Jean Genet’s flirtation with radical politics began with his discovery – or was it entombment? – by Sartre. It is recorded that when Genet first read Saint Genet, he was cast into deep despair, an emotion shared by many others who have tried to read Sartre’s massive study. But being a practical man he was not one to reject attention. What is extraordinary about Genet’s career is not the extent to which the sage of the Deux Magots left his mark on the subsequent work of this most individual of French writers, but the extent to which Genet managed to struggle free of his mentor.
It is true that his most directly autobiographical work, Thief’s Journal, the account of his wanderings around Europe as a thief and male prostitute in the Thirties, is dedicated to Sartre, together with Simone de Beauvoir. It is also the case that his later novels almost always include a gesture towards philosophy, a trait that does not deform his masterpiece Notre Dame des Fleurs. ‘We should like these reflections and observations, which cannot fully round out and delineate the characters in this book, to encourage you to become, not so much onlookers, as the very characters themselves,’ he said in Querelle de Brest. ‘These creations would then, little by little, detach themselves from your own specific actions.’ But there is in his best work the robustness and distaste for pretension which led him to say in the course of a memorably uncomfortable discussion I had with him on the television programme Arena that ‘Sartre was a good guy to have a beer with – but he had too many ideas.’
The key to Genet’s work lies in his prison experiences; and a pilgrimage to Fresnes Prison, where he wrote Notre Dame des Fleurs, explains a good deal about this very French jailbird. For a start, there is the library, where the rapist and armed robber can relax over a copy of Bossuet or the plays of Molière (French prison authorities seem to make few concessions to popular taste). Readers who wonder where Genet found his prose style need look no further. Then there is the ordered claustrophobia of the place. Notre Dame des Fleurs, written on scrap paper (the first draft was burnt by an unsympathetic warder, whereupon Genet simply began the book again), is an obsessive naming ritual, a piece of work that could only have been written by someone forced to stare at the same thing day after day after day. In Genet’s case, it wasn’t the little patch of blue that prisoners call the sky; indeed, his work has little of the wistfulness of our own (unpardoned) Oscar Wilde. He interposes himself between his text and the reader in an entirely natural way. He is not the self-conscious puppetmaster of so much self-consciously ‘modernistic’ fiction, but a writer painfully aware of material and reader in a way that forces him into a kind of dizzying honesty.
Ce qui va suivre est faux et personne n’est tenue de l’accepter pour argent comptant. La vérité n’est pas mon fait. Mais ‘il faut mentir pour être vrai.’ Même aller au delà. De quelle vérité veuxje parler? S’il est bien vrai que je suis un prisonnier qui joue (qui se joue) des scènes de la vie intérieure, vous n’exigerez rien d’autre qu’un jeu.
Genet is not doing this for effect, or because some literary critic told him it was a good idea. He is doing it because he has to – or at any rate, that’s how it feels.
It might be regarded as perfect irony that the first person to draw attention to Genet’s work was a social worker, Olga Barbezat, whose husband, Marc Barbezat of Editions Arbalètes, was the first publisher of Genet’s work. The ‘sophisticated’ response to his work depends on the assumption that he, like anyone else in the literary racket, knows the rules of the game he is playing. In fact, his much-discussed ‘saintliness’ (a cliché that an encounter with him proved eerily appropriate) is probably closer to the natural will of the child, while its other face, the wickedness that proved so tempting to readers in the Fifties, is nothing much more than the child’s natural appetite for pleasure. It is probably this which explains his power over Sartre. What could be more daringly wicked, to someone who has been through the French educational system, than intellectual self-indulgence? It must have rated a good deal higher even than Genet’s blend of burglary and buggery.
