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The PrisonerMichael Wood
by Edmund White.
Chatto, 820 pp., £25, June 1993, 9780701133979
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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.’

Genet was a more intellectual writer than he often seems, more intellectual perhaps than he thought he was. But like Proust – White has some excellent pages on the resemblances and differences between Proust and Genet, starting with the suggestion that ‘Genet is the Proust of marginal Paris’ – Genet understood that the intellect has its limits, and that it can be used to take us to those limits, where it must hand over to other faculties. The work of art, Genet wrote in an essay on Rembrandt, ‘does not permit ... insights, intellectual games. It seems even to confuse the intelligence, or to bind it.’ To confuse (or scramble) the intelligence, brouiller l’intelligence: this is itself an intellectual’s dream, as Genet more or less admits when he describes himself as ‘mainly an arguer’. White reads ‘arguer’ here as meaning prose writer rather than poet, and compares Genet (‘in this respect only’) with Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, ‘whose actual poetry is sentimental but whose prose – animated by suspense, dramatised through conflict, particularised by characters and aerated by dialogue – owes its brilliant sheen to its romantic diction’. This is convincing, and we might add that Genet is also an arguer in the sense of Roland Barthes’s description of himself as someone who needs to argue for/with his feelings rather than to justify them. Genet’s fiction, in print and on stage, is theatre exactly as White says it is; and it is also a lyrical or polemical evocation of regions where the intelligence ends, the sort of place where Wittgenstein wanted us to throw the ladder away.

Mignon, once arrested, is said to step into ‘a new universe’: ‘the universe of the irremediable’. Genet was haunted by this universe and terrified of it, he longed for it and kept trying to escape it. ‘The religious ideal,’ he wrote, ‘is perhaps the one that has most shaken me.’ Late in life he scrupulously described his vision of a non-existent God, the great all-observing jailer: ‘I mentioned two days ago that God holds no place in my life. The truth is perhaps different: if I don’t believe in God, nevertheless I react all the time as if I were manipulated by Him, and as if He had, day and night, all the time, His eyes on me.’ Prison and surveillance are the irremediable, they are the eyes of God, and have become a state of mind. Yet in his life and his writing, notably in the remarkable Prisoner of Love, Genet seems finally to have found and made visible a previously unimaginable country, a zone of freedom and action within the heartland of despair. He understood, as gay communities often have and as punks at one stage did, how the energies of travesty can enliven the respectable prisons of prejudice; he knew how the Algerians and the Palestinians could continue their struggle when the odds were so much against them that they were no longer odds at all.

Genet said trivial, stupid and offensive things which no amount of radical ingenuity can reclaim. He sympathised with Lee Oswald because he saw him as a solitary opponent of ‘American society’; he thought blacks in America had ‘a natural poetic sense’ which informed their politics; Stalin’s mass murders were for him mere figments of anti-Communists gossip; he admired the ‘violence’ of Baader-Meinhof, which he opposed to the ‘brutality’ of the slate. White quotes a 1971 letter in response to an invitation to write a political text about conditions in France:

I don’t want to publish anything about France. I don’t want to be an intellectual. If I publish something about France, I’ll strike a pose as an intellectual. I am a poet. For me to defend the Panthers and the Palestinians fits in with my function as a poet. If I write about the French question I enter the political field in France – I don’t want that.

A poet is someone who doesn’t strike intellectual poses – at home. Many of Genet’s stances were mere luxuries, including the absurd stance of pretending not to be an intellectual, ‘I would like the world not to change so that I can be against the world’ represents the same posture, but also seems to be self-mocking, more than halfway into irony, since by 1968, when he said this, Genet had shown in all kinds of ways that he wanted the world changed and was ready to help to change it. And even in the midst of his thoroughly indefensible antics, a quirky, elusive integrity surfaces, a form of fidelity not only to the margins of our world but to whatever is extreme and terminal in it. Because Genet came back from the edge so often does not mean the edge was not real, or that he was not ready to cross it, and he himself could always upskittle his poses with flashes of amazing candour: ‘What nonsense! I’ve never helped the Palestinians. They’ve helped me to live.’ Unlike many other literary players in the world of politics, Genet remembered the irremediable; or better, it dogged him and he flirted with it, and so got to know it better than those who marry it or forget it or bury it in easier dreams of liberation.

Jean Genet was born in a Paris welfare clinic in 1910, to a young mother who gave him her name and, when he was seven months old, handed him over to a hospice. She died in 1919. A foster family was found for him in the market town of Alligny-en-Morvan. White suggests that contrary to much of Genet’s own mythology, the boy’s childhood was happy and comfortable. But he needed attention, he was conscious of his orphaned, welfare-child status, and appears to have begun to steal in order to risk discovery and to purchase affection: he took things carelessly and at random, and gave them to children he liked. At 13 he was sent to a welfare school from which he kept running away, and after various escapades found himself in Mettray, an ‘Agricultural and Penitentiary Colony’ near Tours, to which he was to devote such lyrical energies in Miracle of the Rose. Mettray was a perverse paradise for Genet, a counterworld, or at least he chose to present it as such, and he returned to it again and again in his fiction. After Mettray he joined the army, and was stationed in Syria and Morocco. Finally, in 1936, he deserted and began a life of vagabondage which he would effectively only give up when he was in prison: various sentences in Fresnes and La Santé between 1937 and 1944. During this time and shortly after, between 1942 and 1947, he wrote some poems and five brilliant and delirious works of fiction (Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle, The Thief’s Journal) and was discovered by Cocteau.

