Authors: Jean Genet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French playwright and novelist

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works

Drama:

Les Bonnes, pr. 1947, revised pr., pb. 1954 (The Maids, 1954)

Splendid’s, wr. 1948, pb. 1993 (English translation, 1995)

Haute Surveillance, pr., pb. 1949 (definitive edition pb. 1963; Deathwatch, 1954)

Le Balcon, pb. 1956, revised pb. 1962 (The Balcony, 1957)

Les Nègres: Clownerie, pb. 1958 (The Blacks: A Clown Show, 1960)

Les Paravents, pr., pb. 1961 (The Screens, 1962)

Long Fiction:

Notre-Dame des Fleurs, 1944, 1951 (Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949)

Miracle de la rose, 1946, 1951 (Miracle of the Rose, 1966)

Pompes funèbres, 1947, 1953 (Funeral Rites, 1968)

Querelle de Brest, 1947, 1953 (Querelle of Brest, 1966)

Poetry:

Poèmes, 1948

Treasures of the Night: The Collected Poems of Jean Genet, 1980

Nonfiction:

Journal du voleur, 1948, 1949 (The Thief’s Journal, 1954)

Lettres à Roger Blin, 1966 (Letters to Roger Blin, 1969)

Lettres au petit Franz: 1943-1944, 2000

Miscellaneous:

Œuvres complètes, 1952 (4 volumes)

Biography

Jean Genet (zhuh-neh), celebrated by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as a model of existentialist commitment, produced in his novels and plays an ethical stance of adhering to and flaunting the immorality of which French society and law found him guilty. For him, criminality was not a pursuit of gain or power but a matter of choice, a way of life. He imbued this way of life with his own aesthetic and religious principles. His years in the reformatory and his ten prison sentences attest a life lived largely in illegitimacy. As he lived, so had he been born–illegitimately in a maternity hospital, where his mother, a Parisian prostitute named Gabrielle Genet, abandoned him. He was reared as a public charge by country people; accused by them of being a thief when he was ten years old, he accepted his identity as a thief and fashioned his life in keeping with that identity. Adding homosexuality and betrayal to thievery, he ensconced himself in what for him became the dark beauty of that trinity.{$I[AN]9810001209}{$I[A]Genet, Jean}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Genet, Jean}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Genet, Jean}{$I[tim]1910;Genet, Jean}

Jean Genet in 1963.

(Library of Congress)

According to most sources, Genet spent the years 1926 through 1929 in a reformatory in Mettray, during which time he ran away once but was returned. He spent most of the next fifteen years in prisons for various crimes. In 1948, about to receive a life sentence for a crime to which he pleaded guilty but had not in fact committed, Genet was pardoned by President Vincent Auriol in response to the public request made by Jean-Paul Sartre and writer Jean Cocteau.

Genet began his literary career in prison. At Fresnes prison he wrote a long poem, “The Man Condemned to Death,” which was published in 1942. It was dedicated to the memory of “Maurice Pilorge,” a twenty-year-old convicted murderer whose real name was Adrien Baillon and who had been executed; Maurice Pilorge is also the titular character of Our Lady of the Flowers, the first and, according to most critics, the best of Genet’s novels. That work was also written in Fresnes prison and featured some of its inmates, including Genet, as the characters; most of them are identified by feminine names in a homosexual context.

Miracle of the Rose, written in La Sante and Tourelles prisons, is set in Fontevrault prison and the Mettray reformatory; the narrative alternates between the two settings. The central presence of the novel is Harcamone, an inmate who as a youth killed a girl and is now condemned to death for murdering a prison guard. Genet envisions the prelude to Harcamone’s execution as the entrance of four men–judge, lawyer, chaplain, and executioner–into the prisoner’s body through his ears and mouth; they traverse its corridors until they come together at the heart and are overwhelmed by the splendor of the Mystic Rose.

Funeral Rites and Querelle of Brest were written outside prison and have clearer story lines but less imaginatively lyrical intensity than Genet’s first two novels. It is in The Thief’s Journal that Genet declares his theology of betrayal, thievery, and homosexuality. The appurtenances of this assertedly religious commitment are the pursuits of evil, beauty, and sainthood: Betrayal proves the reality of love by its infraction of love; thievery is intrinsically elegant; and homosexuality is the holy confluence of love and death. In this same context, sanctity is the complete subscription to evil by which an individual fully experiences all sins and, by making them his own, takes upon himself the sins of the world.

