May 24, 2013

The NSFW Files: "Our Lady of the Flowers," by Jean Genet

Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet
 
(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
 
Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Review by Karl Wolff
 
Personal History: It is rare for me to have a book that impacts my life on such a monumental level. Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet, is an unlikely candidate to have this honor. Genet's novel affected me in such a way that I remember where I bought the book and it forever altered my reading habits. Rewind back to the mid- to late-1990s, Madison, Wisconsin, where I am completing my undergraduate degrees in History and Communication Arts (Radio-TV-Film). On some days I'd have several hours between classes. During these idle hours I'd haunt the various used bookstores along Madison's State Street, the Wisconsin capital's famed car-free street. One day I walked into Paul's Bookstore and browsed the fiction section. Randomly picking out volumes and flipping through the pages, seeing what caught my interest. One book that caught my eye was Genet's novel, especially its weirdly beguiling cover, Self Portrait by John Kirby. It depicted a bald men in a dress, his hand in a parody of a gesture seen in paintings of Catholic saints. As a fan of Beat writers, I had seen Jean Genet's name thrown around. (I had read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs in high school, loving it far more passionately than Jack Kerouac's On the Road.) Here Genet is hanging out with William S. Burroughs in the Bunker, and there he is with the Black Panthers. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I later read most of Genet's fiction, devouring volumes along with other outliers of the Beat Generation (John Clellon Holmes and Herbert Huncke). In the end, Our Lady of the Flowers remains one of top three favorite novels I've ever read, the other two being Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans and Chants de Maldoror and Poems, by Comte de Lautreamont. My tastes, shall we say, ran to the dark, violent, and idiosyncratic.

The History: As of this writing (May 2013), gay marriage has been recently legalized in France and Minnesota became the twelfth state to legalize gay marriage. I mention this as a prelude to France's tumultuous gay rights history and how that ties into issues like censorship, erotica, international trade, and the US Post Office. As late as 1750 in France, sodomy was a criminal offense punishable with burning at the stake. The French Revolution paved the way for abolishing press censorship and relaxed legislation on sexual behavior. The politics is much more complicated. The see-sawing between revolutionary and restorationist governments from the 1790s to the Fall of France in 1940 involved the French public getting whipsawed between liberalized regimes and more repressive, authoritarian regimes. Although as Proust chronicled in his novel, In Search of Lost Time, sexual license co-existed in the repressive monarchist dictatorship of Emperor Napoleon III's Second Empire.

The situation of sexuality in France is tangled up in the issue of class. The upper classes have more leeway with their sexual behavior while the lower classes tend to be more conservative.

During the 1920s, censorship and sexual mores became more free, as opposed to the reigning puritanism of the United States. Like the earliest days of the French Revolution, quality literature thrived simultaneously with the volcanic outpouring of pornographic material (the dynamo that pushes the language forward, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin). The 1930s became more repressive, starting with the passage of the Code de le Famille, a dark prelude to the Vichy regime's criminalization of homosexual behavior. (The complicated interrelationships between homosexuality, criminality, the law, and treason will be unraveled when I discuss the specifics of Genet's book.)

The Book: Our Lady of the Flowers was written in Fresnes Prison in 1942. Located in the southern suburbs of Paris, Jean Genet wrote his book in relative safety while France was ruled by the Vichy government. Following World War II, Genet had difficulty finding a publisher and in 1956 was convicted of pornography. Genet revised the novel in 1951 when it was published by Gallimard, which omitted some of the more pornographic passages. After World War II Genet also received a pardon from the French government, aided by luminaries in the French literary establishment like Jean-Paul Sartre. Genet had been imprisoned, facing a life sentence, for thievery.

The book begins with an incantation to murderers by the prisoner Jean. (While Jean shares many autobiographical similarities to the author, the character Jean is not the same. A similar confusion occurs for In Search of Lost Time between the narrator Marcel and the author Marcel Proust.) Writing in his prison cell, Genet creates the novel from his masturbatory reveries. When the guards confiscated his writings, he began again. Out of his masturbation, he imagines Divine (nee Louis Culafroy), a drag queen in pre-war Paris and her exploits with Darling Daintyfoot, a pimp and stool pigeon. After Darling leaves, Divine lives with the soldier Gabriel, Gorgui the killer, and the murderer Our Lady of the Flowers. What Genet excels at is world-building, usually something associated with science fiction and fantasy. From the lower depths of the gay and criminal underworlds, he builds a beautiful, violent, hermetic, and decadent world.

Adding to this world-building, Genet's novel is polyvocal. It contains many voices, best exemplified in this description by The New York Times Book Review: "Elegiac elegance, alternately muted, languorous, vituperative, tender, glamourous, bitchy, lush, mockingly feminine, 'high camp', overripe, vigorous, rigorous, exalted." This is a novel where voices clash, collide, and merge together into a seamless whole. One passage has all the hot-house luxuriousness of the Decadence movement, another passage has criminal toughs speaking in language not too different from a Raymond Chandler novel, while another has bitchy queens gossiping in an elevated, ironic, and gorgeous slanguage. Genet writes of his wartime incarceration, "The whole world is dying of panicky fright. Five million young men of all tongues will die by the cannon that erects and discharges ... But where I am I can muse in comfort on the lovely dead of yesterday, today, and tomorrow." While the world destroyed itself and France was ruled by traitors, Genet sat serenely in his cell and wrote his stories.

