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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Jean Genet (1910-1986)


This French writer, a dramatist and convicted felon, became one of the leading figures in the avant-garde theater. Genet' depicted the world of male prostitutes, convicts, pimps and social outcasts, the dark side of society which knew by his own experience. For a long time he was so addicted to theft that he stole diamonds from his hostesses at a literary reception. However, Genet's life changed radically when such prominent figures as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau clamored successfully for his parole. He subsequently escaped his criminal past and embarked on a new career as a writer, who glorified homosexual love and lawbreaking. "O let me be nothing but beauty alone! Quickly or slowly I will go, but I will dare what must be dared. I will destroy appearances, the casings will be burnt off and will fall from me, and I will appear there, some evening, on the palm of your hand, calm and pure like a statuette of glass." (from The Thief's Journal, 1954)

"In writing out for his pleasure the incommunicable dreams of his particularity, Genet has transformed them into exigencies of communication... Genet began to write in order to affirm his solitude, to be self-sufficient, and it was the writing itself that, by its problems, gradually led him to seek readers." (Jean-Paul Sartre in Saint Genet, 1963)

Jean Genet was born in Paris, the illegitimate son of Camille Gabrielle Genet, who abandoned him to the Assistance Publique, an organization that supervises the care of unwanted children. François Genet, his father, was a labourer. Camille Gabrielle worked as a seamstress and maidservant; she died in 1919. Until the age of 21, Genet was a ward of the state, raised in state institutions and by a family in the village of Alligny-en-Morvan. As a child, he spent hours in the drowsy, shadowy outhouse, daydreaming and reading. A religious and submissive child, Genet's foster mother hoped he would end up a priest, but toilet was his refuge from his pressures: "Life, which I perceived as distant and blurred through its shadow and smell – a softening smell in which the odour of elder trees and the rich earth predominated, since the outhouse was all the way at the end of the garden near the hedge – life reached me as singularly sweet, tender, light, or rather lighted, stripped of its heaviness."

At the age of 10 he was accused of stealing. During adolescence he spent five years at the Mettray Reformatory. He escaped from there and at age 19 joined the French Foreign Legion and deserted it soon. Then began a period of wandering throughout Europe. He was charged with vagrancy, homosexuality, theft, and smuggling. From 1930 onwards he spent time in various European prisons.

In 1939 Genet began to write. He produced between the years 1942 and 1948 several autobiographical novels, in which he depicted the rejection of the bourgeois society that had repudiated him. These works, that celebrated thievery and homosexuality, included Our Lady of the Flowers, first published in a limited edition by L'Arbalète of Lyons in 1943, and Querelle of Brest (1947), in which the amoral sailor and murderer Querelle proclaims "My wife is the sea; my mistress is my captain." As he kills his victim, he destroys himself; killers are at the top in Genet's hierarchy of criminals. In Miracle of the Rose (1946) the chains transform to a garland of flowers. This work was based on the author's experiences in the prisons of Mettray reformatory and Fontervault, formerly a monastery. Genet makes no distinction between devotion to God expressed in acts of worship and the prisoner's life: "The prison like a cathedral at midnight on Christmas, we were carrying on the traditions of the monks, who went about their business at midnight in silence. We belong to the Middle Ages." The narrator meditates on the meaning of imprisonment, and when a murderer named Harcamore is executed, he ascends to paradise at the moment of execution. The novel was written in 1943 while Genet was imprisoned in La Santé penitentiary in Paris for theft.

In 1948 Genet was convicted of burglary for the 10th time and condemned to automatic life imprisonment. However, by 1947, his works had gained attention from such writers as Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide and Jean Cocteau. After the sentence, they petitioned the President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol, for his release. Unexpectedly, Genet was pardoned in advance in August 1949. His gratitude Genet expressed in a poem extolling the values of criminals, in which a prison cell can turn into a place of monastic meditations or scene of sexual fantasies. The presidential pardon was taken as official acknowledgement of Genet's literary importance.

"THE BISHOP (after making a visible effort to calm himself, in front of the mirror and holding his surplice): Now answer, mirror, answer me. Do I come here to discover evil and innocence? And in your gilt-edged glass, what was I?" (from The Balcony)

In the late 1940s Genet began to write for the theatre, but several of his plays were too controversial to be performed in France. His central theme was the struggle between the authorities and those who are under their control. The Maids, his first play, made a significant contribution to the theatre of the absurd. It was based on a true story of two maids, sisters, who killed their mistress. Deathwatch (1947) used the prison setting of his earlier works, but later dramas explore the symbolic landscapes of loneliness and despair. Genet also abandoned traditional concepts of character, plot and motivation.

