Underrated: The case for Jean Genet

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The Independent Culture
Jean Genet (1910-1986) wrote a handful of miraculous novels in his late thirties and early forties after a life spent in orphanages, reform schools and, finally, jail. A thief and prostitute from an early age, Genet wrote of a life of vagrancy and crime that turned conventional aesthetics on its head. His stories of pullulating, fetishistic desire between male prison inmates convulsed the likes of Sartre and Cocteau with admiration, and a presidential decree, no less, was signed to release him from the life sentence he was then serving.

In the 1950s he turned to writing plays. He directed a brilliant short film, Un Chant d'Amour. Eschewing previous homosexual themes, his plays concerned racism and colonialism. Then theatre began to bore him. He observed with disgust that the rioting students in Paris in 1968 had seized theatres rather than a TV station. "Theatre only had any meaning for him," says his biographer Edmund White, "if it was to expose the theatrical powerplay of banks, courts and government." In later life, Genet wrote little, growing absorbed in the struggle of the PLO and the Black Panthers in the USA.

If we had a Genet of our own in Wormwood Scrubs, you can be sure that the British government would be arguing that he was a good reason for the abolition of the Arts Council and that his sentence should be increased, not reduced, as an "example". If we had a Genet of our own, he wouldn't be marching with Ian McKellen - except to throw a brick at him. Genet believed in revolution, not respectable integration.

Genet was a consummate artist of the dangerous and taboo, highly thought- of in most countries - except England. Edmund White supposes this is partly because French argot, which doesn't date, is always translated into British slang, which does. But Genet's books are great, carnivorous flowers; they describe things never described before. He might imagine sex with Hitler or create the first drag-queen character in French fiction. From airless cells to Marseilles docksides, a hidden world comes forth.

Genet was a macho slut who conducted his life in a cloud of criminal musk. He was an intensely moral immoralist and a natural transgressive who favoured violent antagonism to structured reasoning. But being French, Catholic, criminal and gay - the four worst things les rosbifs can imagine - his hideously beautiful talent has never been properly acknowledged on these shores.