The Prisoner

Michael Wood

  • Genet by Edmund White
    Chatto, 820 pp, £25.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 7011 3397 X

A thief is someone who steals, but what do you call someone who steals and gets caught all the time? Who gets caught lifting handkerchiefs from a Paris department store, for instance, and then a few days later, his sentence having been remitted, gets caught again, this time in the act of pinching stuff from parked cars? An incompetent thief, perhaps – which was what Cocteau called Genet, the delinquent in question: ‘You are a bad thief, you get caught. But you are a good writer.’ Genet said much the same thing about himself in a late interview. But then what happens when this incompetent thief writes, as Genet does in Our Lady of the Flowers, in the manner of a handbook on how to get away with it?

Stealing from open displays is done according to several methods, and each kind of display, perhaps, requires one method rather than another. For example, with one hand, one can pick up two objects at once ... In front of piles it silk remnants you have to put one hand, casually, in the perforated pocket of your overcoat. You approach the counter ...

‘But I’m giving recipes,’ Genet says after a while, ‘that every housewife, every shopper knows’; and he goes on to evoke the different, showier method of his character Mignon, who prefers to make objects describe ‘a prompt parabola’ from display to pocket. ‘It was risky, but more beautiful.’ And like Genet’s own work in this field, a hopeless example for anyone interested in profit rather than style. Mignon is arrested on the next page.

If Genet were a character in a play by Sartre, as in part he was, we might say that a thief becomes a thief only when arrested: that crime and prison are needed to complete the identity. If Genet were a character in one of his own plays, as he almost never is, the thief would be a role, a figure in an elaborate social masque, an example of what Edmund White nicely calls ‘the theatricality of everyday life’. Much of what we are is performance, on or off stage. Genet enhances, stylizes this idea; insists on its ritual rather than its fictional aspects, so that social life begins to look not only like a play but like a rigidly cast, long-running hit, or like the sequence of ancient, programmed gestures with which a priest administers the sacraments.

‘Theatre is the root form behind all Genet’s work,’ White says. He also insists that Genet seeks to expose such theatre rather than indulge it. Theatre, in this perspective, is power, and those in power have the most practice in manipulating images. That’s why the oppressed and dispossessed need to steal the images, pervert them, render them unusable. And why the images ought to unsettle the spectator. In his preface to The Balcony, Genet evokes and rejects a theatre that accomplishes an action in front of an audience and allows the audience to believe something has been done in reality. This was exactly what Brecht disliked about bourgeois theatre, and the question of a relation between Brecht’s and Genet’s work kept nagging at me as I read this book. (White once uses the adjective ‘Brechtian’ but otherwise doesn’t touch the issue.) Can Genet have been indifferent to the staging and discussion of Brecht’s plays and theories in Paris in the Fifties? Did he deny or disguise the influence, as White says he did that of Artaud? Or did he think that Brecht was in his way too commercial, too caught up in the values of the world he opposed?

In relation to actual theft, this all seems pretty metaphysical – even if the metaphysics are introduced by Genet. In interviews and conversations he gave other interpretations, which conflict with each other, and with the ones just offered. Sometimes he said he stole just for the money. He took valuable books, for example, and he sold them. It was quick income, and he had no other source. At other times, theft seems just to have been an old habit, merely ‘picturesque’, as White puts it: ‘society hostesses shivered with anticipation, hoping he’d nick something when he came to call.’ More consistently, Genet saw stealing as an intimate, privileged form of betrayal: petty enough to shake off all risk of reverse moral grandeur, of the kind everyone wanted to admire in him once he became famous; shifty enough to hint (after all) at more spectacular, shocking misdemeanours.

Above all, stealing seems to have represented for Genet an erratic, unhappy assertion of freedom. He stole from his enemies and from people he cared nothing for, but he regularly stole from his friends too, as if to say that he could not be tied by their affection for him; more important perhaps, by his affection for them. We begin to approach him, perhaps, if we can linger over, rather than just acknowledge, the intricate irony of a sentence like this: ‘I had to work hard to betray my friends, but in the end it was worth it.’ Here is another resemblance with Brecht, who wrote in a poem that he was a person on whom one couldn’t rely, and offered his friends, especially his women friends, plenty of evidence of the fact. Genet turned unreliability into a moral principle, even an aesthetic. He thought that his homosexuality alienated him from everyone (even/especially other homosexuals, as White suggests), and argued in a late essay that ‘every novel, poem, painting, piece of music that doesn’t destroy itself ... is a fake.’

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