Jean Genet (1910–1986)
Notre Dame des Fleurs (1943, revised 1951)
translated into English as Our Lady of the Flowers (1963) by Bernard Frechtman
Rolled 1267, which is in the Jean Genet range. I fall back to his first listed work: 1265, Our Lady of the Flowers.
I’ll get right to it: What we have here is a fairly long dense experimental novel. It is 300 unchaptered pages of continuous prose, written while the author was imprisoned for theft, consisting mostly of fragmentary improvisations on the (homosexual) fantasy life that fed the author’s prison cell masturbation — fantasies in which the ego/protagonist is a pathetic transvestite prostitute called Divine, who couples with various muscular criminals. (Genet is particularly turned on by the idea of murderers as sex objects.) Let words be not minced: this is not infrequently a book elaborately and poetically about hard cocks, by an author who makes no secret of what he’s doing with his other hand.
This is the 24th selection in my glacial traversal of the Western Canon, and by now I’ve learned to disregard the gust of apprehensive dismay that often hits me when I google my newly arranged marriage and get a sense of what I’m in for. Other than Ezra Pound, who was as awful as I feared, they’ve all turned out to be paper tigers. (To spoil the ending, so too was this one.) But I must admit that despite knowing better, on first reading the Amazon and Wikipedia summaries of Our Lady, I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by how very aggressively The List seemed to be trying to screw me over.
The problem is that I have a bias, perhaps under-considered, against “literary erotica” and its adherents. I can’t help but feel that “serious” “eros” is usually just a needless (and thus embarrassing) attempt on the part of bohemian intellectuals to dignify porn — or even worse, sex itself — the only way they know how: by ensconcing it in the aesthetics of bohemian intellectualism! (From whence it’s just an easy roll across the bed to academic intellectualism, with a brief layover at Wikipedia.)
After letting it live here for the months that this entry has been simmering unposted, I have now summoned the discipline to remove from this spot a very long digression (10+ brilliant paragraphs!) on the preceding theme, much of it written in the early stages of reading the book. Why? Because none of it had anything at all to do with Our Lady of the Flowers, but it was written as though it did. At best it had to do with a misunderstanding of Our Lady of the Flowers that, by the time I finished, had been long dispelled.
While this book might well be filed under “erotica” or “gay/lesbian interest” by some misguided booksellers (and half-read as such by some alterna-teentellectuals), it really is neither sort of thing. So my cranky porn-scorn was out of place here. I will save it for a rainy day.
Genet’s actual subject is in fact the great mystery of subjectivity, the interiority and insubstantiality of all experience. The concept is the prisoner’s masturbation fantasy taken as a metaphor for all of art, for all of life. That the metaphor seems so lonely and sordid is part of the philosophical point.
The preceding is never quite stated in the book, really; it’s my analysis (and, more or less, Jean-Paul Sartre’s, whose introduction is completely adulatory and pretty much on point but at 50 over-written pages oozes with so much intellectual ego that it ends up feeling condescending anyway). The book has the virtue of being the sort of work of art that is inherently multi-dimensional and thus needn’t explain itself; the artist rationale is, ultimately, implicit. But this means that it spends all its time just being itself, and so on a first pass it can be very hard to decode what it is that you’re reading. It’s hard to be sure just how aware Genet is of the many layers of his project. (Hence my initial misgiving that he was trying to pass off his means of self-arousal as itself equivalent to literature.)
By the end I knew with certainty that he was aware of all of the layers. He fills his book freely with masturbation, farts, smells, discomforts, and then despair, fantasies, memories, etc., because what he is writing is an existential testament, a song of the life of the soul. Self-regard and self-mythologizing are the recourse not just of the literal prisoner but of the lonely ego in everyone, trapped with only the senses to keep it company. In the book, as in life, this alternates between seeming like the glorious triumph of the imagination and a depressing delusion.
