Other Literary Forms

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Jean Genet’s literary career began with a small group of lyric poems, highly personal in subject matter, the first of which was the 1942 work “Le Condamné à mort” (“The Man Condemned to Death”). Collected in Poèmes (1948), their quality has been a matter of much debate. Genet has written four novels, Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944, 1951; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), Miracle de la rose (1946, 1951; Miracle of the Rose, 1966), Pompes funèbres (1947, 1953; Funeral Rites, 1968), and Querelle de Brest (1947, 1953; Querelle of Brest, 1966). His autobiographical work, Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal, 1954) appeared in its original version in 1948 (only four hundred copies were printed), with a revised and expurgated version appearing in 1949. This so-called autobiography is perhaps more allegorical than factual, yet it remains the only available source on Genet’s early adult years. Genet’s ballet scenario, Adame miroir, with music by Darius Milhaud, was performed by the Ballets Roland Petit in 1946. His nonfiction includes essays on the philosophy of art, the most important being the 1957 “L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti” (“Giacometti’s Studio”) and the 1958 “Le Funambule” (“The Funambulists”); essays on dramatic theory, the most important of these being “Lettre à Pauvert sur les Bonnes,” an open letter to the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1954 concerning The Maids and including the letters to Roger Blin concerning the production of The Screens (collected as Letters to Roger Blin, 1969); and a series of sociopolitical broadsheets, including pamphlets in defense of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian liberation movement. His four-volume uvres complètes appeared in 1952.

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Achievements

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Despite Jean Genet’s comparatively small output of only five published plays, which includes two one-act plays, he, along with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, ranks as one of the major innovators in the French theater during that period (between 1945 and 1965) that witnessed the triumph of “the absurd” and led to the transformation of the whole concept of drama in the West.

The drama of this period, which includes that of Jean Tardieu and the earlier works of Fernando Arrabal and of Armand Gatti, is frequently defined as “absurdist” or as “neo-Surrealist.” Neither term can be applied strictly to Genet, whose ancestry is to be sought much more profitably among the Symbolists of the beginning of the century and who appears to have been as unfamiliar with Antonin Artaud as with Bertolt Brecht until about 1954. Setting aside a precise debt to Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet seems to have evolved most of his fundamental dramatic theories, as opposed to his theatrical techniques, quite independently of his contemporaries. Thus, his drama is far more original than the works of, for example, Arthur Adamov or Jean Vauthier.

Genet was reared as a Catholic, and behind his theater lies a mystic’s vision of the world. Everything that exists, exists simultaneously in two dimensions: that of “pure materiality,” which is purposeless, meaningless, and in the fullest sense absurd, and that of an ideal transcendence, which is the domain of “purified significance,” independent of any need to be confined by reality, the domain of absolutes, of “angels” and of “miracles.”

Neither of these dimensions, experienced alone, is tolerable. Pure materiality is existentially nauseating in its unjustifiable and arbitrary contingency; pure transcendence is unbearable, in that it is quite literally inhuman. Miracles are “unclean” (immonde, a key pun in Genet’s philosophy, meaning both “not of this world” and “unspeakably filthy”). Truth, or “poetry,” begins at the meeting point at which pure materiality is enhanced by the apprehension of a significance beyond and at which transcendence is humanized by being chained to some aspect of brutal and sordid reality.

Abstruse as this may sound, this theory constitutes the basis of Genet’s theater. At the root of all theater, Genet declared in his letter to the publisher Pauvert, lies the ceremony, or ritual, of the Mass. In this ritual celebration, the real and the transcendental coincide absolutely. The celebrant priest is both an ordinary human being and the officiating Servant of God. The Blessed Host is both a nondescript and rather tasteless bit of wafer and the Body of Christ. No disguise, no illusion, no sleight of hand is necessary. It is the strength of faith in the communicant that will bring about the transformation of one dimension into another. To Genet, in this fundamental sense, all theater is religious: It is, or should be, an experience as intense as that of a personal communication with the beyond.

Because audiences in this century are rarely imbued with that degree of fervor in their religious beliefs sufficient to transmute reality into symbol, Genet had to find alternative sources of emotional commitment capable of effecting the transformation. He made use of three sources: sexuality (deviant in particular), politics of the extremist variety, and racial confrontation, together with a minor but effective adjunct (in The Balcony), which is blasphemy. None of these is used for its own sake, but rather for its efficiency as a theatrical device—for the sake of its effect on the emotions and the psyche of the audience. Genet’s theater is a theater of hatred, summoned up for its pure emotional intensity, its ability to involve an audience so immediately and personally in the issues concerned that they will transmute the actors into symbols, with no need of illusion, costume, or any of the props of a naturalistic theater. If the supreme poetic experience is that which transmutes “real” into “sur-real” without abandoning the plane of everyday reality, then a play that commits the audience to a hatred of the actors that is so intense that they forget that they are in a theater is the supreme poetic experience.

