BOOK REVIEW / A lay saint of unbelonging: 'Genet' - Edmund White: Chatto & Windus, 25 pounds - Michele Roberts on Jean Genet, outsider, traitor, thief - and genius

DURING HIS lifetime Genet was dubbed bastard, thief, pervert, revolutionary, saint. Since his death in 1986, the myths have gathered round him, rubbing off his rough edges, plastering over the cracks in his legend's facade, reducing him to either sanctity or villainy. So this biography comes as a corrective. Avoiding the traps so many other biographers fall into, hagiography at one extreme and sadistic iconoclasm at the other, White restores the image of Genet not to some original pristine condition but to something more interestingly flawed.

Because White lets us see how he's put his narrative together, indicating the gaps and difficult places in his story, the final portrait of Genet that emerges isn't labelled as the sole truth; each of us can view it from our own perspective, and recognise this as particular.

White is a generous biographer, not only in the sense of clearly loving his subject while attempting to present him with all possible detachment, but also in the way that he strives to paint in the relevant background as much as possible. When I began reading this book I quailed at its hefty 800 pages and privately swore at its author for being over-concerned with size. In fact, a few repetitions aside, the length works to Genet's benefit and has to do with White's eagerness to put him in context as much as possible.

Lengthy digressions on Jean Cocteau or the French penal system or the Black Panthers serve to argue how much Genet was shaped by external circumstances, not simply driven by inner necessities. His homosexuality, for example, resists both cheap pathologising and posturing heroics when set against his early experiences and the roles allotted to misfits by French patriarchy.

His childhood marked him indelibly. Suffering shaped him. Later on, when he became an artist (always thinking of himself as a poet rather than a writer), he made beautiful things out of all the painful stuff hurled at him: not knowing who his father was, being abandoned to state care by his mother who couldn't cope, working in a farming community as a foster child who enjoyed at best ambivalent status, being sent to prison at 16. Issues of rejection and betrayal surface all through Genet's novels and plays, and helped lay the foundations for his political sympathies, later on, with outcast groups. He became the Outsider Artist par excellence. It's easy, nowadays, to utter that phrase glibly, romantically, cynically, as though it's just a fancy dress costume one can adopt. Yet Genet constructed his artist's persona out of terrible experiences of harshness and brutality.

He was incarcerated, after several episodes of stealing, in the penal colony of Mettray. He'd been labelled as a criminal type, a deviant, and was expected to live that out, live up to it. He survived by naming the world his way, by turning names around. In The Thief's Journal he commented on the surreal world of Mettray: 'With each charge lodged against me, no matter how unfair, in my heart of hearts I answered yes. Scarcely had I muttered this word, than I felt within myself the need to become what I'd been accused of being. I was 16 years old, I'd been understood: in my heart I'd maintained not a single corner where I could preserve the feeling I was innocent. I recognised that I was the coward, the traitor, the thief, the faggot that they saw in me. An accusation can be made without any proof, but so that they could find me guilty, it struck me that I had to do what's done by traitors, thieves, cowards, yet there was nothing of that sort to be found: yet within myself, with a little patience and through soul-searching, I was able to discover enough reasons for being named with these names. I was stunned to know that I was made up of such filth. I became abject. Slowly I grew accustomed to this condition. I admitted it with tranquillity. The scorn people felt for me changed into hatred; I'd succeeded. And yet what agonies I'd undergone] Two years later I was strong.'

As well as a survival technique and aesthetic, Mettray also provided seduction, certainly by other boys, crucially, also, by language itself: 'Someone gave me, probably strictly by chance, the sonnets of Ronsard. I was knocked out. I had to be understood by Ronsard. Ronsard would never have tolerated argot. What I had to say required that I use this language in order to bear witness to my sufferings.' Finally Mettray also taught Genet self-confidence: 'Because I was at Mettray, I am good, that is to say my goodness towards humble people is composed of my loyalty to those whom I loved. If I had been brought up in the hyperboreal loneliness of wealth, my soul would not have known how to expand, for I do not love oppressed people. I love those whom I love, who are always handsome and sometimes oppressed but standing up in revolt.'

After Mettray, Genet's life took off on an astonishing trajectory of unbelonging translated into travelling, adventures, sexual experience, love affairs: desire always moving him on, paradox a mark of his writing style in both novels and plays. Indifferent to women in the flesh, he explored femininity as construct, as role, in an illuminating way that made him beloved of many feminists. Indifferent to ideas of gay politics and cultures he made an important contribution to homosexual literature, especially his creation of the Queen, an archetype of folklore only before Genet invented the outrageous figure of Divine. Indifferent to notions of living a moral life, he never let his sexuality serve his politics but let it illuminate his studies of power relationships between men.

A lay saint of sorts, owning few possessions, almost no clothes and never allowing himself a home of his own, he aimed at perfection of the life and of the work, always on his own terms. Periods of great literary fertility alternated with his passionate involvements in politics, he wouldn't give the one up for the other. Edmund White concludes by calling Genet a genius. His genius could flower, perhaps, because he let himself embrace so many paradoxes, so many contradictions. He was confined by no penal colony of conventional thought. He broke out, and he paid the price for that. Now, at last, after his death, his art is being seen in all its greatness.

(Photograph omitted)

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