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Saint Weidmann Philip Watts E UGÈNE WEIDMANN, the author of six dramatic murders in Paris in 1937, first appears to us on the opening page of Genet’s Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, culled by the author from the front page of a Parisian daily newspaper. From this liminal position in Genet’s first novel, Weidmann was to remain an emblematic figure in the gallery of criminals whose exploits Genet glorified throughout his work.1 Weid­ mann is also a transitional figure, a flesh and blood assassin whose pres­ ence in Genet’s text permits a passage from the world of newspaper prose and public figures to Genet’s private and poetic gallery of criminal saints. The demarcation between a public prose on the one hand, and Genet’s writing on the other is not as clear as it may seem, however. When Genet turns to Weidmann as what we might call a model criminal he is selecting a celebrity felon who had, with his six murders, violated the laws of the same bourgeois society that had imprisoned the author. More than this, however, in Weidmann, Genet has also found a figure who, through his own self-fashioning and through the writings of com­ mentators at the time, has already crossed the line from ordinary assassin to criminal saint and literary artifact. Weidmann, more than any other criminal of his time, had become the subject of a literary gaze, his exploits and his physical features described and aestheticized by writers as varied as Bernanos, Geo London, Janet Flanner and Colette. Without discounting the importance for Genet of a source such as the popular magazine Détective, which ran a special issue on the killer in 1937, we might consider that Genet turned to Weidmann, not only because of his status as a criminal, but precisely because he was, from the day of his arrest, marked by terms that Genet found in the papers and would re­ cycle in his novel. By the time Genet completed his portrait of Weidmann, discursive practice around the celebrated trial had already turned the felon into an aestheticized criminal dandy and a quasi-literary figure.2One of the cen­ tral aspects of the case was, of course, Weidmann’s German nationality. The mounting tensions between France and Nazi Germany infused the case with nationalist fervor and the popular press regularly played this cord, calling Weidmann a pure product of Nazi propaganda and com­ Vol. XXXV, No. 1 11 L ’E sprit C réateur paring him to a series of other monstrous criminals, all German. Some investigators even suspected Weidmann of being a Nazi agent acting under the direct orders of the Gestapo. German papers, for their part, apparently fearing precisely this type of comparison, hardly mentioned Weidmann and his crimes at all (Colombani 244). At the same time, how­ ever, there developed around the assassin a religious aura that bordered, in the eyes of some commentators, on saintliness. Shortly after Weidmann ’s arrest, for example, Georges Bernanos, upon seeing a picture of the killer in an evening newspaper, wrote to Weidmann’s attorney Renée Jardin: Il me semble que, passé un certain degré dans l’horreur, le crime se rapproche de l’extrême misère aussi incompréhensible, aussi mystérieux qu’elle. L’une et l’autre mettent une créature humaine hors et comme au-delà de la vie. J ’ignore tout du misérable que vous assistez. Mais il est impossible de regarder sans une espèce de terreur religieuse les admirables photos de Paris-Soir.3 Even if Bernanos was predisposed to seeing the saint in every sinner, he was not alone in his assessment. Weidmann himself participated in the process of sanctification, as, during his last weeks in prison, he took to praying incessantly and began to read L ’Imitation de Jésus-Christ, a 15th-century pious text that had known a resurgence of interest among artists and intellectuals at the end of the 19th century. The day of Weid­ mann’s execution one defense attorney stuffed medallions of the Virgin into his pocket and another, noting that the killer took communion shortly before being executed...


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