Today in Literary History – December 19, 1910 – Jean Genet is born

The French novelist, poet and playwright Jean Genet was born on December 19, 1910. His mother was an unmarried prostitute who gave him up for adoption. When he was 15 he was sent to Mettray Penal Colony, a notorious reformatory prison for boys.

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Genet was released at the age of 18 and joined the French Foreign Legion, but was discharged for his homosexuality. He spent the next 20 years in and out of prison, living as a vagabond and male prostitute, charged with theft, forgery and public indecency.

In 1948 he was declared to be a habitual criminal and sentenced to life in prison. Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso all intervened on his behalf. They convinced the courts to overturn the sentence based on Genet’s literary potential.

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Genet’s work is very concerned with marginalized people and societal outcasts. His novels, plays and poems often deal with prison life and the criminal subculture.

But, his upsetting of bourgeois values and moral sensibilities leads to a kind of glorification of crime. This in turn leads Genet to associate homosexuality with criminal deviance. This has caused some concern from modern gay critics who see this as Genet absorbing the dominant culture’s homophobia.

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Genet’s anti-establishment sensibilities led him into some political engagements later in life that ran from informed activism to naive provocation.

He championed the Black Panthers in America and the PLO in the Middle East, but he also expressed support for Mao’s Red Guard in China and the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany.

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Genet died in 1986 of throat cancer. He put a lot of his own life and experiences into his writing and despite his literary success he continued to be a solitary outsider.

He once described himself as a constant rebel: ”I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me.”

 

 

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