This makes for relatively difficult reading, not just because it the conceit is so peculiarly raw, but also because the mode of expression is as freely and unabashedly subjective as the reality it conveys. The task is generally one of running along after the author, panting, while he makes poetic leap after leap as the whim strikes him. This is the sort of reading where one’s attention is liable to drift without one’s realizing it, as in the middle of a paragraph, the literal ground under one’s feet surreptitiously ramps away into metaphor or dream. Or one fantasy births another nested fantasy, without explicit notice. Many of the inspirations took a bit of puzzling to work out, but they almost always proved to be fine and beautiful things once I was able to see what he was getting at, and thus in retrospect were deemed well worth the effort.
This I suppose is the risk and reward of poetry: it’s the very fact that you might well not know what’s being talked about that makes it so moving when you do. Communication that goes beyond the prosaic is a consolation because it is rarely attempted, and it is rarely attempted because it is so unlikely to succeed.
The difficulty and poetry of so much of the writing intensifies the sense of rude clarity when we return from the interior fantasy to the prison cell and Genet himself, which happens periodically because even in the act of writing he is ruefully, inescapably self-aware, and he is intent on sparing himself nothing, not even the reality from which the creative act is ostensibly an escape. In granting himself the hope of escape he also must, in order to be honest, acknowledge the hopelessness of hope, the terminal circularity of the existential struggle that his book represents.
In fact, when I said above that Genet never really states his overarching intentions, that wasn’t quite true — very late in the game, his interior monologue briefly alights on a few business-like notes-to-self about what he ought to include in the book he is writing — but of course by that point the reader will have already come to understand the nature of the project. It’s still a striking moment, though; the impact is of a momentarily blinding “special effect” on the page.
Anyway, I see that so far I am begging the question of what sort of stuff it is that one is reading when one reads this book. The best I can answer that is to say that Genet’s writing, like Proust’s, is genuinely philosophical in construction, such that the action and the implications of the action are inextricably intertwined. (It is certainly unsummarizable, as per the Monty Python sketch.)
But generally, one is reading about the life, loves, and feelings of Divine (referred to as “she”), born Louis Culafroy (referred to as “he”), imagined fitfully and non-chronologically from boyhood to early death — all in light of the explicit acknowledgement that Divine is a mere puppet for the use of Genet’s imagination, libido, and projected autobiography. Her world is populated by a small stock of equally puppet-like characters who sometimes, as Genet’s whim strikes, star in their own episodes — Genet tells us at the outset that he is imagining them out of people he has met, criminals he has read about in the papers, and tiny newsprint photos of vacant, tough-looking guys that he has cut out and stuck to his wall. In the gaps one reads about Genet in his cell, his thoughts, fears, and dreams, and his own autobiography. Within this framework, digressions and distortions abound, zooming in and out of the fantasy in all directions, delving lyrically and mysteriously into experiential details. Overall the text is about nine-tenths Divine, one-tenth prison cell, but of course the two layers are one and the same thing, and increasingly one reads with a full awareness at all times, which is the greatest and most unique achievement of this work — I can’t think of anything else I have ever read that so thoroughly collapses the distinction between teller and tale. And this collapse is justified not as a superficial experiment in style, but as an utter and obvious psychological truth, which of course it is.
By being a sort of limbless abomination of a novel, melted into primal formlessness by the heat of its own gaze, this book profoundly exposes what is lurking in plain sight behind all novels — psychology.
Bernard Frechtman’s translation is a marvel — many a time I had to remind myself that the subtle values I was savoring in the language were either those of the translator or else those that the translator had miraculously conveyed intact from another language. In either case I was deeply impressed by his work. In looking him up I find that he worked exclusively for Genet — as English-language agent and secretary, as well as translator; that the two had a falling-out in 1966, and that in 1967 Frechtman committed suicide by hanging. This is quite an ugly shadow to have over the work and I’m sort of glad I didn’t know it until after I finished. You guys, unfortunately, have had that possibility stolen from you. Sorry.