The novel undergoes a double transformation with Jean, the prisoner, putting up twenty pictures of murderers and masturbating to their images. He describes how he venerates these images like the images of Catholic saints. Divine becomes a self-anointed saint, suffering the slings and arrows of love and betrayal, until she dies of consumption in a garret. The narrator refers to Divine as "he" or "she" with casual familiarity as well as freely switching from past to present tense. We read of Divine's childhood as a boy named Louis Culafroy, the son of Ernestine, in a lovely bucolic setting. These passages can rival the best examples of literary realism in rural settings.

When Darling and Divine go to mass, "They sometimes take communion from a mean-looking priest who maliciously crams the host into their mouths. Darling still goes to mass because of its luxuriousness."

One reads how the narrator transforms the poverty, suffering, and violence of the criminal underworld into lush prose. Divine's fellow queens -- Mimosa I, Mimosa II, First Communion, Milord, and others -- become saints in this inverted Catholic cosmology. Murderers become holy, not because they can be redeemed (they won't be), but because they are murderers. A pimp can embody the Eternal as he thumbs his nose at the prison guard. This novel transforms the gutter into the holy and the holy into the high camp, Divine's decorating her garret a cheap parody of a Catholic cathedral, but done with the same reverence and visual splendor. Existentialist philosophers called Our Lady of the Flowers a medieval edifice and one can understand why.

Into the general narrative of the novel are separate sections entitled DIVINARIANA. Kaleidoscopic snippets including bon mots, vignettes, or disconnected extended passages. The novel, reflecting its Catholic origin, has three of these sections, mirroring the concept of the trinity. Jean's stream-of-consciousness fuels his masturbatory fantasies and like most fantasists, he grows tired of his creations. By the end he says, "So here are the last Divinariana. I'm in a hurry to get rid of Divine. I toss off helter-skelter, at random, the following notes, in which you, by unscrambling them, will try to find the essential form of the Saint." Genet breaks the fourth wall and directly comments on his creations. This predates literary postmodernism and Divine an exemplar of what queer theorist Judith Butler calls the "performativity of gender."

This performativity is exposed in the harsh light of the law during a climactic court scene. Like a bizarro world version of a legal drama, Jean recounts the trial of Our Lady of the Flowers. The queens are trotted out before the court and forced to utter their birth names, a procedure at once humiliating and banal. They are stripped of their magic and exalted status. Our Lady is sentenced to death for the senseless murder he committed and unlike Dostoyevsky's tortured Raskolnikov, is unrepentant, his final words disabusing his elderly victim's lack of sexual vigor. (My euphemizing Our Lady's last words steal the passage's original power and humor.)

As stated before, Genet was a career criminal. Born an illegitimate child, he continually found himself on the wrong side of the law. He spent many years in prison and his view of the law and the bourgeoisie culture that supported it was antagonistic. Later in life, as a literary elder statesman, he used his prestige to bolster support for the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. With years spent in prison, considered a sexual deviant and moral danger to "proper society," it is only fitting he become an ally with fellow underdogs like African-Americans, gays, and Arabs. Prisoner of Love, a later work from the 1980s, recounts the time he spent with the PLO. Today Genet is a tricky literary figure. Unlike recent years, the gay rights movement had been fragmented and antagonistic to different elements within the movement. This is the case with drag queens. While one can get into another digression about comedic and dramatic drag, mainstream gay rights advocates felt that drag queens did a disservice to the movement. They found them effeminate and weak, a parody of femininity, as well as being fake and superficial. Genet's Divine is a wonderful counterexample. It would be the drag queens who fought back against the police in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn.

Things get further complicated when Genet likens homosexuality to criminality and insanity. While this isn't advantageous to gay rights advocacy, it is Genet's means of fighting a bigoted and evil status quo. Remember, Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers in 1942, when Stalin, an ex-criminal, ruled the Soviet Union and Nazis ran Germany. The Nuremberg Trials would accuse the Nazis as a criminal political organization. When the rulers of Europe were murderous criminal thugs, Genet's adoration of moral deviance sounds more like liberation and his queens in an impoverished underworld comes closer to a personal utopian vision.

The Verdict: Our Lady of the Flowers is a great novel, if not one of the greatest novels written in the 20th century. I would put it alongside Ulysses, by James Joyce (another novel that offended proper society, accusing Joyce of being obscene and pornographic). Genet's novel would inspire the Beat Generation and the Mid-century Modernists' fascination with criminality (see Norman Mailer's "The White Negro"). The cavalcade of queens and criminals would find its analogue in Andy Warhol's Factory scene with its Superstars (celebrity icons yet also parodies/homages to the Catholic saints of Warhol's Polish heritage). The lowbrow counterpart to the Factory were the films of Baltimore native John Waters. Waters would, like Genet, anoint another pop culture saint with the name Divine, shot through with lumpen glory, criminal violence, and sexual perversity.

I won't mince words: Genet's novel is a tour de force. To call it something like a Great Gay Novel or a Great French Novel belittles its status and its power. Our Lady of the Flowers is not only of literary merit, despite its prurient creation and sensational subject matter, but it deserves a place within the Western Canon. Genet wrote stories of his masturbatory fantasies, yet he created art that will last the ages.
 
Read even more about Our Lady of the Flowers: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

Filed by Karl Wolff at 1:00 PM, May 24, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |