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EXCITABLE BOY : GENET: A Biography, <i> By Edmund White (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 728 pp.)</i>

<i> Daniel Harris is an essayist and book reviewer whose work also appears in Harper's, Salmagundi and New York Newsday</i>

Thug, thief, poet, prostitute, playwright and novelist Jean Genet is often read more for his biography than for his books. For many of his fans, his celebrity rests, not upon his laurels, which include such acclaimed works as “Our Lady of the Flowers” and “The Maids,” but upon his police record--an immense dossier of petty thefts and citations for vagrancy, of robberies of the defenseless johns he mugged while working as a whore in the toilets of Paris and of the forgeries that he himself made of his own manuscripts when he became famous, selling them at extortionist prices to avid collectors who believed they were buying the original drafts of his books.

A somewhat undiscriminating disciple of Genet, gay novelist Edmund White has written an extraordinarily lucid biography of this low-down street tramp who was rescued from the gutter by members of the French intelligentsia and exploited throughout his life as a vehicle for their vicarious slumming. White describes his subject, to use historian Tony Judt’s memorable description, as an idiot savant who came to embody the very essence of French culture at its most disingenuously perverse--a paradox in light of the fact that his formal education ended abruptly at the age of 13 when he began his sordid career as a vagabond. His pockets crammed with dog-eared manuscripts exalting the machismo of pimps and murderers, he traipsed across Europe, eventually settling into a homosexual subculture filled with sexually alluring criminals and their menacing girlfriends, the infatuated drag queens who, throughout his fiction, chatter among themselves in a lush and irresistibly campy form of slang.

The bastard son of a penniless seamstress, Genet was abandoned as an infant in 1910 and raised in the country by foster parents, by all accounts a loving family of hard-working peasants whom he was later to slander for the sake of supplying his own legend with the missing chapter of an unhappy childhood. Caught stealing from a blind man, he was soon incarcerated in something called a Penitentiary Colony, a reformatory that White describes in lurid sociological detail as a combination of a maximum security prison and a Draconian boarding school straight out of the pages of a 19th-Century novel. In this militaristic, all-male paradise, this sexually active teen-ager quickly acquired what was to become his lifelong obsession with rough trade.

After working as a hustler in Paris (where he became so destitute that he was once forced to eat a cat), he spent most of the years between 1942 and 1947 rotting in solitary confinement while scribbling his novels on small scraps of paper and throwing himself into classical French literature as one of the most voracious autodidacts of the century. In between long stints in prison, he met Cocteau and Sartre, who lionized him as France’s preeminent poete maudit or cursed poet, a sort of Norman Maileresque Jack Abbott who was embraced with typical Parisian prurience as an enfant terrible , even as he continued to rob his patrons.

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When Genet became famous in the late 1940s and his novels acquired a readership beyond a coterie of gay men (who first bought his work surreptitiously as one of the only available forms of pornography), he still maintained a close and intensely sexual connection with the underworld. He continued to operate as the ring-leader of a circle of small-time crooks who forged identity papers, trafficked in stolen goods, and beat and robbed their homosexual tricks. Genet, who was later to assume the self-righteous stance of an impassioned advocate of human rights, considered what was essentially fag-bashing as a savage form of recreation for the straight bruisers he deified in both his fiction and in his real life, sharing with them the professional secrets of how to lure their johns to deserted parks and dark alleyways.

Not surprisingly, the international notoriety he received in the 1950s from his sadomasochistic plays transformed him into an insufferable prima donna who, during fits of rage, yanked the table cloths off of the tables at expensive restaurants, stabbed a publisher with a fork, ripped off friends, made anti-Semitic comments and left in his wake a path strewn with grisly suicides and irreparably damaged lives. When he callously dumped his lover Abdullah, an accomplished circus acrobat who plummeted from the high wire and injured his knees, the lame performer fell into a black depression and slit his wrists in an act of macabre homage to Genet’s books, which were found scattered around his body, meticulously annotated and soaked through with blood.

