No biography is ever wholly true. The art of the biographer lies in arriving at the most accurate misreadings possible, and then transforming these into a chronology of psychological and material causes and effects which make up the document of a life. Jean-Paul Sartre’s now-famous conceit about Jean Genet’s identity, his coupling of the emblematic categories of “criminal” and “saint,” directs one to read the writer’s life as a merging of the opposed personae represented in all Genet’s texts by those doubled characters like Solange and Claire in The Maids or LeFranc and Maurice in Deathwatch. In Sartre’s voluminous study, which did much to establish Genet’s reputation as one of France’s major 20th-century writers, Genet becomes the existential outsider, both criminal and saint, a figure living beyond the moral boundaries delimiting social and cultural discourse. In this formulation, Genet’s thieving and homosexuality become literal manifestations of his status as a metaphorical outcast who filters the world around him through the perspective of a voyeur.Order now
In his stately, almost aristocratic, often brilliant but infuriating new biography (winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for biography), Edmund White proceeds with a similar strategy, but the conceit he uses to evoke his subject is both more complex and more elusive. White cites a revealing section of The Thief’s Journal in which Genet betrays the way he thinks: “In order to survive my desolation, when I’d turned back in on myself, without noticing it I worked out a rigorous discipline. The mechanism went a bit like this (since then I’ve kept on using it); with each charge lodged against me, no matter how unfair, in my heart of hearts I answered yes. Scarcely had I muttered this word-or a phrase that meant the same thing-than I felt within myself the need to become what I’d been accused of being …. I recognized that I was the coward, the traitor, the thief, the faggot that they saw in me …. With a little patience and thorough soul-searching I was able to discover enough reasons for being named with these names….l grew accustomed to this condition. I admitted it with tranquility. The scorn people felt for me changed into hatred: I’d succeeded.”
Genet’s “character,” his self-dramatization, seems to follow from this assertion. He consistently makes himself into a reflection of the image others project onto him, transforming most radically when he accommodates Sartre’s dialectic by filling the roles Sartre outlined for him in his book. As White shows with remarkable skill, Genet wrote to reinvent himself. He moved from role to role with elusive ease so that the individual, Jean Genet, seemed present only as a sequence of parts assumed to confront the exigencies of the moment.
How then does one write the biography of an unfixable individual, of an endlessly shifting mask? Genet, for whom writing was a way to order his emotional experience, solved his own version of this problem by celebrating the mask. He re-created his life as myth, as a fiction which moved between the real and the imaginary – and his “success” lay in hiding his “self” behind layers of constructed facades. His early novels poetically shuffled the identities he performed, arranging anew the many facets of his contradictory personality.
White uses Genet’s autobiographical fictions as documents which cannot be read as verifiably true, but which present embellished versions of Genet’s inner world, pointing, perhaps, to an apprehension of the imagination which created them. He quotes liberally from those passages in the novels which seem to reflect Genet’s own responses to the institutions and people around him. But because he suspects the veracity of these poetic passages, White meticulously documents other responses to circumstances similar to the ones Genet experienced.
For example, to arrive at a fuller understanding of Genet’s infatuation with the Palestine Liberation Organization, White offers eye-witness testimonies from people who were either involved with the group or knew Genet during this period, and supplements them with historical accounts of PLO activities. He then arrives at the conclusion that Genet’s experience was different from virtually everyone else’s. This kind of research is standard practice for most biographers, even those who revel in the betrayal of sordid, scandalous secrets (although White avoids the sensationalism to which a biography of Genet especially might be prone), but “standard practice” may not be the best strategy for this biography’s mercurial subject. White seems to know this: He acknowledges the impossibility of pinning Genet within the pages of his book, but then tries to employ strategies that will achieve exactly that.
In the course of his detailed interrogation into the various institutions which affected Genet (using Michel Foucault’s historiographic treatise, Discipline and Punish, as a theoretical model), White draws from his analysis of Genet’s formative years a set of paradigmatic situations which serve to measure Genet’s adult relationships. His childhood experiences in the home of his poor foster parents, and his later incarceration with the inmates at Mettray – an all-male penal colony for delinquent juveniles – become, for White, tropes which emerge in the way Genet approaches and assimilates his adult experiences. The hierarchical ordering of prison life becomes a condition Genet seeks out in the organizations to which he later attaches himself. His novels and plays represent worlds that resemble prisons in their authoritarian social organization; even the very media with which he works appear formally ordered and rigorously stratified.
Genet’s sympathetic engagement with oppressed groups that rebelled against prevalent social conditions-the Black Panthers, the African resistance to French imperialism, the PLO-finds a ready parallel with his earlier situation at Mettray and the other prisons where he spent much of his twenties. This sympathy is complicated by his erotic attraction to his personal oppressors, overtly heterosexual figures like the older bullies he “married” at Mettray, and American and French policemen and soldiers.
This literal exhibition of Genet’s sexuality, both in his writing and his personal liaisons, becomes a way for White to make Genet’s private expression political. In a recent lecture, White asserted that Genet “wrote to seduce the heterosexual reader.” He went on to suggest that this motive was decidedly political in its attempt to confront the surface rectitude of Genet’s audience with the poetic sociology of an alien underworld. Viewed from what might be considered a normative perspective, this focus implies the invention of an “other” which is fascinatingly repulsive, an “other” that signifies unknown territory, uncharted human experience, but that attracts by appearing violent and vital-which lends White’s analysis of Genet’s psyche an importance beyond the narrow limits of the artist’s particular psychology, and implies that this biography of Genet is also a socio-historic accounting of the culture which made him what he was.
But White seems to place himself outside the seductive power of Genet as “other.” His writing is lucid and elegant, consistently moving away from the lush hyperbole of Genet’s own prose. He attempts to flatten where Genet ornaments, using his detailed research to get under the surface of Genet’s texts and into the workings of his mind. But, as White knows, the texts (and the man) retain many layers of onion skin, layers that merge into each other to create a complexly patterned fabric that is at its core a grand illusion. For at the heart of this book is an absence, a hole around which all White’s words revolve. A hole where Genet should be.
And Genet remains, like the Queen in The Balcony, in and not in his palace of the imagination, embroidering and not embroidering his lace handkerchief, to be conjured only in and through a fictional language which reflects, always, itself.