White writes delicately and warmly about Cocteau’s generosity and also his ambivalence towards Genet. Genet was now a celebrity, and became a friend of France’s other postwar star, Sartre, who in 1952 published a mammoth introduction to Genet’s Complete Works. Fame, and an unhappy love affair, appear to have plunged Genet into gloom, and White offers this image of him in the early Fifties:

a little bald man with a boxer’s broken nose, brilliant blue eyes, a lightning attack in conversation that followed many long pauses, someone who was always travelling, living in third-class hotel rooms, usually near the train station, often in miserable provincial towns of no interest, all his worldly belongings in a small suitcase. He was neat but often wore the same clothes – a leather jacket or black and white tweed overcoat and dark corduroy trousers. His money he carried in cash, usually great wads of it. If he was robbed he didn’t much complain about it.

The image changed very little after this. White quotes an American observer at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, an event Genet was writing about for Esquire, as saying he looked like ‘a retired welterweight Teddy Bear’, and in Nigel Williams’s 1985 Arena film he is wearing jeans, tee-shirt, windcheater, perches warily on a stool, a mischievous and still possibly dangerous animal, or a small human bomb. There is also kindness visible in him, though, and a marked modesty, an odd, almost unfathomable mixture of warmth and asceticism.

In the later Fifties, Genet had another burst of creativity and wrote his three great plays (The Balcony, The Blacks, The Screens), which were followed by even greater fame, an intense inability to write, the suicide of a lover and Genet’s own suicide attempt. By the late Sixties, Genet had found the Black Panthers, though not much else. The theatricality of everyday life had caught up with him and emptied him out. The Seventies were a sort of lost decade. A throat cancer was diagnosed in 1979, and then against the odds, appropriately, Genet wrote a clear-eyed and complicated masterpiece in The Prisoner of Love. (Genet’s first contact with the Palestinians had been in 1968, although his major activities on their behalf – which included a harrowing essay on the massacres at Shatila and Sabra – came later.) Jean Cau said that Genet aspired to be ‘the Mallarmé of Inversion’, and this is as true of political as it is of sexual inversion. The Prisoner of Love begins and ends with the image of a page covered with black signs, except that for Genet the page can at last regain a certain purity, as it never could for Mallarmé. Genet has understood how the Palestinian revolution is different from others – ‘d’une certaine façon je l’ai compris’ – but what remains for him is the uncertain memory of a particular house and a particular night, a world beyond the words of any page: ‘This last page of my book is transparent.’ Genet died in a small Paris hotel in 1986.

Edmund White’s biography is intelligent and graceful and admirably unjudgmental. He is willing to call Genet’s behaviour foolish, and to disbelieve Genet’s stories: he says what he finds unacceptable or incipiently racist in Genet’s wilder remarks. But he doesn’t feel called up to attack or defend Genet’s life in any fulsome way, and the result is a curious intimacy in the story, as if White were describing a tiresome, even impossible, but much admired friend. The book is long but doesn’t feel long. It takes a while to settle down, and says it’s seeking a pattern in Genet’s life when White knows that’s the last thing to look for; later he calls himself a chronicler, which comes closer to what he’s doing most of the time. When I read in the introduction that Genet’s notoriety ‘drew attention away from his literary value’, I wondered whether I was in for a session of literary whitewash, and there are times, early in the book, when White tries too hard for the grand manner, lapidary and prophetic: ‘Language was his province, as he was to be its creature.’ But these uncertainties quickly vanish, and White settles into his own forms of precision, his sense of the ‘narrow and urgent domain’ of The Thief’s Journal, of the ‘pitiless cosmology’ of the homosexual world in Genet’s fiction. He understands and names the mode of ‘exorcism through profanation’ that Genet practises in his work, and suggests that ‘Genet’s greatest originality (that is, his greatest perversity) is that he deals with the biggest questions of the day more as a dandy than as a moralist.’

