Abandoned by his mother, Genet was handed over to foster parents when he was only one year old. At fourteen he apprenticed himself to a typographer near Paris. He ran away first from the typographer and then from other homes and institutions in which he was placed, beginning a life of wandering and stealing. In order to get out of an agricultural penitentiary in 1929, he joined the French army. After serving one full tour of duty, he re-enlisted, only to desert in 1936. This was followed by years of stealing and being sentenced to prison terms.
While in prison, Genet started to write poetry and to work on a novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), an autobiographical fiction about criminal life and homosexual passion that was secretly printed and circulated by admirers of his work. In 1944, having spent most of his life in and out of prisons, he was freed as a result of support from the admirers of his writing. After World War II ended, he published numerous poems, novels, and plays, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre began to champion his writing.
Despite Genet’s literary success, his work remained highly controversial. In 1948 French authorities banned his radio script “The Criminal Child.” In 1951 all of his books were legally prohibited from sale in the United States, and when Our Lady of the Flowers was finally published in the U.S., in 1963, his American publishers worried about censorship.
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