Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)
Jean Genet: Our Lady of the Flowers in Prison
Afrodesia E. McCannon
Jean Genet is another of this book’s outliers. He was not a well-known figure or particularly political; he had been in jail for petty theft and similar crimes when he began writing. His most famous novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, was written in prison, and is about prison life. Genet, like Cervantes, gives us a literary work full of characters telling stories and spinning fantasies that intertwine to become part of a larger narrative, creating a hyper-real effect. Genet’s novel takes the time and care to let the reader know that even society’s most marginalized person, in this case a homosexual prisoner, is human—with human desires, loves, fantasies, needs, hurts, and wants. This itself was revolutionary. As with some of the other authors in this volume, Genet’s novel treats prison, to some degree, as a space away from the pressures of life outside the prison walls. While the book is a work of fiction, the portrayal of prison life—including graphic scenes of discipline and dehumanization—is starkly real.—J.W.R.
Jean Genet (1910–1986) owes his literary reputation to his plays, but his first major work was a novel, Notre-Dame des Fleurs—Our Lady of the Flowers—written in prison. Even a cursory look into Jean Genet’s biography reveals him as a troubled foster child whose run-ins with the penitentiary system might seemed justified, though the offenses were petty crimes. He was born in Paris the son of a Camille Gabrielle Genet in December 1910 who gave him up to a foundling home less than a year later. His father was unknown. Two days after he was given up and became a ward of the state, Genet was put into a foster home in Alligny-en-Morvan, a small rural village in Burgundy known for taking in abandoned children from Paris (assumed to be the offspring of prostitutes). He was raised by Eugenié and Charles Régnier, local artisans, who baptized him, gave him a Catholic upbringing, and promised to raise him until the age of thirteen. From all accounts, though he felt ostracized and rejected by the villagers, Genet had a pleasant upbringing. He had no further contact or connection with his mother, as was the law, but for his name.
Alligny-en-Morvan became almost a mythic village that generated many of the stories and characters of his works. For example, the imagery and vocabulary of the Catholic Church—a major part of his experience in the village—permeates his work as he plays with the figures of priests and angels; even the title of the work he wrote in prison, Our Lady of the Flowers, is both a serious and tongue-in-cheek reference to the Virgin Mary. In the village, he knew several children whose names appeared in his work. A boy name Cullafroy—another foundling—becomes Culafroy, the true name of the main character of Our Lady of the Flowers and a girl he befriended, Solange also appears, in the work, then re-appears as one of the main characters in his later play, The Maids (White, Genet 17–19). The local gentry, the village abbey, and several other characters in Our Lady of the Flowers are thinly veiled fictionalized versions of people he knew in the village.
Genet was an excellent student, though apparently a pale and effete child who seemed “Parisian” and unfit for the agricultural surroundings in which he found himself. Drawn to literature, he said would find the solitude to read in the family’s outhouse. The association between the corrupt and the sublime that might come from reading high literature amidst the smells of an outhouse become one of the thematic engines of Our Lady of the Flowers and perhaps engendered his own interest in the relationship between disgust and beauty.
The death of his foster mother, Eugenié Régnier, when he was twelve began a nomadic phase in Genet’s life. After having been falsely accused of stealing, he began to commit some petty thefts in the village. He began to run away from all the opportunities afforded him because of his intelligence and academic record. In 1925, at fourteen, he found himself again in the child welfare system in Paris and underwent his first psychiatric analysis. He was found to have a “psychiatric weakness” though he ran away from treatment. He was arrested by police and returned to treatment only to flee again. Caught again, he was held in prison. Paroled to a farm, he ran away. Caught a third time he was eventually sent to the “Children’s Prison” of Mettray—an agricultural labor prison for minors—from which he eventually escaped but only to be found and returned again.
From the age of nineteen to twenty-five (1929–1936), to avoid Mettray, he signed up for the military and re-enlisted several times. His ability to stay in the military for such an extended period of time, suggests that there he found home and comfort among the male camaraderie and regimented hierarchy of the armed forces. In the army and on furlough, he traveled to Spain, Syria, and Morocco. In the colonial army he gained a lasting connection to the Arab world and sympathy for the Arab people. He failed to show up at a final re-enlisting in 1936 and, having been declared a deserter, fled from one country to another with falsified documents. He vagabonded through Italy, Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium and Germany. Genet finally returned to France where he continued his life as a thief. In 1941, during the sentence arising from his tenth arrest (his arrests were mostly for vagrancy and theft, often of books), Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers.