Wickedness and virtue are, at a very practical level, rather hard to distinguish in prison. It is not a metaphysical conceit but a matter of proven fact that murderers such as Pilorge, whose praises Genet sings in his early work, are the heroes of the penitentiary. The smaller the offence, the less important the convict; and the prose works that followed Notre Dame des Fleurs all exploit both the claustrophobia and the moral ambiguities imposed by the notorious reformatory of Mettray, which provided Genet with the nearest thing to a family he ever had – his mother abandoned him in Paris and, raised as an orphan in the Morvan, he seems to have taken to thieving early on. What fascinates Genet about the place is not so much its obvious venal inefficiency as a penal institution (it eventually became the subject of a national scandal), but the fact that the reformatory was part of one of the most celebrated cathedrals of France, the Abbey of Fontevrault. Under a law of the Revolution, various charches were designated as penal institutions, and men in blue overalls can still be seen today cutting grass and wheeling barrows in the shadow of the spires and gargoyles tourists travel miles to see. It is the starkness of the juxtaposition that fascinates Genet, the almost random manner in which the world assigns us stained glass or iron bars at our windows, and it is this absurdity that gave him his love of the arbitrary, the misheard, the ridiculously thin line that separates la mort from l’amour. No one, as Péguy said, understands what is in the sinner’s heart as well as does the saint.
In order for him to bring off these effects Genet needs the restrictions offered by the criminal quarters of Pigalle or the waterfront bars of fog-bound Brest. Querelle de Brest, perhaps his most successful novel after Notre Dame des Fleurs, cleverly plays off that most butch of Breton places, all chill drizzle and dock workers solidly built as the ships they service, against a sailor who finds that he is, in the words of Bernard Frechtmann’s translation, ‘a brown hatter’. But in his third novel, Pompes Funèbres, written in 1947, the oppostions are, as Peter Coe points out in his excellent 1968 study of Genet, beginning to show worrying signs of being out of control. In Pompes Funèbres we are offered Hitler as Saviour, Nazi officer Erik Seiler as love object and an ecstasy of moaning over the ravishing of la belle France by the German Army. There are enough clashing perversities to satisfy the most desperate connoisseur of naughtiness, but, by the end, the work seems curiously lame, almost too keen to impress. It was perhaps this difficulty of finding a stage restricted enough to suit his talents (as well as the offer of a job from Louis Jouvet) that moved Genet to the theatre. And it is the fact that confinement made him a poet that vitiates Un Captif Amoureux, his last prose work.
Prisoner of Love, like The Screens, his last play, is a work with a bewildering multiplicity of backdrops. It is, as Edmund White says in his introduction, ‘a curious mixture of memoir, tract, stylised Platonic dialogue based on actual conversation, allegorical quest, epic’; and it is about as hard to read as that makes it sound. It was written over the last three years of Genet’s life and deals with his visits to and relations with the Palestinian fedayin during a long period of creative silence. ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ says Yasser Arafat to Genet. ‘Why not?’ replies the author, reflecting that neither he nor the political leader is bound by such promises, forgotten almost before they are uttered. There are a few memorable characters, notably one Lieutenant Mubarak, a black man from the Sudan, who, though he is out of place among the Palestinians, is at home in Genet’s prose, perhaps because he is rather more pimp than revolutionary. But there are regrettably few pimps, queens, convicts, or any other of the kind of people immortalised in the novels of the author’s youth. Genet is here endorsing, rather than subverting, the values of the world which he and the reader share, and while he does attempt to distance himself, and succeeds in avoiding the simplistic gestures made by most writers impressed by revolutionaries, he has not – to judge by this translation – managed to find the style that unifies the earlier works.
For Genet’s art to succeed, as Sartre pointed out in ‘Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, he has to make the reader into an accomplice. He depends for his effects, not only on eroticism but on the guilt associated with it, and the key images in his work – Divine coming into the café in Pigalle, adolescent male sexuality under the shadow of the abbey at Fontevrault – are all generated by repression. He says at one point in Prisoner of Love, ‘Revolutionaries are in danger of getting lost in a hall of mirrors,’ and writers, too, are prisoners of the images they create. Here, with the sex act between men seen as something not quite revolutionary, the writer disappears into the landscape of the Palestinian struggle. He has been upstaged by history. Genet is, for once, at the mercy of his impressions of the world. It can also be said that prison created his style, and that here he is the prisoner of that style.