Of the Artwork

Jean Genet
(Stanford University)
Twelve of Genet's short pieces and an extended interview are presented here. The interview is conducted by the German novelist and anthropologist Hubert Fichte, and reading it is not unlike reading one of Genet's books or seeing one of his plays.

That is, everything is somewhat screwy --- all the values are reversed, good is bad, bad is good; Genet wrote in The Thief's Journal that the great virtues are "thievery, treachery, and sodomy."

The interview with Fichte is one of the few that Genet granted during his lifetime, and since he was rather old (it took place in 1976; he died a few years later) it has the feeling of a summing up. As if anything ever could be summed up for Genet.

Some will find delight in his sheer cussedness; Genet didn't follow any party line except his own. At one point, Fichte refers to Genet's "beautiful brutality, elegant brutality." Genet responds that he was thirty years old when he wrote those books, and now he is sixty-five. Fichte says, "And this fascination, which was so bewildering to me, this admiration for assassins, for Hitler, for the concentration camps..."

Genet responds:

    I remind you that I was an orphan. I was raised by Public Welfare. I found out very early on that I wasn't French and that I didn't belong to the village --- I was raised in the Massif Central. I found this out in a very stupid, silly way: the teacher asked us to write a little essay in which each student would describe his house. I described mine, it happened that the teacher though my description was the prettiest. He read it out, and everyone made fun of me, saying, "That's not his house, he's a foundling!" and then there was such an emptiness, such a degradation...

With typical Genet logic jump --- and his jumps of logic are monumental --- he turns this memory of childhood mockery into a loathing for France:

    I immediately became such a stranger ... oh! the word isn't too strong, to hate France is nothing, you have to do more than hate, more than puke France, finally I ... and ... the fact that the French army, the most prestigious thing in the world thirty years ago, that they surrendered to the troops of an Austrian corporal, well, to me, that was absolutely thrilling. I was avenged.

He concludes, "I could only love someone who had dealt such a serious blow to French society."

Fichte is a fine interviewer. We learn not only about the more lurid parts of Genet's life and works --- his time with the Black Panthers, his addiction to Nembutal, his contrary philosophy ("I would like for the world to change so that I can be against the world") --- but, too, we discover here the less well-known bits of his life and thought. One comes away awed by the sheer breadth of his knowledge, and the very coherent --- sometimes strangely coherent --- views on Noh, de Sade, Mozart, Doestevsky, Monteverdi, Rembrandt, Brecht, the Borgias, Stendal, Cuba, Giacometti, Bobby Seale, Mallarmé, Balzac, Pierre Boulez, Japan, Danton, Freud, Flaubert, The Iliad, Sartre, Angela Davis, the Palestinians.

For example:

  • On Genet's influence. "I would be wary about what you're saying. It risks giving me an importance that in my opinion I don't have."
  • Revolutions? "One has the impression in the end that revolutions are carried out by family men."
  • His time in the reformatory at Mettray: "All the boys were between fifteen and twenty-one years old; there was no recourse except in a fleeting homosexuality, and that's what made it possible for me to say that in the reformatory I was truly happy... despite the punishments, despite the insults, despite the blows."
  • His first writings: In prison, he was to send out a Christmas card, and "where you're supposed to write, it was rough and grainy. And this grain on the card really struck me. Instead of writing about Christmas, I wrote about the texture of the postcard and the snow it evoked for me."
  • On crime: Why do murderers, when they write, almost always give descriptions of themselves, of their acts, or of their imaginary acts, that sound like First Communion?"

Stanford University has the reputation of putting out texts that are virtually impenetrable. This one is an exception. The Fichte interview alone is worth the price of the book. The thirty or so pages dedicated Alberto Giacometti might be considered not only a piece of art, but a typical Genetian mirror-reversal. Here, Genet is the interviewer, Giacometti is the subject, and the whole is a prose-drama (Genet was equally famous for his prose pieces --- The Thief's Journal, Our Lady of the Flowers and his plays --- The Balcony, The Blacks.)

And so we get the combination, the art of the writer, the art of the sculptor:

    We go to have a drink. His is coffee. He stops to take better notice of the keen beauty of the Rue d'Alésia, such a light beauty, thanks to the locust trees, whose keen foliage, sharpened by transparency in the sun more yellow than green, seems to suspend a gold powder above the street.

    Him: It's pretty, pretty...

    He resumes walking, limping. He tells me he was very happy when he found out that his operation --- after an accident --- would leave him lame. That is why I will chance this: his statues still give me the impression that they are taking refuge, finally, in the secret infirmity that grants them solitude.

Or this:

    Giacometti tells me that he once had the idea of molding a statue and burying it. (Immediately one thinks: "May the earth rest lightly on it.") Not so that it could be discovered by someone, even much later, when he himself and even the memory of his name have disappeared.

§     §     §

But all is not perfect in Genetville. His paean to his Arabic sweetie Abdallay --- a tightrope walker --- does repeat itself in to absurdity: death, the wire he walks on, "The wire was dead --- or if you like, mute, blind --- but now that you are here, it will live and speak..." yaddita yaddita. But even in these overcooked passages, Genet is still so wondrously strange that we forgive him.

This is an old gay man, dying; Abdallay was his last love; he was worried about his body; and he says in the interview with Fichte that "young Arabs are not ashamed of an old body, and old face. Growing old is a part... I won't say of their religion, but it's part of Islamic civilization. You're old, you're old."

God, we think. Even crabby old Jean Genet was fretting about his sagging bod. Too bad he didn't write one last play called "The Geezes," about these old wrinkled studs, starting a revolution, shooting up the streets, tearing down the walls, terrorizing the bourgeoisie...

Those of us who were smitten with the topsy-turvey world of Genet so many years ago will find an old friend in this volume. The translations by Jeff Fort and Charlotte Mandell are lively and worthy.

--- Jean-Louis Parmentier


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH

Send us an e-mail