A significant contribution of this work is his frank depiction of queer life. Rather than shunning or suppressing his homosexuality, Genet would ally himself intellectually and socially with other queer writers who served as mentors, though none of them would deal as frankly with sexuality as Genet. Though at odds with the politics of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Lawrence’s homosexuality (never admitted) and familiarity with the Arab world made him a natural literary ally. Genet emulated Proust’s literary style, although Proust dealt with queer France only from a distance and remained closeted throughout his life. He visited and wrote to André Gide, who himself had written a tract, Corydon (1924), in defense of homosexuality. Later, his literary alliance with the openly gay Jean Cocteau would prove to be essential for his literary career which was initiated with the publishing of Our Lady of the Flowers in 1944.
Social and Political Context
One of the notable aspects of Our Lady of the Flowers is the lack of a sense of historical context. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Saint Genet, remarked that “Genet lives outside of history, in parentheses” (Sartre 5). This may be because Genet was a champion of the margins and a denizen of the slums of the countries he visited; things were always dismal where he lived and somehow outside the flow of bourgeois historical time. Yet, in the years before he wrote Our Lady of the Flowers, the Great Depression blighted Europe, followed by the beginning of World War II. Genet began writing Our Lady of the Flowers in 1941 from a prison in occupied Paris then under the Vichy regime. The historical context seems a dim buzz in the background of the text. The narrator smiles “lovingly” at a German pilot of a plane he hears flying over the prison (Genet, Our Lady 52). One line of German is heard in the bar the transvestite, Divine, the work’s protagonist, frequents (Genet, Our Lady 193). Divine briefly falls in love with a German soldier, Gabriel, who dies in the war: “German soldiers buried him where he fell, at the gate of a castle in Touraine. Divine came and sat on his grave, smoked a Craven there…. We recognize her sitting there, with her legs crossed and a cigarette in her hand, level with her mouth” (Genet, Our Lady 151).
Along with this romanticizing of the fallen soldier is a “provocative and ambiguous sympathy for collaborators and Germans,” for they too are anti–French (White, 243). Genet’s complicated psychic relationship with France led him to cheer on the occupiers and dulled any sympathy for Hitler’s victims. In a rare interview Genet expresses an uncomfortable (for the interviewer) appreciation for Hitler’s army: “Look, when Hitler gave a thrashing to the French, oh, yes! I was happy, I was happy with this attack…. [I]t wasn’t a question of the German people or the Jewish people or of the Communist people who could be massacred by Hitler. It was a question of the corrective the German army gave to the French army” (Genet, “Interview with Bertrand Poirot-Delpech.” Declared Enemy 200). As someone who felt an outsider from his birth and professed an open hostility to his own nation, his attraction to German Nazis accords with “his emotional rejection of France [but also with] his attraction to a certain masculinity that coincides with a fascist aesthetic” (Gaitet 76). Brutal, authoritative men who are tinged with femininity (like the blond-haired young Nazi soldiers) pepper Genet’s texts. Even within his non-fascist characters Genet expresses an appreciation for a masculinity in which “hardness is equivalent to virility” (Genet, Our Lady 180). Importantly, though, Genet’s positive reaction to the occupiers was not based on a political predilection for fascist ideology or an interest in the historical moment. An understated awareness of historical context in Our Lady of the Flowers reflects this political and historical indifference.
The Book Our Lady of the Flowers
Our Lady of the Flowers narrates the fantasies of a man, Jean Genet, incarcerated in a French prison. The main character of this fantasy is Divine (born Louis Culafroy) an aging (going on thirty) drag queen and sex-worker who lives in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. She lives with her lover Mignon, which translates to “Darling.” Divine’s story is populated with queers of all ilk: other queens (Mimosa, Castagnette, Monseigneur), tough guys and pimps (Darling, Gorgui, Marchetti), and young boys (Our-Lady of the Flowers, Archangel Gabriel). The drama that unfolds takes place on the seedy streets of Paris and in Divine’s apartment, the “garret,” through which several of the characters float. Many of the characters themselves end up in prison.
