Abandoned to a foundling home in 1910 at the age of seven months, he started to steal before puberty, spent over two years as a teenager in the penal colony of Mettray, signed up with the French army for several tours of duty, and deserted. He traveled through Europe and was arrested in Albania, Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland. He was also repeatedly arrested and sent to jail in France—for embezzlement, for petty theft, for vagrancy—and his record of convictions made him liable for a life sentence until he was pardoned by the President of the Republic. He looked like a dandified tramp or a retired boxer. He frequented thugs and artists or philosophers, criminals and police chiefs, prostitutes as well as cabinet ministers. A book lover, he owned no books. A homosexual, he was rarely attracted to other homosexuals. A great champion of singularity, he came to feel that all human beings were equally valuable. Though he showed himself capable of impassioned friendship, he extolled and often practiced betrayal. He once boasted of being “strong from never having passed through a woman except at the moment of [his] birth” (p. 594). Yet he was a feminist. For a long time he could barely compose a standard letter in French but, when he died from throat cancer in 1985, he had written several masterpieces. He was Jean Genet.
If, in his monumental Saint Genet, Sartre pays more attention to the configuration of the writer’s life than to the moments making up that life, Edmund White, in his admirable biography, patiently aligns the moments and waits for patterns to emerge. Genet is, first of all, a meticulous chronicle and can be savored for the details it provides about the protagonist’s daily life or its context, from gay bars in Pigalle to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago which Genet covered for Esquire. We learn many things. For example, that the FBI spelled his name as “John Genet” and Sartre’s as “Jean Paul Sat”; or that Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) started his career by playing in movie versions of two Genet plays: The Balcony and Deathwatch.
Through the accumulation of facts and anecdotes, great themes—homosexuality, death, abjection, gesture, power—slowly crystallize and White writes splendid pages on the quality of Genet’s texts (beyond their shock value: Genet said that “poetry is the art of using shit and making you eat it”). Written from 1942 to 1947, his five novels (Our Lady of the Flowers, The Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, A Thief’s Journal, Querelle) treat homosexuality with unsurpassed candor, glorify evil, transvalue all values, and blend sociology and myth, slang and highly formal language, in a sumptuously lyrical prose. With The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens—composed between 1955 and 1957—Genet invents a stylized and ritualistic theater to explore the dynamics of power. Finally, in the striking mixture of memoir, pamphlet, and epic called The Prisoner of Love [End Page 146] (1985) Genet exalts two disinherited groups—the Black Panthers, the Palestinians—and suggests that love is the site where uniqueness and universality merge.
More generally, certain constants in Genet’s life become evident: the loyalty to the abandoned child he was and the hatred for the bourgeois society that dispossessed him; the need to reject before being rejected; the fascination with power and the affirmation of otherness; the ability to mythify himself as an angel of rebellion. Genet was a sociopath of genius.
Above all, by its scrupulous scholarship, its successful determination to remain impartial, and its capacity for authoritative prosaism, White’s biography encourages readers to take a (new) look at Genet’s flamboyantly unorthodox writing. It is a remarkable achievement.