Jean Genet

From Academic Kids

Jean Genet (1910-1986) was a prominent, sometimes infamous, French writer and later political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal. He has written novels, plays, poems, and essays, including The Thief's Journal, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Maids.

Contents

Life

Abandoned at birth, Genet grew up an orphan. Despite excellent results at school, his childhood was a series of attempts at running away and petty theft which eventually lead to his detention at the youth prison Mettray. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives fictionalised account of this period of detention which ended when, at 18, he joined the army in order to get away from Mettray. Genet deserted in 1936 and spend a period as a vagabond, petty thief and male prostitute across Europe, which he later recounted in The Thief's Journal (1949). Returning to Paris in 1937 Genet was in and out of prision through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage and army desertion. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem "Le condamné à mort" which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). Jean Cocteau met Genet and was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published and when, in 1949, Genet was threatened with a life sentence, Cocteau, joined by such other key figures as Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, got him acquitted. Genet never went back to prison.

Having written prolifically in prison, by 1949 Genet completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems. Genet's explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality was such that by 1951 his work was banned in the United States. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer) entitled Saint Genet comédien et martyr (1952), which, somewhat paradoxically, was published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the following five years. Between 1955 and 1961, however, Genet wrote three more plays as well as essays on Rembrandt. During this time he became emotionally attached to Abdallah, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of falls and Abdallah's suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression and even attempted suicide.

From the late sixties, and starting with a homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became more politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA where he stayed for three months, giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan and the USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy novel about his experiences, A Prisoner of Love, which would be published after his death. Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a pervasive problem persistant since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. In September 1982 Genet was in Beyrouth when the massacres took places in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In respone Genet published his most important political text, "Quatre heures à Chatila" (Four Hours in Chatila), an eye-witness account of his visit to Shatila after the massacre.

Genet developed throat cancer and died on the April 15, 1986 in Paris. He was buried in the Spanish Cemetery of Tangier,Morocco.

Genet's works

Novels

Throughout his five early novels, Genet works to subvert the traditional set of moral values of his implied readership. He celebrates a beauty in evil, emphasizing his own singularity as he raises violent criminals to icons, enjoys the specificity of gay gesture and coding, and depicts scenes of betrayal.

The first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), is a journey through the prison underworld, written in honour of famous assassins who had recently been killed. The two auto-fictional novels, The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief's Journal (1949), describe Genet's time at Mettray youth prison and as a vagabond and male prostitute across Europe. Querelle de Brest (1947) is set in the mist of the port-town Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder; and Funeral Rites (1949), is a story of love and betrayal across political divides, written this time for the narrator's lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Germans in the Second World War.

A Prisoner of Love published in (1986), after Genet's death, is written in an entirely different tone to his early, provocative writing.

Plays

Associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, Genet's plays present highly stylized depictions of ritual struggles between outcasts of various kinds and their oppressors. Social identities are parodied and shown to involve complex layering as men play maids playing each other or their mistress in The Maids (1949), or leading figures in society play out the role of victims in a brothel, surrounded by mirrors which both reflect and conceal in The Balcony (1956). Most strikingly, Genet takes further what Aimée Césaire called negritude, in The Blacks (1958), presenting a violent assertion of Black identity and anti-white virulence.

Film

Genet directed Un Chant d'Amour in 1950, a 26 minute black and white film depicting the fantasies of a gay male prisoner and his prison warden.

Genet's work has also been adapted for film and produced by other filmmakers. Rainer Werner Fassbinder made Querelle, a 1982 film based on Genet's novel Querrelle de Brest. (Genet himself never saw this film just because it is not possible to smoke in a cinema.) Todd Haynes 1991 movie Poison was also based on the writings of Genet.

Further Reading

Edmund White, Jean Genet (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993) - a biography of Genet.

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