That there is something slightly depressing about this biography of novelist and playwright Jean Genet is most probably a tribute to it -- and above all to its ability to communicate Genet's misery, pain and the uncertainty of his early life, all of which continued without cease until he became a literary success.
His story is well known, familiar to anyone who knows a little about Genet, because he was famous for it. Indeed, Genet (1910-1986), who was later to become so celebrated for his writings, his open homosexuality and his radical politics -- including his espousal of the cause of the Black Panthers -- lived quite famously as a beggar, homosexual prostitute and vagabond for years. Detailed in his 1949 autobiographical book "The Thief's Journal," his existence was enough to test the sanity and health of anyone, famous or obscure.
In short, the brutal youth of this French writer is well rendered in this lengthy account, giving a detailed and visual depiction of the conditions of his early life. It is true, however, that one thing one does not get from this book is a convincing picture of why Genet was a thief.
That it was a compulsion comes through, but a deeper understanding of why he stole does not. He continued to steal when he didn't need to, which indicates some strong psychological force at work. Furthermore, his stealing kept getting him in trouble with the law, to the point he was eligible for a life sentence -- all for stealing when he was no longer really poor.
Although Edmund White devotes a great deal of time to a recounting and analysis of Genet's works, it is the depiction of Genet's life and some of his wilder philosophical notions that stands out here.
Genet defends one of his childhood prisons, Mettray, on the basis of an "aesthetic appreciation of evil and crime." This is all very interesting, and typical Genet, but clearly with him one has to take the good with the bad. After the account of the horrors of life at Mettray, one can only say that this aesthetic defense of it is from outer space.
It moves one to think that there really is, after all, no aesthetic defense of evil, that there is no beauty to it whatsoever and that long ago Plato demonstrated that beauty is allied with the good and the true, not the bad and the false. One does have to wonder about Genet's status as any kind of real thinker -- certainly he is not a rigorous and logical one -- and one cannot help but detect the mark of an occasional philosophical softheadedness about some of his work and in his flirtations with fashionable ideas.
Aside from Genet's dedication to a morality based on evil, he was dedicated to his work, most of which he accomplished in single concentrated periods of time. This biography provides a clear portrayal of his manner of composition and how, over the years, it became more and more difficult for him to write.
Mr. White also delineates well the literary history of the period. From Giacometti to Gide to Sartre to Camus to Beauvoir, Genet apparently knew everyone and fought with everyone. He also stole from a few of them, as well.
Genet's main love affairs, with the Trotskyite Jean Decarnin, with Java, with Lucien Senemaud and with the circus high-wire artist Abdallah, are recounted and analyzed in such a way that one comes away with the impression of Genet as a generous though often capricious person with many complicated needs. His relationship with Abdallah ended with the latter's suicide.
These particular, more stable, affairs occurred after his years as vagabond, prisoner and thief, and there is a reliability about them that denotes Genet's new sense of well being, his freedom from abject poverty. They are the signs of the man who has settled in, who has climbed up from the bottom to being a respected man of letters with, among other things, police connections.
When Genet got to know police inspectors, some of whom with literary ambitions, he didn't hesitate to pull strings. At one point, he used his connections to get a psychiatrist to write of him that he didn't know right from wrong.
Now this notion that Genet was afflicted with a moral madness is not very convincing. Undoubtedly he knew the difference between right and wrong but was in the grip of a compulsion to steal, like a smoker who secretly rationalizes with the belief that smoking is cool.
There is no question that the legend of Genet is perhaps as well known as his works, and this biography bolsters and contributes TTC to that legend. But the important thing to remember is that this story of Genet's life was based on facts, and for the most part those facts were, as Genet knew, an indictment of the time and place in which he lived.
(Ms. Ottenberg Stone is a writer who lives in Kensington.)
Title: "Genet: A Biography"
Author: Edward White
Length, price: 728 pages, $35