Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jean Genet: the writer as a perpetual exile

The second volume of Juan Goytisolo's autobiography, Realms of Strife (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990 - trans. Peter Bush) contains a very moving tribute to the French poet, novelist and playwright Jean Genet (1910-1986) - whose life in many ways parallels that of the Spanish writer.

Genet was the orphaned son of a prostitute who grew up to become a vagrant, military deserter and petty thief and was only saved from a life sentence of imprisonment in 1948 (after over 10 convictions) by the intervention of André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (among others) who recognised the extent of his creative talents.

His works reveal a powerful fascination and empathy with people existing at the margins of society such as criminals, homosexuals and immigrants.

Goytisolo was introduced to Genet soon after his arrival in Paris in 1956 by Monique Lange of the publishing house Gallimard, and from there began a relationship that was to have a powerful influence over Goytisolo's own subsequent political and literary evolution.

Like Goytisolo, Genet was a homosexual who was initially attracted to the Arab countries of the Maghreb because of the relatively more uninhibited notions of masculinity in North African society (despite the dominance of Islam).

From this initial point of attraction Genet became more deeply involved both personally and politically in the Arab world - defending Algerian migrant workers against police brutality in France and traveling to meet with Palestinian freedom fighters in Lebanon.

He was then an exile in every sense of the word.

In his memoirs Goytisolo recounts the time he lent Genet a copy of the poems of Antonio Machado, a writer with whom Genet was not then acquainted but who had the status of a kind of secular saint among the Spanish Republican exiles abroad:

He returned the books to me after a few days and rattled off a string of criticisms: he thought the writer's human and literary horizons narrow and limited; his obsession with Castile was a way of narcisistically contemplating his own navel and resurrecting the retrograde values of the countryside. Machado not only wrote in Spanish - as Genet wrote in French - but wanted to be Spanish, a cultural identification that Genet could not understand and labeled as chauvinist. He was left totally indifferent by the moral landscape of France: neither the gardens of Versailles nor the cathedral of Rheims stirred any emotions in him. So why, then, that love of Soria, Castile, the trees on the riverbank, the slow procession of poplars? The fatherland, he would say much later, could only be an ideal for those who didn’t have one, like the Palestinian fedayeen.

Goytisolo concludes his tribute with the following account of his friend's death some 30-odd years later:

He met his end on one of those short trips to the France he so hated, when he wished to correct the proofs of his last book, Un Captif amoureux. His wish to be buried in Morocco, to leave no trace of himself in his country apart from his beautiful, repellent, and poisoned prose, apparently complicated the formalities of the funeral. As with Abdallah twenty years before, his body remained several days in the morgue; and as Abdallah blackened by poison had returned to his African origins, Genet would in turn be reintegrated symbolically in his adoptive land: as I later learned from his Palestinian friends, the customs official asked those accompanying the coffin whether it was the body of a Moroccan worker. They proudly proclaimed it was.

Finally, Goytisolo notes that

Genet taught me to cast off my early vanity, political opportunism, my desire to cut a figure in the life of literary society…Without him, without his example, I would perhaps not have had the strength to break from the hierarchy of values accepted on the right and the left by my compatriots, to accept proudly my predictable rejection and isolation, to write all I have written from the time of Conde Julián.

1 comment:

  1. S. also the articles on Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo & Hubert Fichte under