Jean Gent - Biography
Jean Genet, was a significant and controversial French writer and political activist. He was born on December 19, 1910 and died in 1986. Jean Genet wrote poetry, plays, essays and novels. His most noted writings include The Blacks, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Thief’s Journal, and Querelle of Brest. During the early years of his life, Jean Genet was a criminal and vagrant.
On December 19, 1910, Jean Genet was born in Paris. Genet's mother, Camille Gabrielle Genet, was a single woman who was only twenty-one years old. Camille Genet has been alternately described as a governess and a prostitute. After seven months, Jean Genet was abandoned by his mother. She was assumed to have been killed by an influenza epidemic of Paris.
Charles and Eugenie Regnier volunteered to foster the infant Jean Genet. The Regnier family moved the boy to the village of Alligny-en-Morvan. Many foster children had been taken to the Morvan region. Most of these children were taken in by families that worked in agricultural jobs. But the Regnier family was a family of artisans. The foster parents seemed to have affection for the young boy. Unfortunately like many of the foster children in the region, Jean Genet was never fully accepted by the people of the region. Jean Genet reacted to this alienation by trying to speak standard French instead of the dialect of the Moran region.
Jean Genet performed well as a student and was a member of the church choir. However, he began to steal and had a pattern of running away from his foster family. An older couple took Jean Genet into their home after the death of his foster mother. The woman claimed that the young Jean Genet went out late and night and started wearing makeup. Once when Jean Genet was asked to deliver money to a local fair and he spent it and by the age of ten Jean Genet had gained the reputation as a thief. He had also gained the reputation for sharing his money with the other children.
Jean Genet passed the Certificat d’Etudes exam when he was thirteen. He received the highest score of the five boys from the region who had passing scores. This high score was rewarded with an apprenticeship in printing in the Paris region. After two weeks at this position, Jean Genet ran away. He was later sent to the home of Rene de Buxeuil, a composer who was blind. Jean Genet learned prosody, rhythm and rhyme. Jean Genet stole money from de Buxeuil. This was one of the first times that Jean Genet would become acquainted with the French penal institutions. Jean Genet bounced around from reformatory to psychiatric facility.
In 1926, Jean Genet was taken to Mettray. He was sent to an penal colony that focused on agricultural work. This institution would inspire the setting for Jean Genet’s second novel The Miracle of the Rose. The hierarchical structure of the colony provided Jean Genet access to homosexual relationships. Jean Genet would later describe the sublimity of sex in these conditions.
In 1927, Jean Genet escaped for a short time. In 1929, Jean Genet gained a type of freedom by enlisting in the military. For the next seven years, Jean Genet served the military in Morocco, Algeria and Syria. These travels would provide Jean Genet with a deep sympathy for Arabic and North African peoples. Jean Genet’s military service was interrupted in 1933. During this year, Jean Genet traveled throughout Spain and France as a vagabond.
In 1936, Jean Genet would again desert the army. He traveled through Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Nazi Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia. Jean Genet traveled on a false passport. He would write about this adventure in his book The Thief’s Journal. He returned to France in 1937. He continued to steal and spent time in and out of prison.
Jean Genet started his writing career when he was incarcerated. He began work Our Lady of the Flowers in 1941. He also began composing the poem The Man Sentenced to Death. Jean Genet dedicated this poem to Maurice Pilorg, a twenty-year-old murderer who had been executed. This poem covered many of the common themes in Genet’s work, including situational homosexuality, gender confusion, and penile celebration. His descriptions were romantic.
Jean Genet met the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1943. Cocteau was one of the first vocal supporters of the troubled Jean Genet. Cocteau helped Jean Genet through the publishing of his fist novel. At one point, Jean Genet stole an antique volume of Paul Verlaine’s work. When he was asked if he the price, Jean Genet retorted that he knew its worth. Jean Cocteau hired Maurice Garcon, a prominent lawyer, to act in defense of Jean Genet. Under oath, Cocteau proclaimed Genet’s genius and literary importance. With his friend and lawyer working in his favor, Jean Genet was able to receive a four-month sentence instead of the life sentence his constant recidivism legally required.
Unfortunately, the Nazi Occupied French Government began to force convicts without steady income and housing. Cocteau convinced Marc Barbezat, a Swiss publisher, to agree to many of Jean Genet’s future works in order to prove that Genet had future income. Cocteau’s friends also began to petition the Nazi-allied government for his release, which was secured in 1944. Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso were also early and vocal supporters of the troubled writer. He was not to return to prison.
Jean Genet’s first published novels were in small editions and secretly circulated. These works did not move beyond a small group of intellectuals. Yet the reputation Jean Genet garnered from these books was wide spread.
In the 1950s, Jean Genet’s depiction of criminal and homosexual activities were so graphic that the United States banned his works. In 1952, Jean-Paul Sartre published a length existential examination of Jean Genet’s development called Saint Genet. However, this defense of Jean Genet was originally published anonymously. After this analysis was produced, Jean Genet took a hiatus of several years before he returned to writing. Jean Genet wrote three plays between 1955 and 1961.
Jean Genet was romantically involved with Abdallah, a performer who walked on the tightrope. In 1964, Abdallah committed suicide. This death sent Jean Genet into a period of depression in which he attempted suicide. In the late 1960s, Jean Genet began to become politically active in supporting improvements in the lives of immigrants. Jean Genet would join Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in protesting the police abuse of Algerians. The Black Panthers invited Jean Genet to come to the United States and give lectures in 1970. Later that year, he would spend time in a Palestinian refugee camp. During this six month sojourn in the camps, Jean Genet met Yasser Arafat. Jean Genet published the article “Four Hours in Shatila” in response to the massacre of Palestinians in 1982. This work was more poignant since Jean Genet was in Beirut during the time of the massacres.
Jean Genet was open about his support of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof’s Red Army Faction. He even published in article in support of their actions in Le Monde in 1977.
Jean Genet had throat cancer at the end of his life. However when his body was found in 1986, it was believed that he had fallen and hit his head.