Monday, December 27, 2010

The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet

Jean Genet is my new discovery. A french writer, but formost a criminal, from 1930's. The book that I am reading right now is called 'The Thief's Journal'. With Jean Genet I experience the other side of the morality, which we, the common people, usually call immorality. Genet was the first homosexual to write openly about it. Both his homosexuality and crime are his literary subjects.

'Only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style' - Susan Sontag.

I am sure there are many writings around the web describing Jean Genet and his life. So here I will just offer some shorts pieces from 'The Thief's Journal'. These are the quotes that I most identified with or that I found beautiful.

'I bit Lucien until blood flowed. I was hoping to make his scream; his insensitivity conquered me. But I know that I would go so far as to rip my friend's flesh and lose myself in an irreparable carnage wherein I would preserve my reason and know the exaltation of the fall.
p. 145

'I did not slap anyone, but my voice was so shaken that I realised how angry was. In order to pull myself together, I robbed one of the officers that very same night.'
p. 68

'If I attempt to recompose with words what my attitude was at the time, the reader will be no more taken in than I. We know that our language is incapable of recalling even the pale reflection of those bygone, foreign states. The same would be true of this entire journal if it were to be the notation of what I was. I shall therefore make clear that it is meant to indicate what I am today, as I write it. It is not a quest of time gone by, but a work of art whose pretext-subject in my former life. It will be a present fixed with the help of the past, and not vice versa. Let the reader therefore understand that the facts were what I say they were, but the interpretation that I give them is what I am - now.'
p. 71

'In the hands of a poor man, coins are no longer the sign of wealth but of its opposite. No doubt I robbed some rich hidalgo in passing - rarely, for they know how to protect themselves - but such thefts had no effect on my soul. I shall speak of the others I committed against other beggars.'
p. 77

'During the morning walk in the yard, I was asked the same question, but I knew nothing about the health of the Princess of Piedmont, the king's daughter-in-law (the question concerned her). I learned later that she was pregnant and that the amnesty which is always granted upon the birth of a royal child depended on the child's sex.'
p. 107

'Neither by the recital nor the interlacing or overlapping of the facts - and I don't know what they are, which limits them in time and space - nor by their interpretation, which, without destroying them, creates new ones, can I discover the key, nor, by means of them, my own key. I undertook, with a baroque intention, to cite a few, pretending to omit those - the first which make up the apparent texture of my life - which are the knots of the glistering threads. If France is an emotion communicated from artist to artist - a relay of neurons, so to speak - then to the very end I am only a string of tinglings, the first of which are beyond my range. The prongs of a boat hook that had been dug into a drowned man to pull him out of a stream made me suffer in my child's body. Could it really be that people searched for corpses with harpoons? I roamed about the countryside, delighted to discover in the wheat or beneath the firs the bodies of drowned men to whom I accorded the most incredible obsequies. Can I say that it was the past - or that it was the future? Everything has already been caught, until my death, in an ice flow of being: my trembling when a piece of rough trade asks me to brown him (I discover that his desire is his trembling) during a Carnival night; at twilight, the view from a sand dune of Arab warriors surrendering to French generals; the back of my hand placed on a soldier's basket, but especially the sly way in which the soldier looks at it; suddenly I see the ocean between two houses in Biarritz; I am escaping from the reformatory, taking tiny steps, frightened not at the idea of being caught but of being the prey of freedom; straddling the enormous prick of a blond legionnaire, I am carried twenty yards along the ramparts; not the handsome football player, nor his foot, not his shoe, but the ball, then ceasing to be the ball and becoming a "kick-off", and I cease being that to become the idea that goes from the foot to th ball; in a cell, unknown thieves call me Jean; when at night I walk barefoot in my sandals across fields of snow at the Austrian border, I shall not flinch, but then I say to myself, this painful moment must conquer with the beauty of my life, I refuse to let this moment and all the others be waste matter; using their suffering I project myself to the mind's heaven. Some negros are giving me food on the Bordeaux docks; a distinguished poet raises hands to his forehead; a German solder is killed in the Russian snows and his brother writes to inform me; a boy from Toulouse helps me ransack the rooms of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of my regiment in Brest: he dies in prison; I am talking of someone - and while doing so, the time to smell roses, to hear one evening in prison the gang bound for the penal colony singing, to fall in love with a white-gloved acrobat - dead since the beginning of time, that is, fixed, for I refuse to live for any other end than the very one which I found to contain the first misfortune: that my life must be a legend, in other words, legible, and the reading of it must give birth to a certain new emotion which I call poetry. I am no longer anything, only a pretext.'
p. 117

'Later on , when, without refusing to get excited about a handsome boy, I applied the same detachment, when I allowed myself to be aroused, and when, refusing the emotion the right to rule me, I examined it with the same lucidity, I realized what my love was; on the basis of this awareness I established relationships with the world; this was the birth of intelligence.'
p. 181

'Robert went with us to a café. The joyousness of the event and its simplicity set my head spinning. I was no longer at Robert's side, nor even at Stilitano's. I was scattering myself to all corners of the worlds and was registering a hundred details which burst into light stars, I no longer know which. But when I accompanied Lucien for the first time, I had the same feeling of absence. I was listening to a housewife bargaining over a geranium.
"I'd like to have a plant in the house. . . " she was saying, "a nice plant. . . ."
This need for possessions, which made her want to have a plant of her own, chosen, with its roots and earth, from among the infinity of plants, did not surprise me. The woman's remark made clear to me the sense of ownership.
"She'll water her plant," I said to myself. "She'll buy it a majolica flowerpot. She'll put it out in the sun. She'll cherish it. . . ."
Lucien was walking at my side. The only live things I had ever owned were lovely pricks, whose roots were buried in black moss. I cherished several such, and I wanted them in all the flower of their strength. Those plants were my pride. Such was my fervor that their bearers themselves were amazed at their unwonted beauty. Nevertheless, each remained fastened, by a mysterious and solid base, to the male whose chief branch it was he owned it more than I did. It was his. Some flies were buzzing around Lucien. My hand mentally made the gesture of chasing them away. This plant was going to belong to me."
p. 139

more to come up

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