By choosing to focus on the life of a community of queers in 1930s Paris, Genet immediately showed himself unfazed by the project of focusing on the abject, that is, the rejected, the untouchable, the filth, the marginal. Genet, as a queer, a thief, a prostitute, and a vagabond belonged himself to the marginal and rejected elements of society. He embraced and made poetic that which is outside the bourgeois norm and forced it into our view, normalized it, made it triumphant. For example, when Divine, the transvestite, wakes beside Darling, the tough queer, who has come to live in the garret, she writes, “[T]he rain begins to fall, liberating within her a sudden happiness so perfect that she says aloud, with a deep sigh, “I’m happy.” She was about to go to sleep again, but the better to attest her married happiness there come back to her, without bitterness, the memories of the time when she was Culafroy” (Genet, Our Lady 94). New found domestic bliss contrasted with the sadness of childhood memories is a fairly relatable moment to readers outside of Divine’s world.
Yet, this end product normalization and embracing of the abject is not always so comfortable. In the work, the character Genet engages with that which is rejected and marginal on several levels. For example, he embraces the smell of his own farts with a relish that works to push the reader to disgust:
I have already spoken of my fondness for odors, … above all, the odor of my farts, which is not the odor of my shit, a loathsome odor, so much so that here again I bury myself under the covers and gather in my cupped hand my crushed farts which I carry to my nose. They open to me hidden treasures of happiness. I inhale, I suck in. I feel them, almost solid, going down through my nostrils [Genet, Our Lady 166–67].
Perhaps, it is a secret of humanity that many are comfortable with the odor of their flatulence and some may even secretly like it. But this reveling in his own foul odor, pushes the limits of the normative behavior and “def[ies] us to take [Genet] seriously” (Bersani, 18). The image of a solidified fart being ingested takes the reader, purposefully, almost playfully, to the edge of nausea. The narrator, though, can create a relation between disgust and pleasure that, he furthers and ennobles through Genet’s considerable talent as a writer. Darling, Divine’s lover, also farts, and yet, we are not disgusted:
If [Darling] says, “I’m dropping a pearl,” or “A pearl slipped,” he means that he has farted in a certain way, very softly, so that the fart has flowed out very quietly. Let us wonder at the fact that it does suggest a pearl of warm orient: the flowing, the muted leak, seems to us as milky as the paleness of a pearl, that is, slightly cloudy. It makes Darling seem to us a kind of precious gigolo, a Hindu, a princess, a drinker of pearls [Genet, Our Lady, 80–81].
The prettified even clever description of the tough guy’s fart as well as his unexpected delicacy makes Darling’s farts sublime. The fart, even though made precious, is still a product of the anus. As if to contrast our pedestrian lives with those of his subjects—as with the fart as pearl—through his manipulation of disgust Genet glorifies and yet keeps the life of those living in Divine’s cramped apartment abject and separate from his readers: “Our domestic life and the law of our Homes do not resemble your Homes. We love each other without love. They do not have the sacramental character. Faggots are the great immoralists” (Genet, Our Lady 110).
The Divine’s blissful married domesticity cited above is rudely disassembled and reassembled with a revolving cast of characters. Darling wordlessly disappears, other come. Just as their homes are not our homes, Genet’s beauty is not our beauty. Divine’s lasting memento of Darling is a sculpture, but not a bust on a mantelpiece:
Of the tangible him there remains, sad to tell, only the plaster cast that Divine herself made of his cock, which was gigantic when erect. The most impressive thing about it is the vigor, hence the beauty, of that part which goes from the anus to the tip of the penis [Genet, Our Lady 60].
Beauty is redefined in the way that language is re-invented in this context as well. Genet introduces us to 1930s Montmartre queer slang, poetic and foreign, central in the text but marginal in the society: tantes-filles, tantes-gars, tapettes, pédales, tantouzes, macs, macquereau (girl-queens, boy-queens, aunties, fags, nellies, pimps, hustler). The same applies to prison slang where “to flatten the pages” means to make one’s bed. Genet breaks down the boundaries between this foreign abhorrent world (he assumes we are horrified and scandalized by all these queers) and the bourgeois standard by making us familiar with it, yet still uses the potency of the scandalous to remind us that “we” are not like “you.” This confrontational queerness might seem dated in the current era when same-sex relations are increasingly recognized and normalized, but the culture war over homosexual relations is far from over. Genet’s differentiation between the “we” and “you” seems a still fitting reply to the conservative contemporary argument that “they” (queers) are not like “us.” His is a glorification, if an ambiguous one, of the marginal.
