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Prison Lit

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. 

From Un chant d’amour.

The movie’s drama came from the romantic connection between two male prisoners locked in adjacent cells: one cool, spritely, and self-possessed, the other visibly burning with lust. The latter generates the extended sexual fantasy that becomes the film’s climactic scene, and in his frustration there’s also something of the property that the first-person narrator of Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre dame des fleurs), Genet’s formidable 1943 debut novel, attributes to imprisonment: a “pleasure of the solitary … that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference toward everyone.” For Wilde’s chaplain, masturbation was a shameful last resort for the imprisoned and alone. For Genet, it was a potent metaphor for the lonely kinds of imaginative projections novelists make. In the same passage of Our Lady of the Flowers, that thought led Genet’s narrator into strange rhapsodies about imprisonment itself: “I’ve got lots of work for making my fingers fly! Ten years to go! My good, my gentle friend! My cell! My sweet retreat, mine alone, I love you so! If I had to live in all freedom in another city, I would first go to prison to acknowledge my own.”

Genet wrote those words from Paris’s Prison de la Santé, where he was doing time for a long string of petty thefts. Ironically named, it was a jail severe enough to forbid its inmates writing paper. On returning from a court hearing one day in 1941, when he was thirty years old, Genet was sentenced to three days in solitary confinement for writing on the paper his guards had given him to make into bags—material that “wasn’t intended,” as Genet would later claim the prison officials told him, “for literary masterpieces.” Like many of Madame Roland’s prison memoirs, that early manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers was destroyed. Genet “ordered some notebooks at the canteen,” as he’d tell Playboy in 1964, “got into bed, pulled the covers over my head and tried to remember, word for word, the fifty pages I had written. I think I succeeded.”

By the midsixties, Genet may have been partially conflating the main dramatic action of Our Lady of the Flowers with the story of the book’s production. The novel’s narrator, a prison inmate named Jean, begins his long, unbroken address to the reader by relating that he scours daily newspapers—“tattered by the time they reach my cell”—for stories about executed murderers. He cuts out “their handsome, vacant-eyed heads,” glues their images “on the back of the cardboard sheet of regulations that hangs on the wall,” and honors “the most purely criminal” among them with frames constructed with “the same beads with which the prisoners next door make funeral wreaths.”

When evening falls, he crawls under his covers, just as Genet did, and uses his improvised gallery of criminals to bring himself to orgasm. (“At night I love them, and my love endows them with life.”) It’s the stories he generates during this nightly ritual, he announces, that will make up the book he is currently speaking into being: “As you read on, the characters, and Divine too, and Culafroy, will fall from the wall onto my pages like dead leaves, to fertilize my tale.” Only later does it emerge that “Divine” and “Culafroy” both refer to the same character—the first name to her mature incarnation as a Parisian drag queen handling a trio of haunted and fickle lovers; the second to her boyhood self, whose provincial childhood strongly resembles Genet’s own.

The book’s prologue is the closest it ever comes to clear exposition, and without it Our Lady of the Flowers would make much less sense. The shape of the novel’s convoluted, embellished sentences seems wedded precisely to the purpose they might serve in the imaginative construction of a prisoner pleasuring himself under the cover of darkness. They stall extravagantly, delaying climax, as in an early account of the way Paris’s drag queens would gather under Divine’s garret window:

In the street, between the blank haloes of the tiny flat umbrellas which they are holding in one hand like bouquets, Mimosa I, Mimosa II, Mimosa the half-IV, First Communion, Angela, Milord, Castagnette, Régine—in short, a host, a still long litany of creatures who are glittering names—are waiting, and in the other hand are carrying, like umbrellas, little bouquets of violets which make one of them lose herself, for example, in a reverie from which she will emerge bewildered and quite dumbfounded with nobility, for she (let us say First Communion) remembers the article, thrilling as a song from the other world, from our world too, in which an evening paper, thereby embalmed, stated: ‘The black velvet rug of the Hotel Crillon, where lay the silver and ebony coffin containing the embalmed body of the Princess of Monaco, was strewn with Parma violets.’

Genet was virtuosic at reproducing the hesitations, elaborations, imprecisions, and jump cuts in which a storyteller can indulge when he’s his only audience. Jean-Paul Sartre, whose generous praise largely made Genet’s career, seized on that fact to make an argument that still clings to Our Lady of the Flowers. “His characters,” Sartre wrote in his lengthy introduction to the novel, “have, like real men, a life in action, a life involving a range of possibilities.” And yet, since the characters’ actions are nothing but “the succession of images that have led Genet to orgasm,” the possibilities available to them “represent simply the missed opportunities, the permission that Genet piteously refuses his characters.” He quotes Genet to the effect that “my books are not novels because none of my characters make decisions on their own.” The working-out of this thought in Our Lady, for Sartre,

accounts for the book’s desolate, desert-like aspect. Hope can only cling to free and active characters. Genet, however, is concerned only with satisfying his cruelty. All his characters are inert, are knocked about by fate … This is what Genet calls the ‘Cruelty of the Creator.’ He kicks Divine towards saintliness.

