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literature

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Genet, Jean (19l0-1986)  
 
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The Thief's Journal

The Thief's Journal (1948), one of Genet's most accessible novels, deals in picaresque fashion with his travels through Spain, Yugoslavia, Germany, and Belgium in the 1930s.

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An important referent point for Jean-Paul Sartre's mammoth study Saint Genet (1963), The Thief's Journal deals with the problem of sanctity and the inversion of values that Genet's work repeatedly examines. In speaking of his experiences as a thief, the book is filled with portrayals of his lovers and their strengths and foibles.

Genet is certainly interested in the "truth" of his lovers, but the poetic transfiguration of his subculture is Genet's primary concern. In his portrayal of a criminal milieu and its survival tactics, Genet explores the possibilities of "camp" and outlines the parameters of a criminal subculture that is openly gay.

The Thief's Journal is a loving recreation of criminal style and language, specifically the charm of the men he loves. He admires Stiltano for achieving "a harmony in bad taste"; for Genet, Stiltano's own fashion sense, his "pair of green and tan crocodile shoes, a brown suit, a white silk shirt, a pink tie, a multicolored scarf and a green hat" become a means of empowerment.

The Thief's Journal deals with coping mechanisms and how style can create identity and facilitate revolt.

The difficulty Genet's representation of homosexuality in The Thief's Journal presents for readers today, however, remains a constant difficulty in his work. Genet's glorification of homosexuality as revolt leads him to equate it with crime in a manner that the bourgeois world he vilifies understands all too readily.

In his description of the French Gestapo and his fascination with their treason and theft, he notes, "With homosexuality added, it would be sparkling, unassimilable."

A difficulty that Genet's book presents to contemporary gay readers is one that besets much of his early novels; he is unwilling to consider specific differences between sexuality and crime, instead focusing obsessively on the links between them.

The Thief's Journal offers a reason for this oversight of Genet's: "Excluded by my birth and tastes from the social order, I was not aware of its diversity. I wondered at its perfect coherence, which rejected me."

Despite his minute exploration of a milieu excluded from the social order, Genet neglects to define his sexuality in other terms than those provided by the dominant class: as monstrous, criminal, and deviant.

Miracle of the Rose

Miracle of the Rose (1951), a complex, often mystical novel, is structured around the development of Genet's gay passions. In fact, as Tom Driver suggested, the book's scrutiny of prison life is plotted as a "bildung of gay passion," where Genet moves from passive relations with prisoners to assuming butch roles.

The novel explores the tendency of lovers to leave men for more "masculine" prisoners; it also explores the nuances of sexual relations between older men and young boys.

The biographical development of Miracle of the Rose is borne out of Genet's own experience of male-male relations; Genet plots his development from Mettray to Fontevrault as a growth from passive, "feminized" relations to relations where he plays the role of "masculine" older man to younger boys.

Along with this subtle examination of relationships, the novel charts mystical states of awareness; Genet attempts to meld gay sensuality to mysticism. Harcamone is represented as a divinity in the novel, an unseen presence who hallows the prison of Fontevrault.

In a climactic scene, Genet describes joining Harcamone during his martyrdom after the killing of a guard. Genet imaginatively links himself with Harcamone at the moment of his exaltation, his walk to the guillotine.

None of the relations between men in Fontevrault are depicted as idyllic: Miracle of the Rose is about the failure of all relations in a prison system, and the mystical solution, the sacralization of Harcamone, is the only panacea to brutalized social conditions.

Deathwatch

Genet explores further these themes of prison life and the relationships between prisoners in his first drama, Deathwatch (1946). Though not produced until 1949, two years after his first successful drama The Maids was produced, Deathwatch centers on three prison inmates and the and ties that bind them together.

The three characters, Green Eyes, Lefranc, and Maurice, are entangled in a jealous web, each scrambling to secure his position with the other two. Both Lefranc and Maurice desire Green Eyes, who as the most brutal murderer of the three, is the undisputed leader of the pack. Green Eyes, in jail for murdering a young girl, observes the two men vying for his attention throughout the play, taunting each other's sexual prowess.

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