Jean Genet Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111206314-Genet.jpg Jean Genet in 1963. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Genet was one of the major innovators in French theater in the period following World War II. His work helped transform concepts of Western drama and marked one of the golden ages of theater.

Early Life

Jean Genet was born in Paris, France, on December 19, 1910. He was left in the care of the national foundling service and eventually was sent to foster parents. When he was twenty-one, he was given his birth certificate. He discovered that he was born in a maternity hospital in Paris and that his mother used the name Gabrielle Genet. His father remained unknown. His foster parents were peasant landowners in the Morvan region of France. Under Catholic tutelage he, at first, did well in school and was well liked. Then, for undetermined reasons, Genet began to steal. By his early teens, Genet found himself in a reformatory in Mettray. His time there only served to turn him into a hardened person. Genet escaped from the reformatory when he was twenty and joined the French Foreign Legion. He did so, though, only to collect the enlistment bonus and deserted after a few days.

At that time Genet’s adult criminal activities began. He was, at different times, a thief, counterfeiter, bootlegger, male prostitute, and dope smuggler. His life led him to experience jails in Spain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Germany. By 1948, he was sent to jail in France for the tenth time. The law was such that if one acquired ten arrests, one was condemned to prison for life. Having already begun writing, Genet had caught the attention of a circle of literati, among whom were Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. These writers petitioned the President of France for a pardon for Genet, and it was granted. With his release, Genet left behind his life of crime and turned wholly to his writing.

Life’s Work

According to Genet, he began writing by chance when he heard the poem of a cell-mate which he thought poor. Challenged to do better, he wrote one of his own. Though it was not liked, it inspired him to continue writing. While in a prison south of Paris, he managed to publish “Le Condamné à mort” (1942; “The Man Condemned to Death,” 1965). It was a poem written to the memory of a friend, Maurice Pilorge, who had been executed earlier. Genet received encouragement, and he turned to writing novels.

Genet’s first novel, Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944, 1951; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), was written in 1942. He had begun it on brown paper bags only to find that the bags were confiscated. The warden claimed that they were improper material for writing. Undaunted, Genet ordered notebooks and rewrote the fifty pages that he had written. The novel is the chronicle of the fantasies a man in jail has to bring himself to orgasm. Though not autobiographical, it is told in the first person and has references to Genet’s life.

Genet’s next two novels, Miracle de la rose (1946, 1951; Miracle of the Rose, 1966) and Pompes funèbres (1947, 1953; Funeral Rites, 1968), are also written in the first person. They are both semiautobiographical in that, though Genet is the narrator, he is describing memories and fantasies. The latter novel has, in fact, a setting outside jail. In this novel is first seen Genet’s political touch, a theme that would become more refined in his plays.

In Querelle de Brest (1947, 1953; Querelle of Brest, 1966), Genet is no longer in the work. The main character is Querelle, a sailor, and the action is set in Brest, a port city in northwest France. It is an exploration of sexuality and power through Querelle. Genet’s final novel was Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954). This is the most autobiographical of Genet’s work and documents his early adult life. It remains, though, a narrative based on memory, which Genet concedes is not necessarily factual. Genet claimed that with this work he had said all he needed to say, and thus it would be his last. He fortunately came out, though, with five plays. It was in these plays that his writing became its strongest.

Genet’s writing to this point had been a contrast between the beauty of his style and the baseness of his message. His prose is almost poetic as it describes the elevation of evil. Genet was a thief and believed himself to be outside society. He saw two professions outside society—that of the criminal and that of the saint. The saint is the paragon of good; the criminal, of evil. As the saint was elevated from corrupt society, Genet set to elevating the criminal. The main problem was society, and Genet...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)