Jean Genet: A poet, a moralist and an abandoned child
A couple of days ago, while meandering home from work I took a little detour and popped into the Oxfam bookshop on Bloomsbury Street where I picked up a forsaken edition of Funeral Rites by Jean Genet. Once described as a “moralist” and a “great poet” by Jean Cocteau, Genet was more commonly known as France’s foremost contrarian. Funeral Rites, the last novel Genet ever wrote, reads like a fiendish dirge “composed mainly of love and pain” by a man’s “grieving heart”. The sacred is enmeshed with the profane seamlessly, as one minute the narrator reminisces about his “dearest and only lover” while the next he rapaciously recounts all the various sobriquets for the anus, the “dark, ultimate treasure, the bronze eye”. Yet the book addresses a bigger question, a moral one of a man’s struggle with grief over his dead lover – a French Resistance fighter killed by the “prodigy of a well-aimed” Nazi bullet – and his struggle with apostasy. His consternation comes to the fore as early as his lover Jean’s funeral, when he finds himself conflicted by angst of seeing his lover’s limp “precious corpse” juxtaposed against sights of male mourners, which prompt sudden erotic thoughts and a yearning for their “tenderness”. He pensively fingers a matchbox in his pocket, drawing parallels between the two death-boxes, and yet mourning quietly in private he becomes distracted again by his lover’s brother, his eyes resting on the boy’s fly and the “bulge beneath the cloth of his trousers”. The protagonist cannot reconcile his grief and his carnal impulses, and the inner conflict to do so is conveyed as much through action as the dirty, baroque idiolect.
Funeral Rites is set in Paris in 1944 during the struggle for power between the French Resistance and the advancing German Army. The backdrop to Genet’s story is illustrated by graphic images of ubiquitous bullets, puling sirens and overcast skies hanging above the devastated city like memento mori for those killed in battle. The theme of defection both from love and country dominates the narrative, and is defined most markedly when the narrator announces: “If was told that I was risking death in refusing to cry ‘Vive la France’, I would cry it in order to save my hide, but I would cry it softly.” He continues: “If I had to cry it very loudly, I would do so, but laughingly, without believing in it. And if I had to believe in it, I would; then I would immediately die of shame.” Later, the betrayal is that of his lover, as he pours “rivers of love” over a strapping German called Erik. The two elements, however, come together when the narrator contemplates his loss and his own betrayal of his lover with the enemy. The narrative, however, gradually strays from the dead to the living, focusing on the incestuous relationships between various characters in the book.
The heterogeneous plot chronicles the narrator’s interaction with several members of Jean’s family – his moribund brother Paulo, his neurotic bourgeois mother Giselle, his insipid fiancée Juliette – as well as the Nazi pistolier Erik and an adolescent French traitor Riton. The oedipal relationships are steeped in both fantasy and reality with the narrative moving back and forth in time, from the sacrilegious to the philosophical, as the protagonists ruminates about sex, death and love. The scope of this ominous ideology is charted when he says: “Evil, like good, is attained gradually by means of an inspired insight that makes you glide vertically away from human beings, but most often by daily, slow, disappointing labour.” The narration is sometimes convoluted, particularly when the narrator trans-morphs mid scene into the character he is describing, but then a familiar voice re-emerges affirming the story which “expresses the secret iridescence” of his heart, while he attempts, to extricate himself from the guilt and the grief over his dead lover.
Funeral Rites, like every other novel in Genet’s canon, borrows significantly from his life. Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who left him in the hands of Assistance Publique, Genet documented his experiences in his work. “I’m an abandoned child who knows nothing about his family or his country,” says the narrator at one point, mirroring Genet’s fate.Genet spent most of his youth in and out of prison, an experience which he later documented in The Thief’s Journal. Funeral Rites like The Thief’s Journal is a transposition and sublimation of Genet’s own life; a life of a man who had always felt an outsider. The most accurate summation Funeral Rites comes from Genet himself who once called it a “prismatic decomposition” of the human condition, for it is exactly that and a masterfully macabre, chimerical study of the correlation between love, sex and death.