Disturbing. Jean Genet is Downright terrifying. A dark star. A solitude and shimmering of a black star.
…Outside select literary circles, Genet is today an almost-forgotten writer, so it’s probably appropriate not only to consider the “last Genet,” but also to recall the story of the “first Genet.” One of the most remarkable encounters in modern French literary history occurred during the Second World War, in Nazi-occupied Paris. An unknown writer in his early 30s, Genet was brought before celebrated French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
A witness to the meeting, a visiting painter, described Genet as a “curious character, half convict, half bantamweight boxer.” The “curious character” with manuscript in hand could also be described as an orphan, petty thief, homosexual, occasional prostitute and homeless vagabond, recently released from his latest stint in prison. Read More:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/the-last-genet-a-writer-in-revolt-by-hadrien-laroche/article1841957/
When Jean Genet wrote The Blacks,he counted on the public’s reasoning to expect a play by blacks obsessed with ritual killing and clanging with cries of hate and defiance in an offering of relevant comment on the race issue. It was an anti-proclamation of the long-deferred brotherhood of man. People said Genet lived outside society, but they did not really consider what that implied. He was often perceived as a kind of rebel, a violent reformer that was assumed, since he has undertaken social themes, that he must be moved by some impulse of goodwill, some wish to instruct or improve.
But there is not a trace of goodwill in Genet, and the question of whether society is to be integrated, beyond the legal and normative sense was a matter of perfect indifference to him. It was still a society and he, even in an ideal state, would find himself outside of it. It was in fact absurd, whatever the emphasis of the times, to expect this terrifying Frenchman to devote himself to social issues, national aspirations, or in any way produce a play of constructive social significance. After all, he never gave any intimation of virtuous behavior.
In his own life he had been a thief and a bawd and in his plays he was an illusionist. As a youth he pursued a visionary absolute of degradation; the largely autobiographical Our Lady of the Flowers and A Thief’s Journey, both written in jail, read for pages on end like the hallucinated ecstasies of an anti-saint.The obscenity and scatology of these fictive memoirs are so perverse as to be numbing; the books are no more exciting, in the police sense of the word, than the fumes of ammonia are intoxicating.
Genet said to Cocteau, “Master, I’d like to read you passages from my manuscript.” For the next hour or so, Genet, standing, read extracts from Our Lady of the Flowers. If Genet read like a man “unveiling a masterpiece,” as the visiting painter noted, it was for good reason. Written in prison, inspired by masturbatory fantasy, erotically glorifying society’s outcasts and transgressing the rules of conventional fiction, Our Lady was unlike any novel of its time.
At first, Cocteau resisted. “I don’t much like all these stories of drag and queens,” he said after Genet had left. But he knew he was wrong, and sent for the manuscript. That night, Cocteau wrote in his journal: “Jean Genet brought me his novel. Three hundred incredible pages in which he pieces together the mythology of ‘queers.’ ” And a few days later: “The book is here, in the apartment, extraordinary, obscure, unpublishable, inevitable. … For me, it’s the great event of the epoch. It disgusts me, repels me, astonishes me. … I’ve reread Our Lady of the Flowers line by line. … Here, there’s the solitude and the shimmering of a black star.” Read More:http://www.theglobeandmail.news/arts/books/the-last-genet-a-writer-in-revolt-by-hadrien-laroche/article1841957/
It would be hazardous to guess what influences and experiences shaped this exuberant gymnast of evil. Criminals do not leave clearrecords, and Genet naturally enough, was a liar. In A Thief’s Journal he refers to himself as a foundling, and it may well be so, but it can be assumed he must have passed some of his earliest years outside public institutions. In Our lady of The Flowers,also autobiographical, though more ambiguously so, there is a little boy who lives with his widowed mother, a woman of fierce French respectability. He lives better than his fellows and probably a good deal more gloomily- set apart and surrounded by Gothic dreams: apparently he chews the leaves of aconite for the visions.
A man corrupts this small child, and for this child corruption becomes a vision of the absolute. Similarly, the young Genet consecrated himself to wickedness with the fervor of a seminarian giving his life into the hands of the Almighty. But, alas for his vows, he was also an artist, and, in the end, he turned from the religion of vice to the aesthetics of subterfuge. “Metamorphosis lies in wait for us,” he once wrote; also, “I am mad for fancy dress.”
…Then the peripatetic Genet more or less disappeared from the Parisian scene, often travelling in North Africa, where he pursued various long-standing amatory affairs. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that his literary sabbatical ended and the “middle Genet” emerged as a successful playwright. He was part of a “new wave” of French-language dramatists and filmmakers that included Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard.
Though Genet’s plays, such as The Balcony and The Blacks, continued to be performed to acclaim, he pretty much stopped writing by the 1960s. This time, the silence appeared to be permanent. Apart from the occasional newspaper piece or rare interview, usually in support of some political cause, he was seldom heard from. Genet was seen in the United States speaking in defence of the Black Panthers; he peered into the embattled Sorbonne during the student revolt of 1968; he wrote about Germany’s Red Army Faction, and he travelled in Jordan and Lebanon, living among Palestinian refugees. But in the quarter-century until his death from throat cancer in 1986, he published no books.Read More:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/the-last-genet-a-writer-in-revolt-by-hadrien-laroche/article1841957/
And metamorphosis in fancy dress was his calling card. Disturbing is the adjective most commonly applied to Genet’s plays. But he did not disturb so much by what he put forward, in the manner say, of Ibsen or Strindberg, as by the dislocation of expectation. His is the malaise of the missing stair tread, the question unanswered, the image that can be caught only as the eye blinks. Whatever is looked at straight-on in a Genet play disappears on the instant, or is transformed into something else.
But why be concerned with such an ostensibly perverse fellow? Or general assumption of being responsible people with a regard for logic and a respect for our own dignity is our undoing an Genet’s prey. In his youth he picked our pockets and trafficked in our lecheries; then he later shattered the authority of our senses and poisoned our faith in our rectitude. If we pretend he never existed, it would be a lie that makes us his timid henchmen. It is possible to get the better of Genet’s trickery but you have to be perfectly sane and utterly candid. But coincidences of health and virtue were not so common as to have restricted him much in any of his lives.
…As Edmund White remarks in his 1993 biography, Genet, “When Jean Genet died in 1986, many people … were surprised to discover he hadn’t died years before. … the astonishment mounted when a few months after his death a long posthumous work, Prisoner of Love, was published.”
The book was a collage of vignettes, both romantic and self-doubting, recalling Genet’s experience of living with the Palestinians, especially in the camps of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s guerrilla fighters. Though Prisoner of Love is politically supportive of his young militant hosts, it is neither ideological nor propagandistic; though its portrait of men and landscapes is sensuous, its eroticism is chaste. White adds, “It was unlike anything Genet had written before and few people had even suspected he remained capable in his 70s of such a sustained effort.” Read More:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/the-last-genet-a-writer-in-revolt-by-hadrien-laroche/article1841957/page2/
In general, this motionless mover is Genet himself or one of his substitutes. But even when the center is merely a figurehead, this planetary attraction which makes things gravitate about a central mass is to him a symbol of Providence. He reconstructs the real on every page of his book in such a way as to produce for himself proof of the existence of God, that is, of his own existence.
This hierachical conception of a world in which forms dovetail has a name: essentialism. Genet’s imagination is essentialist, as is his homosexuality. In real life, he seeks the Seaman in every sailor, the Eternal in every pimp. In his reverie he bends his mind to justifying his quest. He generates each of his characters out of a higher Essence; he reduces the episode to being merely the manifest illustration of an eternal truth.