A personal essay – An Introduction to Genet
“To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.” Jean Genet, from The Thief’s Journal, 1949.
Although Genet had been ill with throat cancer for many years, it is believed he died after falling in his hotel room and hitting his head.
“… Genet’s own death, intimately anticipated, still caught him violently by surprise. And that surprise of death struck Genet’s readers too, since almost all had assumed him already dead after a silence of many years: Genet’s death contrarily recussitated him.”
(biographer, Stephen Barber, from Chapter 1, page 11 of his book ‘Jean Genet’ *screenshot of back cover info below; also see bibliography / Further reading, footnote 1)
My first encounter with Jean Genet’s work was via the world of fine art in summer 2011. Nottingham Contemporary art gallery held an exhibition reflecting Genet’s life and work. It was the first time the gallery focussed on the theme of celebrating the life of an individual (and so Genet, in afterlife, made small local history, having made international notoriety many years before).
The Nottingham Contemporary Genet exhibition was a beautified and gentle introduction to this controversial author for which I am grateful. During the exhibition I attended a series of workshops entitled ‘Reading Genet and Writing as Curating’ where I was priveleged to copies of some of Genet’s texts to read, reflective discussions with other participants and guidance from the workshop leaders. I learnt during these sessions that David Bowie’s song ‘Jean Genie’ was at least in part inspired by Jean Genet. Bowie was interested in using some of Genet’s work in a production of his own and the two arranged to meet in London in the early 1970s. I was told that Bowie, aware of Genet’s homosexuality, dressed as a woman in full female-styled make-up to avoid any potential sexual advances or Genet’s attraction! (*see footnote 2)
The first of our workshop readings was Genet’s essay ‘The Studio of Albert Giacommetti’ (1957) – this had been held in high acclaim, notably by the artist Pablo Picasso who described it as the best art criticism essay he had ever read. Giacometti himself was also impressed by the essay, even though Genet proposed “…the statues of Giacometti should be offered to the dead, and that they should be buried.” Interpretation of that statement’s meaning can be quite open to possibility! I had long been a ‘fan’ of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, but reading this essay gave insight and new understanding of his work. I was stunned in particular by the squalid description of Giacometti’s environment.
Genet had made national history in France in 1949 when he narrowly avoided life imprisonment following repeated convictions for very petty crimes. These had included altering or evading train tickets, stealing books and fabric swatches and the most serious of his crimes being ‘acts of indecency’, as Genet was homosexual. A number of prominent French intellectuals including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Jean Paul Sartre petitioned the French President and Genet was officially pardoned. Cocteau had helped Genet obtain publishing deals for his novels, the earliest of which Genet wrote whilst in prison (‘Our Lady of the Flowers’, 1942-3, *see footnote 3).
Genet became the subject of several portraits by Giacometti (some of these were shown in the Nottingham art exhibition noted above), including the one below, dated 1st September 1954 :
Genet’s play ‘The Blacks (Clown Show)’ is his second play*, staged first in Paris in 1959. In 1961 when staged in New York, ‘The Blacks’ became the longest running non-musical Off Broadway production on record with over 1400 performances. The New York cast originally included Maya Angelou as the Queen. (*see footnote 4)
From the late 1960s Genet became known as a political activist – in France protesting the treatment of immigrants, particularly Algerians; he supported the cause of the Palestinians and travelled to the Middle East, staying in Palestinian refugee camps where he spent time writing, often in fragments. He is known to have met with Yasser Arrafat. He also supported the Black Panthers and gained illegal entry to the USA to join their rallies in 1971 at the invitation of the Panthers leaders.
‘Four hours in Shatila’ is another of Genet’s essays we were assigned to read and discuss. This essay was written in 1982 while Genet was staying in Beirut. It is a disturbing and graphic account of witnessing the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Shatila camp. Although it isn’t pleasant reading, such work is of incredible and profound importance.
Aside from the fact that Genet’s work generally isn’t light reading, my experience has been that many a potential reader may be put off reading his works owing to the nature of biographical information and generalised descriptions concerning the topics his writing involves. His work interweaves vulgarity and beauty, depravity and humility, can be both surreal, disturbingly realistic and graphic, and at times immensely humbling. It can be challenging reading, driving competing emotions and quite uncomfortable. Genet seems incessantly interested in the tensions between l’amour and le mort (love and death). Genet authored numerous works: poems, fiction and semi-fiction, documentarian writing, political protest, his surreal and spectacular plays (contributing to a new genre which was coined ‘Theatre of the absurd’ – but not quite meaning ridiculous).
Genet had experienced an imperfect adulthood, which followed a very difficult adolescence following childhood tragedies – all of which you can read elsewhere if you wish. Around the age of 13, Genet was arrested in Nice, France, having run away from home. He claimed to be making his way to Egypt or America to become a film-maker. In spite of almost lifelong ambitions toward film-making, Genet only made one film piece, ‘Un Chant d’Amour’, 1950. However other film-makers adapted some of his literary works. (*see footnote 5)
Genet’s influence is also apparent in the work of other writers: Jean Cocteau’s ‘Saint Genet’ – after which Genet was so displeased he didn’t write for five years; Jaques Derrida’s work ‘Glas’ and Michel Foucault’s writing, ‘Discipline and Punish’.