It is in this context and from this vantage that the larger discussion of prison takes place. As with much in this text, Genet reverses expectations in seemingly embracing the horrifying marginal space of prison. For the narrator, the prison cells are a space of reprieve after the “monstrousness” of arrests. They are, the narrator, says the “sweet prison cells … which I now love as one loves a vice” (Genet, Our Lady 103). Prison allows for self-exploration: “[T]he solitude of prison gave me the freedom to be with the hundred Jean Genets glimpsed in a hundred passers-by” (168). A place to revisit one’s life, relive memories of childhood long forgotten: “The atmosphere of the night, the smell rising from the blocked latrines which are overflowing with shit and yellow water, stir childhood memories which rise up like a black soil mined by moles” (Genet, Our Lady 97–98). Most of all, it is a place to give life to Jean Genet’s imaginary fantasy world of Divine, Darling, and others. These fantasies are often sexual fantasies that occur as he animates the characters at night:
During the day I go about my petty concerns. I am the housekeeper, watchful lest a bread-crumb or a speck of ash fall on the floor. But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure [Genet, Our Lady 55].
The prison inspires the imaginary world he creates at night, gives him masturbatory sexual fantasies and literary inspiration. The childhood memories, stirred by the smell of the latrine, help the narrator accurately place Culafroy—Divine as a young boy—in a Mettray-like Colony for Child Correction (Genet, Our Lady 56). The title character, Our-Lady of the Flowers, is based on young inmate Maurice Pilorge. Genet’s Black cell-mate, Clement Village, allows the narrator to create a character in Divine’s story, Seek Gorgui, who comes to live with Divine and Our Lady in the garret and usurps the youth’s attention (Genet, Our Lady 166). Darling’s experiences as a thief, finally picked up by the police, come out of Genet’s own experiences with law enforcement.
Strikingly, Darling’s arrest included an invasive, humiliating, and fully narrated cavity search which serves to reveal another layer of Genet’s narrative—the reality and horror of prison (Genet, Our Lady 247). For all the rhapsodizing of the cell as a sweet, inspirational, and eroticized space, the depressing day to day shuffling of prison is exposed in the interstices of the work. The desperate need for inmates to communicate is reduced to scratchings on bricks: “In that prison, which I shall not name, each convict had a little yard, where every brick of the wall bore a message to a friend” (Genet, Our Lady 97). Genet’s own manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers, his own attempt to communicate, was confiscated and destroyed by prison guards. He was writing it on paper that he was supposed to use to make paper bags, but, as Genet recounts it, he managed to re-write it again from memory (Genet, “Interview with Nigel Williams,” Declared Enemy 261). The freedom that the life of Divine affords our narrator belies the sense of confinement or perhaps grows from being penned into a small dusty space. Darling too, as extension of Genet, is shut in his cell: “With the whisk-broom he sweeps up ashes and dust. The guard comes by, opening the door for five seconds to give the men time to put out the sweepings. Then he shuts it again” (Genet, Our Lady 250). Genet, the character, rarely mentions that door, but Darling’s experiences mirrored his own; there was a door that opened quickly and shut. He is in prison.
In the novel, the relationship to the prison guards is complicated but grows more and more hostile. Darling, a projection here of Genet, is awed by their authoritarian stature as Genet was by tough-guys, but Darling too is ambivalent about them: “In the presence of the guards, Darling felt like a little boy. He hated and respected them” (Genet, Our Lady 255). The guards are part of the System and though the narrator is often ambivalent about their role, a sense of disgust with them rises from the text:
In this story, the guards also have their job. They are not all fools, but they are all purely indifferent to the game they play…. Recently they have been wearing a dark blue uniform which is an exact copy of aviators’ outfits, and I think, if they are high-minded, that they are ashamed of being caricatures of heroes [Genet, Our Lady 252–53].
Their indifference, ignorance, mocking allusion to real wars and real men leave them as empty though powerful beings.
From the interaction of prisoner and guard come several predictable sexual fantasies: “I had already wondered what would come of the meeting of a handsome young guard and a handsome young criminal. I took delight in the following two images: a bloody and mortal shock, or a sparkling embrace in a riot of [cum] and panting” (Genet, Our Lady 254). Genet, in an interview, describes this dialectic of attraction and hatred: “I’ve never liked policemen in their role as policemen but I may have been sexually attracted by policemen. One has nothing to do with the other” (De Grazia 312). The fantasy which could go either way, bloody or sparkling, turns violently erotic, as is rare in the text, once the narrator sees from his cell a particular guard on which to focus: “My hatred and horror of that breed must have given me a still stiffer hard-on, for I felt my tool swelling under my fingers—and I shook it until finally … [sic]—without taking my eyes off the guard, who was still smiling pleasantly” (Genet, Our Lady 254).