Anyway, the writing is spectacular.
So now to the text excerpts: Sometimes I do this grudgingly or arbitrarily, but in this case there were many passages that I had the impulse to clip and offer; it’s that kind of writing. Not to say that any of the text would make a good Barnes & Noble bag; it’s all much too oblique and self-pitying and indulgent and libertine. But it was very often fascinating and impressive.
For the first time I’m going to include two different excerpts, because why not. This first one is actually the very first passage in the book to have struck as a candidate for excerption, right near the beginning – it’s touching and straightforward and gives a good impression of the how the Proustian, scatological, and existential aspects fit together. It’s long but I can’t bring myself to cut any of it.
Genet tells us that he woke in the morning “still entangled in my strange dream,” in which his victim had pardoned him for his crimes:
… Upon waking, I still had the feeling of baptism. But there is no question of resuming contact with the precise and tangible world of the cell. I lie down again until it’s time for bread. The atmosphere of the night, the smell rising from the blocked latrines, overflowing with shit and yellow water, stir childhood memories which rise up like a black soil mined by moles. One leads to another and makes it surge up; a whole life which I thought subterranean and forever buried rises to the surface, to the air, to the sad sun, which give it a smell of decay, in which I delight. The reminiscence that really tugs at my heart is that of the toilet of the slate house. It was my refuge. Life, which I saw far off and blurred through its darkness and smell — an odor that filled me with compassion, in which the scent of the elders and the loamy earth was dominant, for the outhouse was at the far end of the garden, near the hedge — life, as it reached me, was singularly sweet, caressing, light, or rather lightened, delivered from heaviness. I am speaking of the life which was things outside the toilet, whatever in the world was not my little retreat with its worm-eaten boards. It seemed to me as if it were somewhat in the manner of floating, painted dreams, whereas I in my hole, like a larva, went on with a restful nocturnal existence, and at times I had the feeling I was sinking slowly, as into sleep or a lake or a maternal breast or even a state of incest, to the spiritual center of the earth. My periods of happiness were never luminously happy, my peace never what men of letters and theologians call a “celestial peace.” That’s as it should be, for I would be horrified if I were pointed at by God, singled out by Him; I know very well that if I were sick, and were cured by a miracle, I would not survive it. Miracles are unclean; the peace I used to seek in the outhouse, the one I am going to seek in the memory of it, is a reassuring and soothing peace.
At times it would rain. I would hear the patter of the drops on the zinc roofing. Then my sad well-being, my morose delectation, would be aggravated by a further sorrow. I would open the door a crack, and the sight of the wet garden and the pelted vegetables would grieve me. I would remain for hours squatting in my cell, roosting on my wooden seat, my body and soul prey to the odor and darkness; I would feel mysteriously moved, because it was there that the most secret part of human beings came to reveal itself, as in a confessional. Empty confessionals had the same sweetness for me. Back issues of fashion magazines lay about there, illustrated with engravings in which the women of 1910 always had a muff, a parasol, and a dress with a bustle.
It took me a long time to learn to exploit the spell of these nether powers, who drew me to them by the feet, who flapped their black wings about me, fluttering them like the eyelashes of a vamp, and dug their branchlike fingers into my eyes.
Someone has flushed the toilet in the next cell. …
That is, to me, a beautiful passage; I know it will stay with me. If that makes you want to read the book, though, be warned: you will also find yourself reading a lot about HARD COCKS. Two sentences after the end of that excerpt, the words “stiff penis” appear. Contrariwise if that sounds pretty good to you (reader #2), be warned that “whilst in many places the effect on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Or at least I think so — but this is so far from being my neck of those woods that I really can’t say for sure. I would imagine that the somewhat grim existential context would take the bloom off of the rose of the sex scenes even for readers with exactly Genet’s proclivities, but what do I know.)
Now a somewhat more difficult passage, so that you can see at least one dimension of the difficulty and try your hand at it.