Thus, by a roundabout route, Genet comes to link hands with the absurdists, with the neo-Surrealists, and with all the other leaders of the revolt against naturalism in the theater. His characters are never stable with the stability of day-to-day existence. They exchange identities, as in The Maids, they wear masks, as in The Blacks—yet the masks are invariably ill-fitting, half-revealing the “real” actor hidden behind them. They work out their Utopian fantasies in looking-glass brothels beneath the menace of a looking-glass revolution, as in The Balcony. On the other hand, they engender an atmosphere of violence and of commitment totally foreign to the politically tranquil metaphysical despair of Beckett or Ionesco. In this, they herald the later confrontationist theater of the 1970’s and 1980’s, that of Roger Planchon and of Ariane Mnouchkine. To write a play, The Screens, at the time he did, about the war in Algeria, with the Algerian revolutionaries as heroes and the French occupying forces as obscenely ludicrous, was an act of supreme political courage or one of senseless foolhardiness, or else of calculated nihilism. Or, perhaps it was an act that embodied Genet’s dramatic philosophy in its most perfect form: a play calculated to raise the emotions of its Parisian audience to such a pitch that the transmutation of reality into symbol would operate of its own accord, and the supreme poetic communication between dramatist and audience would be achieved with the barest minimum of naturalistic subterfuge.

A final constituent of Genet’s achievement lies in his dramatic language. In translation, this is difficult to recapture because it involves dramatic poetry of the highest order; yet its subjects and situations, even given the most liberal interpretation, must be classed as unpoetic. In early reviews of his plays, the epithet “hysterical” recurred constantly. Like Paul Claudel, Genet is a master of a certain kind of impassioned rhetoric that is rare in the French tradition; however, he applies it to situations where it is, to put it mildly, unexpected. His black prostitutes and his destitute Arab riffraff “speak with the tongues of men and of angels”; his squashed-cabbage-leaf domestics have inherited the poetry of Juliet and Cordelia. It is shocking and yet it is right, this “sudden gift of tongues,” as Tardieu expressed it, “loaned unexpectedly to the eternally tongue-tied.” As with all truly great dramatists, Genet’s ultimate achievement lies in the fact that he is a poet.

Other literary forms

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Jean Genet opened his literary career with a small group of highly personal lyric poems, beginning with “Le Condamné à mort” (“The Man Condemned to Death”). His poems are collected in Poèmes (1948) as well as in the later collections Treasures of the Night (1980) and The Complete Poems (2001).

Genet published several plays, including Les Bonnes (pr. 1947, revised pr., pb. 1954; The Maids, 1954), Haute Surveillance (pr., pb. 1949, definitive edition pb. 1963; Deathwatch, 1954), Le Balcon (pb. 1956, revised pb. 1962; The Balcony, 1957), Les Nègres: Clownerie (pb. 1958; The Blacks: A Clown Show, 1960), and Les Paravents (pr., pb. 1961; The Screens, 1962). A so-called autobiography, Journal du voleur (1948, 1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954), contains probably more allegory than fact, but it remains an important source of information on the early years of Genet’s life. Genet’s nonfiction includes essays on the philosophy of art, such as “L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti” (“Giacometti’s Studio”) of 1957 and “Le Funambule” (“The Funambulists”) of 1958, and essays dealing with dramatic theory, of which the most important by far is the “Lettre à Pauvert sur les bonnes,” an open letter to the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert written in 1954 including letters to Roger Blin (collected as Lettres à Roger Blin, 1966; Letters to Roger Blin, 1969) and various prefaces to his own plays. Genet also wrote a series of sociopolitical broadsheets, beginning with “L’Enfant criminel” (“The Child-Criminal”) of 1949 and leading to a sequence of pamphlets in defense of the Black Panthers (perhaps epitomized in his “May-Day Speech” of 1968) and of the Palestinian liberation movement.

Achievements

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In any attempt to assess Jean Genet’s achievement as a novelist, it is essential to separate his qualities as a writer from what might be termed the “sociological” aspect of his subject matter. Though the two interact, in the critical period between 1945 and 1965 it was the nonliterary import of his work that predominated. Genet’s name came to be synonymous with the growing demand of the post-World War II generation to read what it wanted to read and to learn the truth about the less palatable aspects of the human condition, regardless of what a paternalistic censorship might decide was good for it.

In this attempt to break through the barriers of what now seems like an antiquated obscurantism but what until the late twentieth century was a powerful and deeply rooted social attitude, Genet did not stand alone. In this respect, he trod in the footsteps of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, of Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau; among his contemporaries, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov were inspired by similar aims. The battle over Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was fought and won in 1961; behind the writers stood a small group of publishers (Grove Press in New York, Gallimard in Paris, Rowohlt-Verlag in Hamburg, Anthony Blond in London) who were prepared to fight their cases through the courts. In comparison with many of his contemporaries, Genet had one distinct advantage: He wrote in French. French censorship allowed greater latitude to “clandestine” publications (usually in the form of “limited editions,” available to subscribers only) than did that of other countries. This same censorship turned a blind eye to books that, although published in France, were in languages other than French (hence the fact that Genet’s earliest translator, Bernard Frechtman, lived and worked in Paris). The French magistrates presiding at censorship trials had always at the back of their minds the specter of that guffaw of disbelieving ridicule that still echoes over their predecessors, who, within the space of half a dozen years, had condemned as “immoral” both Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868).