The masturbatory fantasies in the work arise mostly from imagined larger than life pleasurable sexual encounters, but the blood, “hatred,” and “horror,” of this fantasy is its erotic engine. Genet seems no longer in control of the fantasy as a deep well of dark emotion fuels his erection. The word “horror” is important here because the guards take part in a central monstrosity of the work on which Genet focuses but one that might get lost in drama and eroticism of the text. Prison is horror. The narrator describes another prison he was in where long, geometrical corridors dwarfed the prisoners. He would walk down the corridors reading labels on the cell doors:
The first labels read: “Solitary confinement”; the next: “Transportation”; others: “Hard labor” … I was never at the end of the corridor, for it seemed to me to be at the end of the world, at the end of all, and yet it made signs to me, it emitted appeals that touched me, and I too shall probably go to the end of the corridor. I believe, though I know it to be false, that on the doors can be read the word “Death” or perhaps, what is graver still, the words “Capital punishment” [Genet, Our Lady 167–68].
Capital punishment is worse than death, for it happens at the hands of a state that dare kill its citizens. Of all the faces that parade through the narrator’s cell, the ones that haunt and disturb him most, the ones that are the most precious yet the most unapproachable are the faces of the executed. The narrator tells us that his narrative has not gotten to the crux of the matter: “I wanted to make this book out of the transposed, sublimated elements of my life as a convict. I am afraid that it says nothing about the things that haunt me” (Genet, Our Lady 187). One of the things that plagues him is the death of the young Maurice Pilorge: “To come back to Pilorge, whose face and death haunt me: at the age of twenty he killed Escudero, his lover, in order to rob him of a pittance. During the trial, he jeered at the court; Wakened by the executioner, he jeered at him too” (Genet, Our Lady 123). The book is dedicated and written in honor of the young men, some still children, executed by the French government for murder. Pilorge’s attitude towards the court and executioner reflect Genet’s own defiance. This murderer, all murderers become his heroes and our narrator hangs their pictures on his cell wall:
I managed to get about twenty photographs, and I pasted them with bits of chewed bread on the back of the cardboard sheet of regulations that hangs on the wall. Some are pinned up with bits of brass wire which the foreman brings me and on which I have to string colored glass beads [Genet, Our Lady 54].
The decorations he places on the photos indicate that they compose a kind of shrine rather than a gallery of photos. They become his saints and their lives and deaths gain a sacred character. These men and the crimes they committed to put them on the executioner’s block are the understated subject of the Genet’s work: “And it is in honor of their crimes that I am writing my book” (Our Lady 51). These men come to Genet like ghosts, as Divine and Darling do, in the middle of the night, but his reaction to them is much different:
These murderers, now dead, have nevertheless reached me, and whenever one of these luminaries of affliction falls into my cell, my heart beats loudly my heart beats a loud tattoo, if the tattoo is the drum-call announcing that a city is capitulating [Genet, Our Lady 52].
They bring him terror and his heart pounds the drum-call of surrender. So much of Our Lady of the Flowers and the fantasies found within it are about a triumphal confrontation with the bourgeois norm, but these deaths seem to disarm Genet and stun his literary powers. When he worries that what he wants most to say is going unsaid, I think it is these young men’s stories and the horror they represent. They come to his cell, but he is unable to weave them into fantasy. Speaking of them, Genet writes, “My mind continues to produce lovely chimeras, but so far none of them has taken on flesh. Never. Not once” (Genet, Our Lady 122). They do not become flesh but remain ghostly and unapproachable. Shame makes him bow his head at thought of giving them existence in his fantasies as if these men are too sacred to be figures in Genet’s imaginary world. It is by no coincidence that the executed murderer he creates in his fantasy bears the name of that most holy and sacred of women, Mary, Our Lady of the Flowers. And the flowers? They are the other executed men who inspired the work (Genet, Our Lady 52).
