WAY TO GO
In 1965, when I was 21, a 25 yr. old American I had met showed me a copy of a book he had brought from America with him when he came to this country. It was called Our Lady Of The Flowers and the author was one, Jean Genet, a name I had never heard of till then. On the front cover, there was the Brassaï photo of Genet as he was in 1947, in which he looked like a rather sensitive pugilist with short cropped hair and flat broken nose. His thin arms were thrust into his trouser-pockets. He wore a slightly rumpled shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up, and a thick belt held up his trousers. His head looked enormous, with sunken expressive eyes and a full sensuous mouth. It has always been my favourite photo of Genet, and here it was fronting a book I’d never heard of by an author I knew nothing about. That photo itself persuaded me that this was a writer I wanted to read. “Skip the introduction by Sartre.” my new American friend advised me. So I went straight into Genet and have never looked back. In fact, I became obsessed with his writing and devoured all of his novels and, later, his poetry and plays. More than any other writer, more even than Proust, who I fell in love with a little bit later, he became some kind of icon for me. Indeed, if there was one writer I wanted to be, it was Genet. This obsession was with the man as well as the writing and it led me into reading several biographies, including Sartre’s monumental ‘existential psycho-analysis’, Saint Genet - Actor and Martyr, as well as the two very pedestrian English biographies which appeared in the 1960s. The fascination, if not the obsession, has stayed with me ever since; more recently, it induced me to read Edmund White’s much more definitive and exhaustive biography, Genet, which was the first to do real justice to Genet’s life and literary output. The great strength of White’s biography lies in its obvious sympathy with its subject, a sympathy which no doubt stems from the fact that he shares Genet’s sexual proclivities. However, there was no real attempt to enter Genet from the inside and really empathise with him. It was, in other words, a conventional ‘objective’ biography and one that needed to be supplemented by the far riskier ‘subjective’ approach of the poet. And it is such an approach which lies at the heart of Jeremy Reed’s biography entitled jean genet: born to lose - an illustrated critical history.
Unlike White’s, Reed’s strategy is definitely inward. He not only attempts to present Genet from the inside, as it were, he clearly identifies with his subject and renders him passionately. In other words, he risks the investment of himself in his subject and it is this fact which makes jean genet: born to lose such an exceptional and singular work. There are of course, dangers in this approach, not least of which is that one is not always sure where Jeremy Reed ends and Jean Genet begins, but at least Reed has taken the risk and that outweighs, in my opinion, any negatives that might accrue from such an approach.
Reed presents Genet thematically rather than chronologically. Such a method of presentation is certainly much more conducive to the approach he adopts than the ‘objective’ method of other biographers. The 28 short chapters have titles like two punks: rimbaud and genet, jaques guerin: the man who owned proust’s bedroom, a woman’s story: violette leduc and jean genet, drugs, genet’s photographs and death. Anything in fact which allows Reed to get an imaginative handle on his subject and render him from within. It is, in my opinion, a highly effective approach to Genet and allows Reed to present aspects of Genet which would be absent in a more conventional approach. What comes across in the most forceful way is the manner in which Reed’s own inner poetics is used to illuminate Genet’s inner poetics. This, as I’ve said, has its dangers, but it does give the book as a whole a consistency and aesthetic unity which a more ‘objective’ approach would have lacked. What Reed brings out very vividly is the extent to which the alienating brutality of Genet’s childhood and adolescence spent in reformatories such as Mettray drove him into himself in ways that made daydreaming become “his focal point”. Reed goes on: “Writing is neither a substitute for life, nor a therapy aimed at rehabilitation, but a pursuit in which inner and outer realities find reconciliation through imagination. What Genet filtered through his unconscious at Mettray became in time the reality of his fiction. To imagine is to suffer, and Genet’s courage in confronting his past was the precise quality which made him a poet.”
Despite Reed’s passionate identification with his subject, his study does not gloss over the less salubrious aspects of Genet’s behaviour and writing, although it is refreshingly free from any taint of moralising or political correctness. It is always better, after all, to give writers who lived in a different age to ourselves, the benefit of the doubt concerning their particular outlooks. One of the things which most appealed to me about Genet when I first read him, was his very direct and unselfconscious treatment of homosexuality. Nowadays, with the advantage of post-feminist hindsight, it is easy to see that he expressed many attitudes - such as misogyny - which, when I first read him, I tended to take at face-value. Reed himself brings out the internalised homophobia that was always close to the surface in him and which was perhaps the source of his decline as a writer from the truly transgressive works of the 40s to the more anodyne political works of the 50s and 60s. I am in complete agreement with Reed in seeing in Genet’s later work a falling off of his creativity. This goes no less for Prisoner of Love than for plays like The Blacks and The Screens. (I still think The Balcony, however, is a play of extraordinary insight.) In his later work, the source of his original inspiration began to dry up. I do not believe that an identification with particular political causes can even begin to make up for that loss. In fact, I regard it as some kind of diversion, a way of not confronting the real issue of his own sexuality, especially after his links to his criminal past had become severed and criminals no longer became the subject of his writing. Had not Genet carried with him the baggage of internalised homophobia, Eros would have set him free to develop as a writer rather than wither. This internalised homophobia is partly why he fell in love with straight rather than gay men - in other words, as Reed says, he chose emotionally sterile bonds to ones which were not. But, of course, this pattern was set very early on in his life, so there was probably not very much he could do about it, even if he had wished. His internalised homophobia was undeniably connected to his identification with his earlier life in reformatories and among the (homophobic) criminal fraternities of his youth which he had strongly identified with. So in a sense, in being homophobic, you could say that he was still being true to himself and his past. We should not, after all, see everything in terms of an abstract post-gay liberationist or feminist political perspective, because that would entail the loss of imaginative focus which Reed has brought to his portrayal of Genet.
