The Face over the Body

Article excerpt

A series of further scraps and flights from various institutions resulted in incarceration at Mettray, a reformatory and hard-labor penitentiary, when Genet was 15. (His novel Miracle of the Rose is based on his homosexual experiences there.)

If Genet would come to exalt crime and criminals, going so far as to support "the cruelty of the unreformed prison system because it turns youngsters into hardened criminals," this biography helps us understand why. "In the village where he grew up Genet had been an outsider--a thief, a dreamer, a reader, a foundling," writes White. "He had formed his identity in opposition to its values and activities. Now, at Mettray, for the first time he was accepted by the others. No longer was he the despised sissy; now he was a beauty whose favours were sought by the tough older guys. No longer was he the bastard given room and board by a family; now the 'families' were composed nearly exclusively of boys who had run away from home or who had never known their parents or whose mothers were unmarried.... Now he was an outcast among outcasts."

The imposed silence and isolation of imprisonment helped nourish Genet's creative imagination, which would bear fruit when he began to write two decades later. With a vast comprehension of all he surveys, White explores the two opposing literary influences on Genet, one classical and the other popular. Genet's appreciation of Proust, Ronsard, Racine and Chateaubriand was offset by his omnivorous appetite for true crime stories and adventure novels. These different strains clearly informed his unique writing style, which juxtaposes a rarefield, elegant prose with scruffy and scandalous topics. It wasn't one or the other so much as the combination that made Genet such a sensation and eventually launched his career. (White's own novels--particularly Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole--display a similarly lapidary prose, making them as difficult but also as rewarding as Genet's.) In a similar vein, White observes, Genet would come to know criminals and pimps as well as philosophers and ambassadors, but never really mingle with those in between.

Throughout the biography, White methodically uses Genet's autobiographical fictions as points of departure for reconstructing his life and for separating what really occurred from how it was presented. Despite later idealizing his years at Mettray, Genet actually enlisted in the military as a way out. He would serve in the military off and on over a six-year period, primarily in Syria and Morocco. In his last novel, The Thief's Journal, Genet claimed to have spent two years in Spain during a civilian interlude between tours of military service. But White demonstrates that in fact this was probably less than six months. It was all geared to minimize the time he spent as a soldier--which constituted the most conventional period of his life--and to maximize his more lurid background as a vagabond, thief and whore. (With a letter Genet wrote as evidence, for example, White shows that one of numerous imprisonments lasted for two weeks rather than the two months Genet claimed elsewhere.)

Given that Genet "liked to alter all the little facts of his life, as though raising a smokescreen," even a biographer as painstaking as White has numerous problems trying to keep track of his highly nomadic existence. Caveats such as "the details of Genet's life at this point are a little unclear" become standard. We're told, for instance, that after being released from the army in 1931, Genet "disappears from view for five and a half months until the beginning of June. Possibly he made a trip to Spain--the first of several--during these spring months; at least he makes his next definite appearance in a French city near the Spanish border." And again, "For a year, from July 1936 to July 1937, Genet travelled several thousand miles (8,500 kilometres, to be precise) all over Europe, in flight from the French military authorities. …