Our Lady of the Flowers seems less focused on eroticism and more on escaping, yet reconciling with, the horror in Genet’s world by running towards it: “The only way to avoid the horror of horror is to give in to it” (Genet, Our Lady 84). A strategic “psychic process … that transforms passive victims into active agents” and allows Genet to have some control in a situation where all freedom of action is threatened (Gaitet, 76). By the end of the work, Divine is dead, “holy and murdered—by consumption” (Genet, Our Lady 8) and the praise of the prison cell and it potential gives way to our narrator’s thoughts of possible moving beyond hell: “What if I were free tomorrow? (Tomorrow is the day of the hearing.) Free, in other words, exiled among the living. I have built me a soul to fit my dwelling. My cell is so sweet. Free: to drink wine, to smoke, to see ordinary people” (Genet, Our Lady 305). The cell still calls to him, but so does life and it is towards life that our narrator feels most called: “I already feel that I no longer belong to the prison. Broken is the exhausting fraternity that bound me to the men of the tomb. Perhaps I shall live” (Genet, Our Lady 306).
The prison, however, still exists for his characters and Our Lady of the Flowers ends with a letter that Darling writes Divine from prison, which begins conventionally enough but concludes with the signature poetic strategy Genet has employed in the work:
“Dearest, I’m writing a few lines to give you the news, which isn’t good. I’ve been arrested for stealing … I’m awfully sorry about what’s happened to me. Let’s face it, I’m plain unlucky. So I’m counting on you to help me out. I only wish I could have you in my arms so I could hold and squeeze you tight. Remember the things we used to do together. Try to recognize the dotted lines. And kiss it. A thousand big kisses, sweetheart, from
The dotting that Darling refers to is the outline of his prick. I once saw a pimp who had a hard-on while writing to his girl place his heavy cock on the paper and trace its contours. I would like that line to portray Darling [Genet, Our Lady 307].
The wonderfully mundane letter brings the reader in, close to the couple, then surprises, again, with the ever-presence of the prick and homoerotic desire. The tracing is the transformation of the cock into art, art which never loses the shock value of its un-bourgeois origins. This seems not only an apt portrayal of Darling, but of Genet’s work as well.
Later in his life, Jean Genet would continue his fight for the disenfranchised and the degraded and become a political activist. Though he had no particular political leanings, his activity was primarily for causes associated with left-leaning politics. He focused his efforts on prison reform, a movement spearheaded by philosopher Michel Foucault, and the struggles of the Black Panthers and the Palestinians. From each of these came important and influential writings: “Four hours at Shatila” arguably his most important political article described the attack on a Palestinian town and “The Blacks” was one of the several plays that cemented his literary reputation. Among his influential works was the introduction to the prison letters of George Jackson, a black left-wing activist and Black Panther, who was killed in prison by guards a day before his trial. The introduction, written in 1971, contains clear reflections of his concerns in Our Lady of the Flowers:
Out of the multiple slaughter of blacks—from Soledad Prison to Attica—George Jackson, assassinated by the elite sharpshooters—that is gunmen for the elite—rises up, shakes himself off, and is now illustrious, that is luminous, the bearer of a light so intense that it shines on him, and on all Black Americans. Who was George Jackson? An eighteen-year-old black man imprisoned for eleven years for being an accomplice in a theft of seventy dollars [Genet, “Preface to L’Assassinat de Georges Jackson” Declared Enemy 91].
In the pettiness of the crime committed, the injustice of his death, and the quasi-canonization of George Jackson, he closely resembles the executed young men, “the flowers” of Genet’s first novel.
Genet’s canonical stature in the world of modern literature was fostered as well by the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, a monumental psychological study of what Sartre thought was a quintessential existential being. Genet for him was the champion amoral pornographer, who wrote from prison a work to which he could masturbate. Genet has had to live down the work’s scandalous reputation propagated by Sartre. The eroticism, Genet asserted in an interview, is to serve the poetry: “Today I think that if people are touched sexually by my books, it is because they were badly written, because the poetic emotion should be so forceful that no reader could be moved sexually” (Genet, “Interview with Madeleine Gobeil” Declared Enemy 8). Genet did overcome earlier assessments of his work and is now considered in the company of the greatest French writers of his time. Like many artists and writers at the margins in the 1930s and 1940s, his work has become part of the canon of modern literature.
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_____. Our Lady of the Flowers. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Print.
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_____. “Sleeping with the Enemy: Jean Genet’s Erotic Reconfiguration of the Occupation.” SubStance 27.3 (1998): 73–84. JSTOR. 19 Feb 2014.
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