From a French edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

It’s a seductively ironic notion that the freedom Genet gave his narrator consisted precisely in letting him abuse and enslave the rest of the book’s characters. But rarely do the figures who move through Our Lady of the Flowers—Divine/Culafroy, but also Darling, her primary male love interest; Our Lady, the young murderer for whose charms Divine falls; and Gorgui, “the big sunny Negro” she treats with a mixture of tenderness and exotic fascination—seem shackled to their fates to the extent Sartre suggests. What gives the book much of its depth is the intensity with which its narrator identifies with these men. “Their density” as characters, in Sartre’s words, might be “measured by the effect they produce in him” (i.e., their ability to arouse him), but they arouse him precisely by giving him bodies to occupy, spaces to inhabit, memories to relive, and frissons to experience outside his prison’s walls.

In some cases, they enjoy all the freedoms of movement he himself lacks. Late in the book, the narrator skims over a period during which Divine “pursued the complicated, sinuous, looped existence of a kept woman.” Each sentence carries her across another ocean, first to the Sundra Isles and Venice:

Then it was Vienna, in a gilded hotel, nestling between the wings of a black eagle. Sleeping in the arms of an English lord, deep in a canopied and curtained bed. Then there were rides in a heavy black limousine … She thought of her mother and of Darling. Darling received money orders from her, sometimes jewels, which he would wear for one evening and quickly resell so that he could treat his pals to dinner. Then back to Paris, and off again, and all in a warm, gilded luxury, all in such comfort that I need merely evoke it from time to time in its smug details for the vexations of my poor life as a prisoner to disappear.

Divine’s health and finances are no less fragile than her romantic connections, and there is indeed something cruelly inevitable about the way Genet announces her grisly death, as if in one of First Communion’s evening papers, within the novel’s first ten pages. But what fuels the book are the most contingent things about Divine, the departments in which she does make decisions on her own—the range of her desires and the clarity of her memories. When he locates her alone with Darling, Genet’s language arrives at a pitch comic, warm, and unabashedly lustful enough to match her own mood: “She takes care of his penis. She caresses it with the most profuse tenderness and calls it by the kind of pet names used by ordinary folk when they feel horny … such expressions as Little Dicky, the Babe in the Cradle, Jesus in His Manger, the Hot Little Chap, your Baby Brother.”

Jean Genet.

When Darling’s thoughts drift back to her life as a young boy, Genet finds her a new, statelier tone. (“Beneath the moon, Culafroy became this world of poisoners, pederasts, thieves, sorcerers, warriors, and courtesans, and the surrounding nature, the vegetable garden, remaining what they were, left him all alone, possessing and possessed by an epoch, in his barefoot walk, beneath the moon.”) For Genet, fantasizing about Divine meant giving her a teeming, well-stocked inner life in which he could share. It entailed going so far as to almost become her, just like, in one of the book’s late reversals, Darling’s arrest leads him into a cell that overlaps perfectly with the narrator’s own “on the fourth floor of the Fresnes prison,” where Genet finished Our Lady of the Flowers.

“I wanted to make this book out of the transposed, sublimated elements of my life as a convict,” Genet’s narrator insists two-thirds of the way through the novel. “I am afraid that it says nothing about the things that haunt me.” Similar moments of transparency flash up periodically in Our Lady, but they cannot be sustained for long; the range of personas to take on is too inviting and wide. “After all, is it necessary for me to talk about myself so directly?” the narrator asks just as candidly seventy pages later. “I much prefer to describe myself in the caresses I receive from my lovers.”

The one consistent project across the book was perhaps not, as Sartre supposed, Genet’s need to bring himself to climax, but his need to take on, voluptuously and vicariously, the lives of the people his narrator imagines. The book to which Genet aspired was, as the narrator of Our Lady of the Flowers writes about poetry, “a vision of the world obtained by an effort, sometimes exhausting, of the taut, buttressed will”—the very opposite of “an abandonment, a free and gratuitous entry by the senses.” It’s unclear to what extent Genet’s efforts on the page were in fact his way of playing God with his characters, alternately lavishing them with gifts and blighting them with poverty, loss, and disease. More certain—and more consistent with Genet’s own unromantic sense of what it meant to live in and out of prison—is that they were exercises, self-assigned challenges, rigorous entertainments: ways of making do.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York. 

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