Genet's mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life before putting him up for adoption. Thereafter Genet was raised in the provinces by a carpenter and his family who, according to Edmund White's biography, were loving and attentive. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft (although White also suggests that Genet's later claims of a dismal, impoverished childhood were exaggerated to fit his outlaw image).
After the death of his foster mother, Genet was placed with an elderly couple but remained with them less than two years. According to the wife, "he was going out nights and also seemed to be wearing makeup." On one occasion he squandered a considerable sum of money, which they had entrusted him for delivery elsewhere, on a visit to a local fair. For this and other misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between September 2, 1926 and March 1, 1929.
In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act) and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe— experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949). After returning to Paris, France in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort," which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never return to prison.
By 1949 Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems. His explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality was such that by the early 1950s his work was banned in the United States. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer) entitled Saint Genet (1952) which was anonymously published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the next five years. Between 1955 and 1961 Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work "Glas". During this time he became emotionally attached to Abdallah, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of accidents and Abdallah's suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, even attempting suicide.
From the late 1960s, starting with an homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970 the Black Panthers invited him to the USA, where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attending the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and publishing articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in Jordan and the USA, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously. Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. He expresses his solidarity with the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, in the article "Violence et brutalité", published in Le Monde, 1977. In September 1982 Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" ("Four Hours in Shatila"), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on December 19, 1983. (Genet in Vienna).
Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on April 15, 1986 in a hotel room in Paris. Genet may have fallen on the floor and fatally hit his head. He is buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.
Burial: Larache Christian Cemetery, Larache, Tanger-Tetouan Region, Morocco
Ever since I first picked up Jean Genet in the early 1960s I felt myself close to him. Those were my own years of being a hoodlum and a petty thief, the biggest thing I ever stole was a small typewriter which I later pawned for $15, a big amount in those days. Was picked up by the cops a few times but my thieving was so petty they didn't have anything to pin on me and I was always let go. Still, the audacious behavior of Genet seemed to hold me to my reading, of him and other writers, so close that it became a daily event in my life, which I still do everyday. I did not become a thief like Genet but like Genet I still write, that's more than enough. Thank you Jean Genet. --Mykola DementiukFurther Readings:
Genet: A Biography by Edmund White
Paperback: 800 pages
Publisher: Vintage (October 4, 1994)
Amazon: Genet: A Biography
A meticulously researched biography of Jean Genet, one of France's most notorious writers. Acclaimed novelist and essayist Edmund White illuminates Genet's experiences in the worlds of crime, homosexuality, politics, and high culture, and gives a compelling analysis of Genet's plays, novels, and essays. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (February 2, 1994)
Amazon: The Thief's Journal
The Thief's Journal is perhaps Jean Genet's most authentically autobiographical novel, personifying his quest for spiritual glory through the pursuit of evil. Writing in the intensely lyrical prose style that is his trademark, the man Jean Cocteau dubbed France's "Black Prince of Letters" here reconstructs his early adult years -- time he spent as a petty criminal and vagabond, traveling through Spain and Antwerp, occasionally border hopping across the rest of Europe, always one step ahead of the authorities. "Only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style." -- Susan Sontag; "One of the strongest and most vital accounts of a life ever set down on paper. . . . Genet has dramatized the story of his own life with a power and vision which take the breath away. The Thief's Journal will undoubtedly establish Genet as one of the most daring literary figures of all time." -- The New York Post
Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre
Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; Reprint edition (February 10, 2012)
Amazon: Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr
Saint Genet is Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic biography of Jean Genet—thief, convict, and great artist—a character of almost legendary proportions whose influence grows stronger with time. Bringing together two of the century’s greatest minds and artists, Saint Genet is at once a compelling psychological portrait, masterpiece of literary criticism, and one of Sartre’s most personal and inspired philosophical creations.
Queer Writing: Homoeroticism in Jean Genet's Fiction by Elizabeth Stephens
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (August 4, 2009)
Amazon: Queer Writing: Homoeroticism in Jean Genet's Fiction
This book provides the first full-length study of Jean Genet's homoerotic writing but also makes an important intervention in wider queer criticism. Stephens explores Genet's reflections on the difficulties of writing homoerotically within an inherently heteronormative language to formulate a new theory of queer writing.