After Genet’s death, Dire Straits remembered Genet in a song titled ‘Les Boys’ on the album ‘Making Movies’ – you can have a listen at that YouTube link – perhaps, like me, it’s the first time you’ll have heard it.
Keen to avoid repeating a ‘potted history’ of linear chronological fashion, I preferred to share the gentle introduction to Jean Genet that I had enjoyed and signpost you to further reading of his works, a few of which are available free online, or to other articles that may be of interest. I made the beginning of my introduction to Genet from a point of view beyond the time of his death, from the moment his work made an impact on my own artistic / creative life. Taking you backwards and forwards with glimpses into his life from there, following Genet biographer, Edmund White’s lead:
“Jean Genet’s life describes an astonishing unpredictable arc, to which none of the usual biographical approaches is adequate… The various developments in such a life do not flow one from another and a biographer would have to do violence to his personal legend in order to suggest a logical evolution. Genet was undoubtedly a genius to whom the usual rules of consistency do not apply…”
Edmund White from his introduction to Stephen Barber’s biography ‘Jean Genet’, (cited in footnote 1)
There is so much more I would have liked to have included in this writing but there is plenty of it out there already about Jean Genet. I have extended both my deadline and my word count beyond enough.
It seems fitting here to draw to a close with this final quotation, steering full circle back toward Genet’s death:
“… though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand – all the millions of emotions of which I’m made – they won’t disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they’ll still be there because of them. … life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows … will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, that happiness will live on. ›I‹ may die, but what made that ›I‹ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me.”
(abridged quote from http://them.polylog.org/5/fhw-en.htm – further direct citation to Genet’s writing needed, *see footnote 6 )
Bibliography / Resources / Further reading:
Footnote 1 – (a) Stephen Barber’s biography of Genet is an accessible, enjoyable and informative read with photographic illustrations. An online sample is available at GoogleBooks, showing a limited number of pages but with the introduction by Edmund White excluded from the preview. At Amazon, a sample for Kindle can be obtained that includes White’s introduction for Barber’s biography.
*Footnote 2 – the only online reference I could find to validate this Bowie-Genet story comes from this forum post, quoting from Edmund White’s ‘Genet’ biography quoting from page 572:
“…. About this time Genet had a fleeting contact with another English rock star, David Bowie. David Bowie wanted to star as Divine in a film version of ‘Our Lady Of The Flowers’. Genet and Bowie agreed to meet at a particular restaurant in London. The others in Genet’s group looked around for Bowie in vain, but sharp-eyed Genet spotted an attractive woman sitting by herself and went up to her table and said, “Mr Bowie, I presume.” His presumption was accurate.”
This is sourced from an interview the author (White) had with a person called Paule Thevenin in 1989 and which is acknowledged at the back of the biography.
*Footnote 3 – ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ is perhaps one of Genet’s most popular novels. I’ve listed a pdf version available to download in the next section but so far have only skimmed the file content.
*Footnote 4 – via the ‘look inside’ tool, you can sample a small amount of Genet’s play ‘The Blacks’ at this Amazon listing.
*Footnote 5 – Genet’s art film on YouTube (‘Un chant d’Amour’ includes scenes of homo-eroticism – I haven’t watched it all the way through yet so cannot advise on degrees of sexual explicity.) Film adaptations of Genet’s plays and other writings are listed in Gutenberg’s article.
*Footnote 6 – this quotation of Genet is taken from William Haver’s Essay The Ontological Priority of Violence On Several Really Smart Things About Violence in Jean Genet’s Work.
Some free online sources of Genet’s writing:
NB: These appear to be genuine published translations of Genet’s texts but I am unable to verify them and accept no responsibility or liability. These links were live at the time of posting but over time may be subject to change.
UbuSound has an audio file of a reading of Genet’s poem ‘La condamné a mort’ in French (read by the french-algerian actor/musician Mouloudji with music composed by Andre Almuro. Even if you don’t understand the French language, this is an amazing listening experience – if you have time and the facility, please do check it out!
N.B: If you can recommend or come across any other online resources concerning Genet’s work, or have feedback to help improve this article, or have anything to add by way of discussion, your contribution(s) in the comments would be very welcome 🙂 (although I am guessing this article is far too long and maybe you’re not even reading this?)
The photograph of Jean Genet at the top of this post is a public domain image obtained from wikimedia commons.
The images of Giacometti’s sketch of Genet and the book back cover info are low resolution screenshot captures from online sources of copyrighted material. As this is a personal essay posted on a non-commercial website, published in the interest of education with no financial gain to myself and with appropriate accreditation to the origins of such information, I assert the inclusion of these images in my post here to be legitimate and fair use. I accept full personal responsibility for publishing to Blogger’s World within this essay those images included in my essay under the terms of fair use of copyrighted material.