PRINT October 1993


Jean Genet: A Life

A FAMOUS BRASSAÏ PORTRAIT of Jean Genet adorns the dustjacket of Edmund White’s new biography of the writer. Genet seems physically slight, his head somehow too big for his frame; his sleeves rolled up and his hands stuffed in his pockets, he is almost the image of the street toughs he lovingly glamorized in Notre Dame des Fleurs, Journal d’un Voleur, and other works. He looks 40. His hair is close-cropped and graying, his eyes are dark, melancholic, even angry. Brassai has backed him into a corner for the picture, a glancing allusion to the various confinements Genet suffered in his youth and perversely celebrated in his art.

White’s book is some 800 pages long, rivaling the girth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s obese “preface” to the 1952 Gallimard edition of Genet, Saint Genet: Comédien et Martyr. Yet White begins on a note of oblique circumspection, as if telegraphing his doubts about narrating this prodigious life story: “Jean Genet had remarkable powers of self-transformation. The art of biography is often supposed to trace the small steps an individual takes in a clear direction, but no one could account for the extraordinary leaps Genet made from the beginning to the end of his life.” A few paragraphs later White describes the personal mythos that embraced those extraordinary leaps, and that is perforce his book’s true subject: “The legend of Genet, which he was at some pains to construct, is of a golden thug, an outcast who had been a thief, prostitute and vagabond.”

The legend of Genet. From the outset White acknowledges a crucial bifurcation, a split between the nuts-and-bolts “real life” story he will try to relate and the numinous astral projection of personality and public perception in whose creation Genet himself colluded. The infamous crimes of the saint’s legend don’t add up to so much on the biographer’s ledger. As White succinctly observed in his 1991 introduction to Genet’s last book, Un Captif Amoureux, Genet’s “‘crimes’ . . . never amounted to anything more serious than running away from school, boarding a train without a ticket or stealing a book.” In the matter of Genet’s sexual proclivities, White again detaches the self-mythography from the life, describing the prison lover who inspired Genet to begin Miracle de la Rose: “Until now Genet’s lovers had been older and tougher; now he was drawn to smaller, younger men. . . . Genet had been the ‘femme’ in butch-femme gay relationships, a role that his age (he was thirty-four) and his incipient baldness no longer made flattering. Among other things Miracle of the Rose records Genet’s new ambition to be the ‘butch,’ the tough guy, the ‘man.’ . . . This conversion, . . . however, would be more imaginary than real, and Genet’s failure in real life to make the transition would make him bitter about homosexuality.”

White respects the legend while chipping away at it over hundreds of minutely detailed pages. Were it not for the depth of his sympathy and his skill as a literary analyst, one would be tempted to characterize this as the bourgeois biographer’s revenge on the antibourgeois subject. For while Genet remained in some way a true outsider to the end of his life, White is a self-proclaimed “gay writer” acceptable to the mainstream of cultured taste.

In an odd way, White’s biography is the necessary complement to Sartre’s Saint Genet, an “existential psychoanalysis” in which, as White remarks, the “concrete biographical material could be reduced to a thirty-page summary.” White delivers the goods on concrete biographical material. He remains faithful, however, to the gist of Sartre’s project: “Genet’s speech . . . is full of lies, distortions, inventions, provocations, whereas Sartre’s is analytic, revelatory, objective. Sartre establishes the very facts that Genet himself offers ambiguously as abuse or seduction. Sartre writes prose that is self-sufficient; Genet writes invitations to misunderstanding, or love letters.” In sum, as White writes, “Sartre’s book about Genet and Genet’s fiction are exact opposites, and one is the undoing of the other.”

To the extent that White follows the Sartre plan, then, his task is to some degree thankless, which may account for his initial modesty in his introduction to what is after all an immodest-looking volume. But it’s not White’s fault. Epic length, exhaustiveness inducing exhaustion, the proliferation of minute detail: these traits are the sine qua non of contemporary biography. To write biography in the style of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians would be impossible now, and perhaps undesirable. Still, it is a little weird to find biographies of Adolf Hitler and, say, Frank O’Hara, of more or less equal length and detail.

White has a lot on his plate, and he manages the material with sufficient aplomb to render his book a literary event. The facts, the reputation, the books, even Saint Genet: already four Genets. To these we can add a fifth, and the smirking irony of inverted commas suits this last “Genet” especially well: this is Genet the act, the getup, the mannerism, the Genet beloved of American adolescents of all ages who yearn to “transgress” traditional values, even though at this point the very word “transgression” has become almost the imprimatur of enlightened-bourgeois false consciousness. The independent-film audience got a heavy dose of this Genet in Todd Haynes’ Poison, which drew on shards of Miracle de la Rose but depended more on the eye of a fashion stylist. The toughs in Haynes’ version of the Sante prison resembled nothing so much as the usual hangers-on in an East Village gay bar circa 1990. Art imitates life imitates art; Genet: A Clown Show. In The Wizard of Babylon, Dieter Schidor’s documentary about the making of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1982 film Querelle, based on a Genet book, Schidor asks the director about the “theme” of homosexuality in his films. Fassbinder replies: My films have nothing to do with homosexuality. Genet might have appreciated his willful obtuseness on this score.

Genet cared and didn’t care how people perceived him and his works. White observes, “Just as Vladimir Nabokov distrusted biographers, whom he labelled ‘psychoplagiarists,’ in the same way Genet liked to throw the curious off his track, leaving himself free to modify his life in artful, gratuitous ways.” Genet always makes a virtue of pretense. His life and work intersect to create a monument, and White knows that what counts in his biography is that very intersection: cleverly subverting biography’s chronological imperative, he interleaves passages from the novels throughout his narrative of the life.

White succeeds in drawing forth a central paradox: the interpenetration of mythomania and indifference. Late in the book, he tells an anecdote about Fassbinder’s Querelle. Schidor, the film’s producer, had asked Genet to provide a narration, “to speak his own text. He wrote me a letter: ‘Dear Sir, This book has been written about forty years ago. I have forgotten it as I have forgotten all my other books. Tell this to Mr. Fassbinder. He will understand.– Never mind—White’s book will do all the remembering for this sublime faker and exaggerator, who once confided to Sartre ”that he detests flowers: it’s not roses that he loves, it’s their name."