Attempting to formulate a rationale for his erratic behavior, Genet spouted puerile nonsense to the effect that he “can’t accept a morality that’s handed down” and “would very much like to throw off conventional morals"--statements that the French bourgeoisie received with deadly earnestness, titillated by all of his salacious naughtiness, which seemed to them proof they were in the presence of a Nietzschean superman.

After long periods of unproductive silence, which persisted intermittently until his death from throat cancer in 1986, Genet took up politics in the 1970s and began joy-riding on Leftist causes, becoming the foremost European apologist of the Black Panthers, whom he idolized for both their rebelliousness and their masculinity. In perhaps the most preposterous scene in the entire biography, Genet took too many amphetamines one night before going to bed during a visit to the United States and, at the beguiling age of 60, danced in a pink negligee for three speechless Panthers, who must have witnessed, in the grizzled and toothless figure bumping and grinding before them, one of the most uncanny collisions of French and American culture in the entire 20th Century.

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The basic assumption of this painstakingly thorough biography is not only that the genius of Genet’s work excuses all of his spoiled eccentricities and violent caprices, but that these despicable antics provide incontrovertible evidence of his greatness. White wallows in his subject’s illicitness, offering up one misdemeanor after the next as testimony to a deplorably conventional notion of the modern artist’s sociopathic nonconformity.

Herein lies the ironic strength of a biography that, in the hands of another author, might have fizzled out into facile hagiography, but that in fact provides a devastatingly accurate and psychologically acute portrait of an out-and-out scoundrel who produced what one critic has described as “graffiti written in verse on Japan paper.” Whereas many biographers feel compelled to protect their subjects from the full disclosure of the skeletons in their closets, subscribing as they do to more conservative ideas of how truly original artists ought to behave, White delights in ferreting out Genet’s most compromising secrets. His slavish veneration has led him, not to whitewash his subject’s crimes, but precisely to celebrate them as confirmation of his demonic literary powers. Reverence has, in this peculiar instance, thus paradoxically enhanced White’s scrupulous faithfulness to the facts rather than detracted from it. For those of us who are bored with Genet’s self-conscious depravity mixed with a philosophical posturing and a noxious preciosity of style, the biography only bolsters our sense of the inflated nature of his reputation, reading as it does like an inadvertently decimating attack rather than the fulsome panegyric it was intended to be.

The biography also unwittingly provides a clear picture of the intellectual milieu that has made the overestimation of Genet’s value as a writer possible in the first place. Post-war French culture seems to have been plagued by the anxieties of a set of upper-middle-class individuals paralyzed with fears of their own inauthenticity, of being pale, attenuate, bloodless simulacra of human beings rather than the hearty and vital peasant they fantasized they had discovered in this glamorous criminal.

Genet was an invention of a society obsessed with its ideological antithesis and, moreover, one hypnotized by its philanthropic dedication to the arts. Carried away by a spirit of noblesse oblige, French aesthetes sought to prove to themselves the purity of their commitment to culture by fabricating a mythic figure whom they elevated out of the muck in an act that was at once altruistic and self-exalting.

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In allowing himself to be saved from the gutter, Genet remained faithful all the while to his otherness, his proletarian violence and spontaneity. This token representative of the dispossessed functioned among the educated classes as the embodiment of an entire country’s gloatingly complacent conception of itself as an unflinching admirer of beauty, however unfathomable the depths to which it was forced to sink to find it.

Genet, in His Own Words

He was a well built man, wide-shouldered, but he felt within himself the presence of his own femininity, sometimes contained in a chickadee’s egg, the size of a pale blue or pink sugared almond, but sometimes brimming over to flood his entire body with its milk. He knew this so well that he himself believed in this quality of weakness, this frailty of an enormous, unripe nut, whose pale white interior consisted of the stuff children call milk. The Lieutenant knew to his great chagrin that this core of femininity could erupt in an instant and manifest itself in his face, his eyes, his fingertips, and mark every gesture of his by rendering it too gentle. He took care never to be caught counting the stitches of any imaginary needlework, scratching his head with an imaginary knitting needle. Nevertheless he betrayed himself in the eyes of all men whenever he gave the order to pick up arms, for he pronounced the word “arms” with such grace that his whole person seemed to be kneeling at the grave of some beautiful lover.

--from “Querelle.”

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