The Name of the Mother: Writing Illegitimacy

By Marie Maclean | Go to book overview

9

‘Better to reign in Hell…’

When we move into the twentieth century (not merely that pseudo-nineteenth century in which Sartre proclaims his delegitimation), and examine two of the most outspoken and aggressive narrations of illegitimacy, the move is actually as far back in mythologising as it is forward into narrative modernity. The work of Jean Genet, poet, playwright and novelist (1910-86) and Violette Leduc, innovator in prose narrative (1907-72) reverts to the ancient traditions of bastardy as excess, a badge of shame and evil, a latter-day mark of Cain, which at the same time distinguishes the bastard from the herd and confers a sort of perverse and even grandiose power. Emphasising excess by the traditional metonymy of the body, Genet and Leduc also see their exclusion reinforced by physical ugliness, the outer mark of a social branding. They create themselves, and it is impossible to distinguish fact and fiction in their writing. Their self-mythologisations are similar, and yet different, as are their family histories. They were fraternal enemies. Each admired the other’s work as much as they eventually came to loathe each other personally. Both owed their breakthrough partly to Cocteau, but most particularly to Sartre in Genet’s case and Simone de Beauvoir in Leduc’s. 1

Whereas Leduc conforms to the now familiar pattern of the offspring of a seduced female servant, brought up by her mother and grandmother, and able to construct a female genealogy for herself, Genet is the only example among my case histories of a real foundling, left by his mother with an institution from the day of his birth. 2 It is, in fact, extremely rare for such children, institutionalised and then fostered out to peasants almost as slave labour, to make the breakthrough into the power of the

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