As a result, Genet, who never once resorted to anonymity or sought to disguise who or what he was, was able to appear in print with material whose publication would have been inconceivable at that time in other societies or under other conditions. It was at this point that the quality, both of his writing and of his thought, became significant, for it won over to his cause a group of eminent figures who would scarcely have bothered to jeopardize their own reputations by championing a mere “pornographer.” Thus, in 1950, when the prestigious firm Gallimard decided to risk publishing Genet’s four novels (expurgated remarkably lightly) together with a selection of the early poems, the editors were able to call upon Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading intellectual of his generation, to write an introduction. This introduction, moreover, which appeared in 1952, constitutes what is one of the most significant treatises on ethics written in the twentieth century: Saint-Genet: Comédien et martyr (Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, 1963).

French literature from the eighteenth century onward can boast of a long tradition of writers—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade, by way of Guillaume Apollinaire, to Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille, and Monique Wittig—who have used the “pornographic” novel (that is, the novel whose principal material resides in the detailed description of extreme and violent forms of sexual experience) not merely to titillate the reader’s imagination but for positive and serious purposes of their own. These purposes vary: The intention may be one of self-analysis or of “confession,” it may be a concern with the absolutes of realism, or it may be a matter of denouncing the hypocrisies and the false assumptions by which the majority of “right-thinking people” choose to live. Mystics have been fascinated by the “surreal” quality of erotic experience, but so have anthropologists. The violence of sexual intensity constitutes one of the most readily accessible means of intuiting a dimension of irrational transcendentality; progressively, as European thought has moved toward a climate of materialist rationalism, the attraction of the irrational has grown more powerful. It is perhaps Genet’s most significant achievement, in this quasi-sociological domain, to have brought for the first time into the full light of intellectual consciousness the role that “inadmissible” dimensions of experience may play in humankind’s objective assessment of itself. To describe this, in Freudian terms, merely as “beneath the ego lies the id” is to bury it under the colorless abstractions of a Viennese-based scientific observer trained by Jean-Martin Charcot. Genet, in the characters of Divine and Mignon, of Bulkaen and Harcamone, of Jean Decarnin and of the Brothers Querelle, clothes these aspects of the human psyche in flesh and blood, illuminates them with the brilliant and torturous recall of his own experiences, and gives them an unforgettable reality.

Bibliography

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Brooks, Peter, and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Devoted primarily to Genet’s plays, but there are two essays on his novels, and the introduction provides a good overview of his life and career. Includes chronology, bibliography, and an interview with Genet.

Cetta, Lewis T. Profane Play, Ritual, and Jean Genet: A Study of His Drama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974. Examines themes of Genet’s drama.

Choukri, Mohamed. Jean Genet in Tangier. Translated by Paul Bowles. New York: Ecco Press, 1974. A recounting of Choukri’s encounters with Genet in Tangier, Morocco, from 1968 to 1969. A short work, it gives a view of Genet the man.

Coe, Richard N. The Vision of Jean Genet. London: Peter Owen, 1968. From the author’s note, “This book is not a biography of Jean Genet; it is a study of his ideas, his art, his imagery and his dreams …as he has chosen to give them to us in his [work].” Coe, in this work, intended, perhaps, for scholars, examines Genet’s works through the theme of solitude.

Driver, T. F. Jean Genet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. In this study of Genet and his works, Driver brings his Christian background to bear. Driver finds in Genet’s works a movement from the pornographic to the spiritually uplifting. The brevity of the work, combined with a short but informative biography, makes for an interesting perspective when compared to other critical works.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Genet. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Excellent revision of a valuable introductory study. See part 1 for chapters on Genet’s life and on his individual novels. Contains chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.

McMahon, Joseph H. The Imagination of Jean Genet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. See especially the introduction and chapter 1, “The Birth of an Imagination.” Provides brief bibliography.

Plunka, Gene A. The Rites of Passage of Jean Genet: The Art and Aesthetics of Risk Taking. London: Associated University Presses, 1992. This analysis of Genet and his works focuses on the psychology of risk taking. Includes bibliography and index.

Read, Barbara, and Ian Birchall, eds. Flowers and Revolution: A Collection of Writings on Jean Genet. London: Middlesex University Press, 1997. Insightful essays on the author. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. New York: George Braziller, 1963. The classic biography, which made of Genet a kind of dark saint of modernism. No notes or bibliography.

Stewart, Harry E., and Rob Roy McGregor. Jean Genet: From Fascism to Nihilism. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Examines Genet’s political and literary leanings. Bibliographical references and an index are provided.

Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein & Day, 1968. Especially valuable are part 1, exploring both Genet’s biography and his major themes (evil, homosexuality, sainthood, and language). Part 2 is devoted exclusively to discussions of his novels. Includes bibliography and detailed notes.

White, Edmund. Genet. New York: Knopf, 1993. Novelist and critic White has contributed a worthy successor to Sartre’s influential biography. White is more scholarly than Sartre, but he writes clearly and with flair. Provides very detailed notes and an extremely thorough chronology. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

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