Thief, Hustler, National Treasure


Genet: A Biography

By Edmund White

Knopf, $35

Perhaps more than any other writer of this century, Jean Genet celebrated what made him an outsider. An orphan, a homosexual, a thief and a prostitute, he spent the first half of his life in and out of jail. Genet gladly embraced society's definition of his sexuality as perverse, and then perversely glorified oppressive all-male environments: prison, brutal reform schools and the SS all received romanticized treatment in such landmark novels as Our Lady of Flowers and The Thief's Journal. What Genet lacked in moral acuity he made up for in artistic originality. His novels dealt with subjects most French readers of his day found seedy at best: drag queens, hustlers, thieves, sailors having sex with each another. But he wrote these stories in a highly ornamental prose which dazzled readers and made him a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacommetti. As the usually modest Genet put it in a moment of pride, "There was the French language and then there was me."

This fascinating figure is the subject of a meticulously researched and elegantly written biography by Edmund White. Despite Genet's mammoth size and its tendency to wander from its subject, the book is never boring. White simply writes too well to let our attention stray. His sidetrips are always rewarding and his sense of his subject's life and literature compelling throughout.


The first part of the book interweaves Genet's early years with excerpts from his highly autobiographical novels, creating a rich fabric of the facts and the fiction they gave rise to. The biography tracks Genet to Paris, where he became Cocteau's literary find, his "golden thug," and later, Sartre's "pet queer." White imbues even the most frequently told stories with a novel charm. His recreation of the De Beauvoir-Sartre headquarters at the Cafe Deux Magots is sardonic and affectionate, and the deliciously lengthy and opinionated portrait of Cocteau could stand on its own as a study of a "genius who never wrote a bad line or a good book."

White has structured the biography in two parts; a break occurs at the point when Genet the little-known outlaw became Genet the national treasure (who then had trouble finding anything to write about). White places the beginning of this dry spell in 1949. That was the year the French president, in response to a letter written by Sartre and Cocteau and signed by a slew of intellectuals, issued Genet a pardon for a possible life sentence. The pardon represented an official endorsement by the French government, its reigning man of letters and its most famous philosopher; it was a terrible blow to Genet the outsider, one that kept him from writing seriously for another fifteen years. "Canonized, pardoned, consecrated, assimilated, Genet was no longer society's scourge. He had become its pet," White writes.

Despite Genet's prolonged case of writer's block, the second half of the biography is no less exciting than the first. As his creative impulse gave out, Genet sought personal satisfaction in various political causes, eventually becoming involved with the Black Panthers and the PLO. His political concerns sparked his last period of concentrated literary output in the late 50s, when he produced his classic plays The Blacks, The Maids and The Screens.

Genet offers disturbing insight into the connections between politics and psychology. White pinpoints the essentially private nature of Genet's political motivations. He was from his youth filled with such hatred for anything which smelled of "the establishment" that he identified with outsiders more because they were outsiders than out of any sense of fairness. This fact made him a dubious political ally; he announced once that he wouldn't support the Palestinians if they ever received a homeland, and was fond of saying, "I would like the world not to change so that I can be against the world."

But if Genet's commitment to revolutionary ideology was weak, his rage at those in power--anywhere--was so intense that it occasionally shocked even those for whom he purported to speak. The first cast to perform the anti-colonial The Blacks in Paris was mostly made up of African immigrants. These cosmopolitan hyphenated Frenchmen, according to White, had some trouble working up the demonic rage he gave his characters. In handling incidents like these, thick with politics and personalities, White manages to deal with both and distort neither. He never loses track of Genet's peculiar psychology or the very real history around him. He's able to draw out the complexitites of his subject without glorifying him or moralizing about his shortcomings.

Genet emerges as a difficult personality, to say the least. Politically irresponsible and personally prickly, he made his life a tribute to the virtues of treachery, deceit and inconsistency. This singularity is best expressed in his remark, "I had to work hard to betray my friends, but in the end it was worth it." White's book effectively presents the man expressed in that sentiment--the almost monastic attention to artistic craft, the lonely pride in being irreducibly different.