From prose narrative as his major vehicle of expression Genet turned in mid-career to drama. His five plays concentrate on inversion. In Deathwatch, “inverted sanctity” holds evil to be goodness and holds murder, the worst of evils, to ensure the greatest glory. In The Maids, a woman pretends to be her sister, who in turn pretends to be their employer, whom both later plot to poison; when the plot fails, the sister playing Madame-the-employer deliberately contrives to be poisoned in accordance with the original plot: The inversion of maid and mistress becomes a reality that is fatal to the employee. The social commentary implicit in The Maids is magnified in The Balcony, in which the imaginations of the characters confute the reality of society with a self-destructive reality of illusion.

Genet’s dramatic works project the inherent injustice of social discrimination and the deliberate evil that is both prerequisite to correcting the injustice and generative of more profound injustice. During the decade before his death from throat cancer in 1986, Genet wrote in support of the Black Panthers’ causes in the United States.

Critical reception of Genet’s work includes rejection on the grounds of its immorality, praise qualified by disapproval of its immorality, rejection on the grounds of its artistic failure, and acceptance as true art. For Sartre, who extolled Genet’s work as true art, Genet’s expressions of the contraventional morality to which he committed himself, along with that morality itself, constitute an artistic integer. Critics in the habit of separating artists’ morality from their work cannot easily make the same separation in the case of Genet, if, as Sartre insists, his moral life and his life’s work are consanguineous and inextricable.

BibliographyBrooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Devoted primarily to Genet’s plays, but there are two essays on his novels, and the introduction provides a good overview of his life and career. Includes chronology, bibliography, and an interview with Genet.Cetta, Lewis T. Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet: A Study of His Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974. Examines themes of Genet’s drama.Choukri, Mohamed. Jean Genet in Tangier. Translated by Paul Bowles. New York: Ecco Press, 1974. A recounting of Choukri’s encounters with Genet in Tangier, Morocco, from 1968 to 1969. A short work, it gives a view of Genet the man.Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. London: Peter Owen, 1968. From the author’s note, “This book is not a biography of Jean Genet; it is a study of his ideas, his art, his imagery and his dreams …as he has chosen to give them to us in his [work].” Coe, in this work, intended, perhaps, for scholars, examines Genet’s works through the theme of solitude.Driver, T. F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. In this study of Genet and his works, Driver brings his Christian background to bear. Driver finds in Genet’s works a movement from the pornographic to the spiritually uplifting. The brevity of the work, combined with a short but informative biography, makes for an interesting perspective when compared to other critical works.Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Excellent revision of a valuable introductory study. See part 1 for chapters on Genet’s life and on his individual novels. Contains chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. See especially the introduction and chapter 1, “The Birth of an Imagination.” Provides brief bibliography.Plunka, Gene A. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking. London: Associated University Presses, 1992. This analysis of Genet and his works focuses on the psychology of risk taking. Includes bibliography and index.Read, Barbara, and Ian Birchall, eds. Flowers and Revolution: A Collection of Writings on Jean Genet. London: Middlesex University Press, 1997. Insightful essays on the author. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. New York: George Braziller, 1963. The classic biography, which made of Genet a kind of dark saint of modernism. No notes or bibliography.Stewart, Harry E., and Rob Roy McGregor. Jean Genet: From Fascism to Nihilism. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Examines Genet’s political and literary leanings. Bibliographical references and an index are provided.Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein & Day, 1968. Especially valuable are part 1, exploring both Genet’s biography and his major themes (evil, homosexuality, sainthood, and language). Part 2 is devoted exclusively to discussions of his novels. Includes bibliography and detailed notes.White, Edmund. Genet. New York: Knopf, 1993. Novelist and critic White has contributed a worthy successor to Sartre’s influential biography. White is more scholarly than Sartre, but he writes clearly and with flair. Provides very detailed notes and an extremely thorough chronology.
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