Jean Genet, Literary ‘Black Prince,’ Dies
Jean Genet, the French author who created a macabre world of thieves, whores and murderers from the depths of his own perverse experiences, died Tuesday.
He was 75 and died at his modest Paris home of throat cancer.
Dubbed the “Black Prince of Letters” by Jean Cocteau and called a “liar, thief, pervert, saint and martyr” by Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet has been alternately hailed as a great dramatic poet of literature and damned as the occupant of a private hell who set his demons loose on the literary world in ongoing waves of horror.
His plays and novels had been attacked in his native France, praised in the United States and banned in many other nations.
An admitted prostitute and often-imprisoned thief, Genet was abandoned by his unwed mother at an early age and raised by peasants in the French countryside who were paid by the state to care for him.
In his autobiographical “The Thief’s Journal,” Genet wrote that he was falsely accused of thievery as a boy and sent to reform school. There he vowed to reject a society that had so wronged him and to become what he was accused of being.
“I went towards theft as towards liberation, towards the light,” he wrote.
He was in and out of reform institutions until age 21, when he briefly joined the Foreign Legion. That venture lasted but a few days and he deserted, supposedly taking with him some officers’ suitcases.
Between world wars he lived as a vagabond, selling his body throughout Europe or picking whatever pockets became available. And when those two vocations failed him, he simply begged in the streets.
By 1947 he had written the first of his poems and novels but simultaneously was facing a life term in prison as an incorrigible criminal who had already served 10 terms for theft and other charges.
Andre Gide, Sartre, Cocteau and other French intellectuals prevailed on the government to pardon him and he was allowed to publish the novels he had started in the early 1940s.
The first of these--"Our Lady of the Flowers"--was a harbinger of things to come. Its protagonist was a male prostitute named Divine whose dying thoughts were of his past lovers.
Written in Prison Cell
“Lady” was written during the World War II German occupation of France from Genet’s prison cell on pieces of brown paper intended as bags. It was not published until years later and was followed by “The Miracle of the Rose,” “Funeral Rites,” “Querelle de Brest” (a parallel account of two murderers that became German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film in 1982) and “A Prisoner in Love,” just completed and to be published posthumously.
The Genet output was primarily autobiographical and drew heavily on the erotic and violent themes that dominated his own life.
Murderers were right, society distorted and homosexuals were saints.
His dramas included “The Balcony,” set in a brothel, and “The Screens,” a 1966 play which condemned the French army for its war against Algerian independence.
Although Genet generally was mild of manner, unlike his characters, he was banned from the London premiere of “The Balcony” after insulting the actors at a rehearsal.
The Paris staging of “Screens” so provoked the audience that the actors were pelted with chairs and bottles. Oddly, one of his most controversial dramas, “The Blacks,” proved successful in America, where it ran for 672 performances in 1960-62.
Always the social outcast, Genet sympathized with the plight of the American black and created a play featuring an all-black cast (with some in whiteface) battling on- and off-stage racism.
He wrote a film called “A Song of Love” (not widely seen because of its glorification of homosexuality) and a volume of poetry called simply “Poemes.”
Genet first came to the United States in 1968 to cover the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine. He returned two years later to live with members of the Black Panther Party.
By then he had been credited with creating what many saw as a unique grammar of negativism played out in his theater of the absurd.
Sartre, in his treatise “Saint Genet: Comedian and Martyr,” said it this way:
“With each book, this possessed man becomes a little more the master of the demon that possesses him.”
Likened to Kafka
American writer Susan Sontag likened him to Kafka and Proust, “as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style” of any seen in this century.
In 1983, the French minister of culture presented Genet with the Grand Prix award in literature, officially acknowledging what his contemporaries had been saying for years.
Genet, who said modestly that he only wrote to get out and stay out of prison, said that he had lived to “decisively repudiate a world that had repudiated him.”