Jean Genet Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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

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.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 545 words.)