Genet's autobiography, The Thief's Journal, (1949), depicted his youth and the "forbidden universe" of opium-rackets, prostitution, begging, stealing. Due to the controversial nature of the book, Gallimard published it without the publisher's name.

Genet regards thefts as a holy vocation, which he practices with a religious devotion. Situations repeat themselves in his life. The narator is aware that it is because of the choices he makes about how to react, behave, and believe. Representatives of the law and of the criminal world became for him sublime homosexual icons: "If I wanted my policemen and hoodlums to be handsome, it was in order that their dazzling bodies might avenge the contempt in which you hold them. Hard muscles and harmonious faces were meant to hymn and glorify the odious functions of my friends and impose them upon you. Whenever I met a good-looking kid, I would tremble at the thought that he might be high-minded, though I tolerated the idea that a petty, despicable mind might inhabit a puny body." The publication of the journal marked the end of Genet's first prolific creative period.

"Criminals and police are the most virile emanation of this world." (from The Thief's Journal, 1949)

The Balcony (1957) was set in a brothel. Madame Irma, proprietress of a brothel known as the Grand Balcony, provides the setting and all that is necessary for the acting out of her client's scenarios of wish-fulfillments. The clients play such roles as Bishop, General and Judge. A revolution is going on outside the brothel. The rebels overthrow the figureheads of the old regime. One of Irma's girls, Chantal, becomes a heroine-martyr. Clients who have played Bishop, General and Judge take the place of the former officials. Roger, a defeated revolutionary leader, arrives to enact a scenario in which he is the Chief of Police. False figures remain in office, but another round of revolution starts. The Blacks (1959) was about the world of colonialism, within the framework of a play-within- a-play. The Screens (1961) took place in the midst of the French-Algerian War.

After 1966 Genet largely gave up writing and spent his time lecturing and supporting radical causes. In the early 1980s the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a film based on the author's novel Querelle of Brest. Genet died in Paris on April 15, 1986. A collection of Genet's letters, Lettres au Petit Franz, sent to François Sentein in 1943-45, came out in 2000. The letters include glimpses of Parisian life, a depiction of his arrest when he was accused of stealing a book, and thoughts about Jean Decarnin, whom he loved.

In his study Saint-Genet: Actor and Martyr (trans. 1963) Sartre proclaimed Genet to be the prototype of the existentialist man, whose distinction between good and evil is the result of personal choices and decisions. Other writers, like François Mauriac, criticized Genet for being a prisoner of his own world of crime, where the author "goes around and around like a squirrel in a cage, imprisoned in the dungeon of a vice from which he cannot escape".

For further reading: Saint Genet, comédien et martyr by J.-P. Sartre (1952); The Imagination of Jean Genet by J.H. McMahon (1963); Jean Genet by T.F. Driver (1966); The Vision of Genet by R.N. Coe (1968); Jean Genet by B.L. Knapp (1968); Jean Genet by P. Thody (1970); Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet by L.T. Cetta (1974); Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays, eds. by P. Brooks and J. Halpern (1979); Jean Genet and the Semiotics of Performance by L. Oswald (1989); Genet: A Biography by E. White (1993); Jean Genet by Stephen Barber and Edmund White (2005); Jean Genet: Born To Lose: An Illustrated Critical History by Jeremy Reed (2005); Jean Genet by David Bradby and Clare Finburgh (2011)

Selected works:

  • Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, 1943 (rev. ed., in Oeuvres complètes 2, 1951)
    - Our Lady of the Flowers (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1962) / Gutter in the Sky (tr. 1956)
    - Kukkien madonna (suomentanut: Sirkka Suomi, 1988)
  • Miracle de la rose, 1945 (rev. ed., in Oeuvres complètes 2, 1951)
    - Miracle of the Rose (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1965)
    - Ruusun ihme (suom. Tuukka Kangasluoma ja Olli Matti Ronimus, 1968)
  •  Les Bonnes, 1947 (play, rev. version, prod. 1954)
    - The Maids (with Deatwatch, translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1954)
    - Piiat (suom. Esko Elstelä, 1970; Otso Kautto, Petri Lehtinen, 1992)
    - films: 1966, Jungfruleken (TV play), dir. by Gösta Folke; 1974, dir. by Christopher Miles, starring Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, Vivien Merchant; 1986 (TV play), dir. by Michel Dumoulin, adaptation by Annie Testard; Serva e padrona, 2003, dir. by Tonino De Bernardi, starring Veronique Bouteille, Eugenia Capizzano, Rossella Dassu, Sabrina Venezia
  • Splendid's, 1947
    - Splendid's (translated by Neil Bartlett, 1995)
    - Loistohotelli Splendid's (suom. Otso Kautto, 2000)
  • Chants secrets, 1947
  • La Galère, 1947
  • Querelle de Brest, 1947 (rev. ed., in Oeuvres complètes 3, 1953)
    - Querelle (translated by Anselm Hollo, 1974) / Querelle of Brest (translated by Gregory Streatham, 1966)
    - Querelle (suomentanut Päivi Malinen, 1989)
    - film 1982, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau, Laurent Malet
  • Poèmes, 1948 (rev. ed., 1966)
  • Adame Miroir, 1948 (baller scenario, music by Milhaund)
  • Haute Surveillance, 1949 (play, prod. 1949)
    - Deathwatch (with The Maids, translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1954)
    - Sireeninkukka (suom. Satu Milonoff, 1986)
    - films: 1966, dir. by Vic Morrow, starring Michael Forest, Paul Mazursky, Leonard Nimoy; Black Mirror, 1981, dir. by Pierre-Alain Jolivet, starring Louise Marleau,Alberta Watson, Lenore Zann, Françoise Dorner
  • Journal du voleur, 1949
    - The Thief's Journal (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1954)
    - Varkaan päiväkirja (suomentanut Mika Määttänen, 1992)
  • L’Enfant criminel, 1949
  • Un chant d'amour, 1950 (screenplay, dir.)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1951-68 (5 vols.)
  • Pompes funèbres, 1953 (rev. ed., in Oeuvres complètes 3, 1953)
    - Funeral Rites (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1969)
  •  Le Balcon, 1956 (play, prod. 1956)
    - The Balcony (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1957)
    - Parveke (suomentanut Esko Elstelä, 1966)
    - films: 1964, dir. by Joseph Strick, starring Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Peter Brocco, Leonard Nimoy; Poor Pretty Eddy, 1975, dir. by Chris Robinson, David Worth, Shelley Winters; 1982 (TV play), dir. by Arto af Hällström, Janne Kuusi, cast: Eeva Eloranta, Jukka-Pekka Palo, Jussi Parviainen, Harri Tirkkonen. - Opera by Robert DiDomenica, composed in 1972, world premiere in 1990.
  • Goubbiah, mon amour, 1956 (screenplay with René Barjavel, Robert Darène, based on the novel by Jean Martet)
  •  Les Nègres, 1958 (play, prod. 1959)
    - The Blacks: A Clown Show (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1960)
  • Les Paravents, 1961 (play, prod. 1961)
    - The Screens (translated by Bernard Frechtman, 1962)
    - Kaihtimet (suomentanut Ville Keynäs, 1996)
  •  L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, 1963
    - The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, in The Selected Writings of Jean Genet (translated by Richard Howard, 1993)
    - Giacomettin ateljessa (suomentanut Sirkka Suomi, 1987)
  • The Man Condemned to Death = Le condamné àmort, 1965 (translated by Diane di Prima, et al.)
  • Lettres à Roger Blin, 1966
    - Letters to Rober Blin (translated by Richard Seaver, 1969)
  • Mademoiselle, 1966 (screenplay)
  • Reflections on the Theatre and Other Writings, 1972 (translated by Richard Seaver)
  • Treasures of the Night: The Collected Poems of Jean Genet, 1980 (translated by Steven Finch)
  • Ce qui est resté d'un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés bien réguliers et foutu aux chiottes, 1986
    - Rembrandt (translated by Randolph Hough, 1988)
  • Un captif amoureux, 1986
    - Prisoner of Love (translated by Barbara Bray, 1989)
  • autres textes, 1990
    - Fragments of the Artwork (translated by Charlotte Mandell, 2003)
  • L'ennemi déclaré, 1991
    - The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews (edited by Albert Dichy, translated by Jeff Fort, 2004)
    - short film: 2006: Jean Genet, c'était pas moi, dir. by Victor Marzouk
  • The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, 1993 (edited by Edmund White)
  • Lettres au petit Franz: 1943-1944 , 2000 (edited by Claire Degans, François Sentein)
  • Théâtre complet, 2002 (edited by Michel Corvin and Albert Dichy)
  • Lettres à Ibis, 2010 (edited by Jacques Plainemaison)
  • La sentence; suivi de, J’étais et je n’étais pas, 2010

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