As I have said, the approach has its dangers. To give one example, when Reed mentioned Cocteau’s refusal of the dedication of Funeral Rites out of fear for his own reputation and having his name linked to Genet’s “pro-Hitlerian sympathies with Aryan youth”, I couldn’t help thinking that these sympathies were more aesthetic and erotic than political, which the term “pro-Hitlerian” suggests. (Genet’s actual fantasised portrayal of Hitler in Funeral Rites would have hardly endeared him to the Nazi Party hierarchy I suspect!) His aim, in other words, was purely transgressive. He had a hatred of France - and probably quite rightly, given the way it had treated him. That would be reason enough to identify with an enemy - any enemy. And as a criminal whose whole Eros was soaked in the underworld he came of age in he probably identified with the purely criminal aspects of Nazi Germany as well, though whether that made him an ideological Nazi is another question entirely. Nor should we overlook the equation between homosexuality and betrayal in the relationship between Riton, the traitor, and Eric, the German soldier in the novel. Genet was very keen on that theme. Many 50s and 60s British spies for Russia - Burgess, Maclean and Vassall especially - were homosexual. After all, considering the post-war treatment of Alan Turing, who might be seen as something of a saviour for Britain during the 2nd. World War, there was not much incentive for gays not to betray their country. Also, not to be forgotten in this context is the fact that in The Thief’s Journal Genet said that he could not fulfil himself as a criminal in Nazi Germany because the whole country was dedicated to crime. It was the poetic and erotic element of criminality and transgression, along with the idea of betrayal, which appealed to Genet in Funeral Rites, not, I suspect, Nazism as an abstract political philosophy.
Another aspect of Genet which deserves more attention - though this is no reflection on jean genet: born to lose - is the fact that he hailed from a Catholic country and his writing is saturated with Catholic imagery. I think it is only completely intelligible in that context. The same is also true of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, of course. I don’t think that a writer from a Protestant background would be quite so concerned with rituals such as the Mass and Holy Communion, which seem to have fascinated Genet. I mention this because I think it is as important in the overall critical equation as Genet’s androgyny and the transvestism of character’s like Divine in Our Lady of the Flowers. Genet’s peculiar kind of sainthood, seems to me to be an inverted Catholic sainthood, and it is one aspect of Genet which someone from a Protestant background such as myself would not find so easy to identify with. Then there’s the question of Genet’s pre-occupation with Evil. This also seems to me as religiously inspired as Baudelaire’s was in his Flowers Of Evil. Nietzsche, who wanted to go beyond these categories of Good and Evil, was the son of a Lutherian pastor and perhaps for that reason was able to shake free of these concepts. In Catholicism, the eschatology of Good and Evil, sin and redemption, seems much more intrinsic than in Protestantism, because it is much more institutional, permeating the religious and secular culture that Genet grew up in much more completely. Sartre, I believe, came from a Protestant background, which perhaps explains his pre-occupation with freedom and the idea of choosing one’s path in life-- echoes of the Protestant Kierkegaard?-- not to mention his bizarre Kantian belief that in choosing one’s path in life, ethically speaking, one chooses for everyone else. (Kant’s background was also a Protestant one.) Protestantism depends much more on the idea of individual conscience and choice, and is not so heavily invested in Good and Evil as metaphysical forces. I recall, when I was younger, and Genet’s work was first being discussed here, that he was invariably referred to as The Poet of Evil by his critics, but I could never quite relate to those concepts, and that was perhaps because I was not raised in a Catholic environment and had therefore never absorbed them. That, of course, didn’t prevent me responding to the power of his writing. After all, we still respond to the power of Homer without believing in the religious concepts which inform so much of his work. This is not a criticism of jean genet: born to lose, since Reed has his own individual focus to which a discussion of these particular questions would not have been relevant. However, I do believe Catholicism is an important variable in the overall critical equation of Genet and this is often lost sight of. (I recall a friend of mine saying, after he'd read some Genet, that Genet would return to the Church at the end of his life. But I think Genet, like Rimbaud, was far too intelligent for that.)
All this aside, jean genet: born to lose is a unique biography based on an approach which risks a great deal, but is carried off with extraordinary panache. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the approach to lesser writers, but Reed pulls it off fantastically well. It provokes thoughts and feelings about its subject in ways that few biographies do.