The pimp “Darling” (Divine’s principal lover) has been compulsively shoplifting at a department store. He finally approaches the door:
In his pockets were two silver lighters and a cigarette case. He was being followed. When he was near the door, which was guarded by a uniformed colossus, a little old woman said to him quietly:
“What have you stolen, young man?”
It was the “young man” that charmed Darling. Otherwise he would have made a dash for it. The most innocent words are the most pernicious, they’re the ones you have to watch out for. Almost immediately, the colossus was upon him and grabbed his wrist. He charged like a tremendous wave upon the bather asleep on the beach. Through the old woman’s words and the man’s gesture, a new universe instantaneously presented itself to Darling: the universe of the irremediable. It is the same as the one we are in, with one peculiar difference: instead of acting and knowing we are acting, we know we are acted upon. A gaze — and it may be of your own eyes — has the sudden, precise keenness of the extra-lucid, and the order of this world — seen inside out — appears so perfect in its inevitability that this world has only to disappear. That’s what it does in the twinkling of an eye. The world is turned inside out like a glove. It happens that I am the glove, and that I finally realize that on Judgment Day it will be with my own voice that God will call me: “Jean, Jean!”
The swoop out of simple narrative directly into a fairly sophisticated poetry is accomplished without batting an eye. The effect, at least to me, is like in a dream when the blood seems to surge up and swarm strangeness over what had previously been a naturalistic scene. This technique of sidestepping into a philosophical free-for-all is something like in Proust, but where Proust’s analytic swoops are generally toward a clarifying poetry of quasi-classical beauty, Genet is always stepping back to let in something dizzy, overwhelming. And then, just as quickly, out of this swoon of poetry further blossoms a painful tableau of the real author in a state of morbid desperation.
It was very easy for me to find myself glassily coasting over passages like this, which plunge one into complexities without warning; holding to the sense requires great commitment. To get from the department store door to “on Judgment Day it will be with my own voice that God will call me” in one breakneck paragraph is both exhilarating and exhausting. Every page offers the same. It is the exhilaration of great poetry, and that’s what this book is.
Once again, fatalistically strapping myself to The List pays off. A deep and rewarding aesthetic experience for which I am grateful was hidden away inside a book that I would never in a million years ever have read under any other circumstances — and that certainly includes having it recommended or assigned to me by anyone else. This is the kind of trust I can afford to place only in a ouija board and the pagan god CANON. (K’NON?)
I have just now taken a quick personal census and can say with confidence that this is by far the gayest book I have ever read.
The edition read, pictured above, was from the Brooklyn library. I had it out and read the first quarter or so around a year ago, when I scanned the cover as seen here, but then couldn’t renew it because it had been reserved and had to be returned. I did not summon up the will to retrieve and finish it until many months later, at which point the same copy showed a good deal more damage to the binding and a much enlarged tear in the corner, no doubt due to the other reader attempting to insert his penis. Thus the image you see above represents a bygone innocence.
This particular copy contained some of the most incoherent underlining I have ever encountered, the disjunct phoniness of which suggested (to my prejudicial imagination) one of those enthusiasts of “literary erotica,” having a cuddle party for himself and his awesomely open mind. I picture him in a corduroy jacket.
Since you were wondering, I’ll have you know that according to Google I am the absolute first, ever, anywhere, coiner of “teentellectual.” You will note that I, not content with this level of originality (viz. world-class), in fact went directly for the secondary inflection “alterna-teentellectual.” I’m ready for my genius grant, Mr. DeMille!
Okay, not to brag, but the term as it actually spontaneously occurred to me was “alterna-tweentellectual,” a word so ahead of its time that, had I kept it in, it would probably have broken Google — but then I realized that the particular pretension under discussion was necessarily post-pubescent. But when everyone is saying “alterna-tweentellectual,” oh, let’s say fifty years down the line, just remember that you saw it here first. And then kick yourself for not going and buying “teentellectual.com” while you still could, long before it became the Facebook of Web 5.0.