Day 343 of Colourisation Project – April 15
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
“Excluded by my birth and tastes from the social order, I was not aware of its diversity. I wondered at its perfect coherence, which rejected me.”
So wrote Jean Genet in The Thief’s Journal (1949), a chronicle of his voyage of self-discovery and descent into abjection, which he embraced as a form of ‘sainthood’.
A conscientious subverter of traditional morality, Jean Genet was a prominent French novelist, poet, essayist, and political activist. Love him or hate him, he left an indelible mark on French Literature. His major works include the novels Querelle of Brest, Our Lady of the Flowers, and Miracle of the Rose. Genet’s work crossed all genres. He was also the leading dramatist in the avant-garde theatre, especially in the Theatre of the Absurd with plays such as The Balcony, The Blacks, The Maids and The Screens.
Born in 1910, he was abandoned by his prostitute mother, (he never knew his father) and though raised by foster parents he spent much of his early years in an institution for juvenile delinquents. At age 18 he joined the French Foreign Legion. Soon after however, he was dishonourably discharged on grounds of ‘indecency’ (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act), and from then on fell into a life of petty crime, vagrancy and male prostitution; all the elements of a social outcast and the perfect training ground for launching a career in writing.
It was at the age of 33 while serving time in prison for theft, that Genet began writing his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). Genet’s prison experiences would dictate much of his work, as would his sexuality. Genet was the first homosexual to write openly about it.
Genet’s writing, often an affront to the reader’s bourgeois sensibility, is unapologetically explicit in exposing the sordid underbelly of society, and is littered with characters existing at the margins of society; society’s dispossessed, the criminals, the prostitutes, the immigrants and the homeless.
Out of prison, Genet sought out renowned French writer, Jean Cocteau. Impressed by his writing, Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet’s novel published. When Genet was facing a prison life sentence for repeated convictions, he was championed by Cocteau and other prominent figures including existentialist writer, Jean Paul Sartre, 1947 Nobel Prize author, André Gide and artist Pablo Picasso, who recognising the extent of his creative talents, collectively petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside.
They were successful in their efforts and Genet would never return to prison.
Quite the opposite, he is an icon of French Literature and an international cause celebre for his challenge to social norms.
Genet developed throat cancer later in life but it is believed he died after hitting his head in a fall in Paris on this day, 15 April 1986. He was 76 years old.
I leave you today with a film clip of a 1985 BBC interview with Jean Genet, where he turns the tables on the entire BBC film crew for subjecting him to the interview, which he feels takes on an interrogation. Worth it just for the squeamish looks on the faces of the crew.