Genet: A Biography by Edmund White

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Genet: A Biography Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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At a glance:

  • Author: Edmund White
  • First Published: 1993
  • Type of Work: Literary biography
  • Time of Work: 1910-1986
  • Setting: Primarily France; also Africa and the United States
  • Characters: Jean Genet, Camille Gabrielle Genet, Eugénie Regnier, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Decarnin, Lucien Sénémaud, Decimo, Mohammed el Katrani, Tacky Maglia, Abdallah Bentaga, Bernard Frechtman, Marc and Olga Barbezat
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
  • Subjects: Prisoners, France or French people, Gay men, Homosexuality or homosexuals, Sex or sexuality, Crime or criminals, Authors or writers,Abandoned children, Drama or dramatists, Acrobatics or acrobats
  • Locales: Africa, France, United States

In 1952, the world-renowned Jean-Paul Sartre, at the height of his career, published a critical disquisition, more than six hundred pages long, on a comparatively unknown homosexual writer-thief, Jean Genet. This remarkable work, Saint Genet Comedien et Martyr (Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, 1963), accepted and celebrated many exaggerated, half-true claims that Genet had made about his past: that he had “chosen” to become a prostitute and a thief, that he had “chosen” to be homosexual, that he had been socially alienated by having been abandoned by his mother, unloved by his foster parents, poorly educated, and generally cast out of bourgeois society, and that he had pursued an alternative, depraved lifestyle in order that, by doing evil, he would discover the evil that he had been told possessed him. According to Sartre, Genet’s counterculture experiences made him the perfect existentialist hero, for he decided to play the role into which life had already placed him. Sartre was delighted to publicize his version of Genet as someone who, born in a meaningless and hostile world, willed the existence he had been given. It was as if Jean-Jacques Rousseau had come across a live Noble Savage who would confirm his views of primitivism.

Edmund White, American-born but a long-term resident of France, himself a novelist, essayist, and declared homosexual, devoted six years of research and writing to producing this first full-scale life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted, complex, and baffling writers. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, White’s study is candid, comprehensive, balanced, stately, and sympathetic but by no means sycophantic. Unfortunately, it is also cluttered by too many lengthy quotations and the often pointless appearances and disappearances of a multitude of minor characters. White asserts a goal for his work that he fails to achieve: “Few people may think a sexual and social deviate… can provide an example to others, but this biography shows how such a transformation can be wrought.” It does not. The moral or aesthetic example of Genet’s life and letters eludes White’s-perhaps anyone’s-understanding. To be sure, White’s book is indispensable as a repository of information about Genet. It constitutes, however, only a stepping-stone toward more perceptive interpretations that future scholar-critics will devise.

Little can be discovered about Camille Gabrielle Genet, who listed her occupation as “governess,” age as twenty-two, and status as single when she signed in at a public welfare clinic and gave birth to Jean on December 19, 1910. In French, genet is the name of a common broom plant, frequently growing in the countryside, and Genet often fantasized about his name as establishing his roots with French soil and history. His shadowy mother kept him for seven months, then abandoned him to the French state, which classified him as Public Assistance Ward Number 192.102 and placed him with a carpenter and his wife, Charles and Eugenie Regnier, in the small town of Alligny-en- Morvan, 150 miles southeast of Paris.

Genet passed a placid, Catholic childhood in dull and...

(The entire section is 2,478 words.)