963), is an exceptionally revealing analysis of the man and his art. Other full-length studies in English include Bettina Knapp, Jean Genet (1956); Tom F. Driver, Jean Genet (1966); Richard N. Coe, The Vision of Jean Genet (1968); and Philip Thody, Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays (1969). Focusing on the author's plays are critical sections in Wallace Fowlie, Dionysus in Paris (1960); Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961); David I. Grossvogel, Four Playwrights and a Postscript (1962); and Lionel Abel, Metatheater (1963). A good resource for his life's work can be found in: Genet: A Biography. Knopf, 728 pp., $35.00. Edmund White as cited by Marin Kramer. Many of his life's accomplishments can be found in Current Biography (1974). His obituary ran in the New York Times, April 16, 1986.