At the centre of the book – considered as a biography rather than as a chronicle or a sensitive account of Genet’s writing – are two unpublished documents: a letter to Sartre, and a screenplay called The Penal Colony. The letter offers a theory of homosexuality and the screenplay projects a world in which crime, as one of the characters says, is a country, the loved homeland of those who have not lost the sense of evil. Homosexuality, Genet writes to Sartre, is a symbolic avoidance of death, or rather the symbolic enactment of the death one cannot otherwise face, a version of death in the realm of the imaginary: ‘incapable of thinking about death in clear, rational terms, I look at it symbolically by refusing to continue the world. Instinct leads me toward my own sex. My pleasure will be endless.’ Endless and pointless, the double meaning suggests. Hence people are wrong to think that the drag queen embodies ‘nostalgia about the idea of the woman one might have been’. Exactly the reverse is true; the character arises from ‘the bitter need to mock virility’. Genet goes on to speak of the ‘fragmentary mind’ of the homosexual. What’s astonishing here, I think, apart from the celebration of negativity and the weird entanglement of instinct and symbolic process, is Genet’s remorseless investment in meaning. Everything is to signify; life is not only theatre but insistent allegory, performed a second time in a displaced interpretative playhouse.

The screenplay takes us, as White says, to ‘the very heart’ of Genet’s obsessions. It revives Mettray (‘the workshops, the shaved skulls, tattooed bodies, shared cigarettes, the celebration of mass’) and adds, White reports, ‘a tropical sun, a desert and savage Black guards, and in this setting [Genet] has placed a tragic tale about the need for glorious deeds in a world of the already dead’. Genet calls the projected movie ‘a homosexual drama’ but also says ‘the only homosexual in this story is me.’ The gaze and the behaviour are homosexual (Genet’s word is pédérastique), but the characters don’t see themselves that way. And the viewer? Genet hopes the story and images will ‘enter without hesitation, without a fuss and without being refused, into no matter which conscious mind, n’importe quelle conscience’. This is close to what Sartre says of Genet’s other works (‘they are addressed to everyone and aim to displease everyone’), but ‘everyone’ and ‘no matter which conscious mind’ seem in context to be implicitly heterosexual, indeed almost stereotypically so. There is a good bourgeois who is to be homosexualised, so to speak. A homosexual, Genet says, is someone who ‘is out of step with the world, who refuses to enter the system that organises the entire world. The homosexual rejects that, denies that, shatters that whether he [sic] wants to or not.’ This is not a plight, or even an orientation, it is a project – and it concerns the bourgeois lurking within the homosexual as well as the homophobic world outside. There are parallels to colonial and other political situations here – the kind of complications picked up, for example, in Caryl Churchill’s plays. Even a young black American writer, Genet suggests, must sometimes meet ‘in his very centre, in his own heart ... a white whom he must annihilate’. It’s important to see that this figure is not all there is in the young black’s heart, any more than the insulted bourgeois is all there is in a homosexual imagination; but it is true that Genet’s contributions to what White calls homosexual culture are embattled and complicated affairs, not only because, as White adds, Genet himself would have laughed at the idea of such a culture.

Genet’s homosexual project is based on what he saw as a given ‘nature’. He refuses to accept Sartre’s notion that homosexuality is a choice: ‘Pederasty was imposed on me like the colour of my eyes, the number of my feet.’ More often, Genet sees homosexuality as something like a character trait, not simply imposed but also not something one is going to change. It is characteristic of him that he could both speak of homosexuality as his greatest treasure and celebrate it as precisely the evil its worst enemies saw it as being. As White puts it, ‘no religious zealot could attack the hell of homosexuality with more vigour and spleen.’ I think of Baudelaire, who said the only source of pleasure, volupté, was the certainly of doing evil. Genet might substitute the word freedom for the word pleasure, but the need for evil would be the same. This spectacular inversion is not a liberation; it is a vision of the world as a perpetual prison.

Genet is very precise about what he calls the mechanism of this vision. White quotes a celebrated passage from The Thief’s Journal:

With each charge lodged against me, no matter how unfair, in my heart of hearts I answered yes. Scarcely had I muttered this word – or a phrase that meant the same thing – than I felt within myself the need to become what I’d been accused of being. I was sixteen years old. I’d been understood: in my heart I’d maintained not a single corner where I could preserve the feeling I was innocent. I recognised I was the coward, the traitor, the thief, the faggot that they saw in me ... I became abject. Slowly I grew accustomed to this condition. I admitted it with tranquillity. The scorn people felt for me changed into hatred: I’d succeeded. And yet what agonies I’d undergone! Two years later I was strong.

No matter how unfair, not a single corner of the heart, scorn into hatred. The unjust eyes of God are everywhere, and cannot be refused, any more than death can be refused. But they can – the passage describes the painful beginning of the miracle – be taunted and their very scrutiny can be turned into a bitter theatre. It’s not exactly that Genet says, in Sartre’s words, ‘I decided to be what crime made me.’ We can’t get around Sartre’s brilliant formulations of Genet’s life and work, and we shouldn’t want to, since they say so much of what needs saying. But we can inflect them, bend them a little from their daunting clarity. Genet mimes and parodies what others call crimes – what he calls crimes, although with a dizzying degree of sardonic inversion and doubleness. This way he arrives at what he calls, still with deceptive simplicity, with bleakness and pain half-hidden in the straightness of the language, ‘the ease of hopelessness’. ‘My courage consisted in destroying all the usual reasons for living and in discovering others for myself.’

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