Larache Christian Cemetery, Provincia di Larache 92000, Marocco
Jean Genet (19 December 1910 – 15 April 1986) was a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but he later took to writing. His major works include the novels The Thief's Journal, and Our Lady of the Flowers, and the plays The Balcony, The Maids and The Screens.
Genet's mother was a prostitute who raised him for the first seven months of his life before putting him up for adoption. Thereafter Genet was raised in the provincial town of Alligny-en-Morvan, in the Nièvre department of central France. His foster family was headed by a carpenter and, according to Edmund White's biography, was loving and attentive. While he received excellent grades in school, his childhood involved a series of attempts at running away and incidents of petty theft.
After the death of his foster mother, Genet was placed with an elderly couple but remained with them less than two years. According to the wife, "he was going out nights and also seemed to be wearing makeup." On one occasion he squandered a considerable sum of money, which they had entrusted him for delivery elsewhere, on a visit to a local fair.
For this and other misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent at the age of 15 to Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained between 2 September 1926 and 1 March 1929. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency (having been caught engaged in a homosexual act) and spent a period as a vagabond, petty thief and prostitute across Europe—experiences he recounts in The Thief's Journal (1949).
After returning to Paris, France in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts, and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort", which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944).
In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never return to prison.
By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays, and numerous poems, many controversial for their explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality. Sartre wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development (from vagrant to writer), entitled Saint Genet (1952), which was anonymously published as the first volume of Genet's complete works. Genet was strongly affected by Sartre's analysis and did not write for the next five years.
Between 1955 and 1961, Genet wrote three more plays as well as an essay called "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet", on which hinged Jacques Derrida's analysis of Genet in his seminal work Glas. During this time, Genet became emotionally attached to Abdallah Bentaga, a tightrope walker. However, following a number of accidents and his suicide in 1964, Genet entered a period of depression, and even attempted suicide himself.
From the late 1960s, starting with an homage to Daniel Cohn-Bendit after the events of May 1968, Genet became politically active. He participated in demonstrations drawing attention to the living conditions of immigrants in France. In 1970, the Black Panthers invited him to the United States, where he stayed for three months giving lectures, attended the trial of their leader, Huey Newton, and published articles in their journals. Later the same year he spent six months in Palestinian refugee camps, secretly meeting Yasser Arafat near Amman. Profoundly moved by his experiences in the United States and Jordan, Genet wrote a final lengthy memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Love, which would be published posthumously.
Genet also supported Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as Michel Foucault and Daniel Defert's Prison Information Group. He worked with Foucault and Sartre to protest police brutality against Algerians in Paris, a problem persisting since the Algerian War of Independence, when beaten bodies were to be found floating in the Seine. Genet expresses his solidarity with the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, in the article "Violence et brutalité", published in Le Monde, 1977.
In September 1982, Genet was in Beirut when the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. In response, Genet published "Quatre heures à Chatila" ("Four Hours in Shatila"), an account of his visit to Shatila after the event. In one of his rare public appearances during the later period of his life, at the invitation of Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler, he read from his work during the inauguration of an exhibition on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila organized by the International Progress Organization in Vienna, Austria, on 19 December 1983.
By proxy, Jean Genet even managed to make an unlikely appearance in the pop charts when in 1972, David Bowie released his popular hit single "The Jean Genie". In his book Moonage Daydream (2005), Bowie confirmed that the title "...was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet". A later promo video combines a version of the song with a fast edit of Genet's 1950 movie Un Chant d'Amour (1950).
Genet developed throat cancer and was found dead on 15 April 1986, in a hotel room in Paris. Genet may have fallen on the floor and fatally hit his head. He is buried in the Spanish Cemetery in Larache, Morocco.