This is the rambling account of Genet's early years as a thief and rent boy in Spain and France and other places in continental Europe. For a foundling brought up in an orphanage who spent his early years begging, stealing and prostituting himself, Genet is remarkably articulate: it seems that you don't need a great education to write wonderful prose or poetry.
He has some remarkable insights into the human condition. He discerns tenderness in the sex act but he isn't sentimental: poverty is ugly, the police can be brutal, and a street free of prostitutes means a street full of cops.
- “The glances exchanged by the two friends ... were the subtlest emanation of a ray of love from the heart of each. A ray of very soft light, delicately coiled: a spun ray of love. I was amazed that such delicacy, so fine a thread and of so precious, and so chaste, a substance as love could be fashioned in a so dark a smithy as the muscular bodies of those males.” (p 61)
- “The poor are grotesque.” (p 133)
- “Cops aren't picked from among choir boys.” (p 161)
- “When the whores aren't around, the cops are.” (fn p 220)
There are some wonderful and original descriptions. Who else would describe the choreography of cottaging and how a dog defecates?
- “In the urinals ... the behaviour of the faggots would make matters clear: they would perform their dance, the remarkable movement of a snake standing on its tail and undulating, swaying from side to side, tilted slightly backward, so as to cast a furtive glance at my prick which was out of my fly.” (p 50)
- “The palms! They were gilded by a morning sun. The light quivered, not the palms.” (p 63)
- “He filled out all the space in our bed with his legs open in a wide, obtuse angle, where I would find only a small space to curl up. I slept in the shadow of his meat.” (p 184)
- “The pathetic attitude of a dog shitting. It squeezes, its gaze is fixed, its four paws are close together beneath its arched body; and it trembles, from head to reeking turd.” (p 187)
But I find it really hard to read. It is unchaptered and without any discernible formal structure. It rambles, it wanders here and there; perhaps it is modelled on the picaresque. It reminded me of the work of Kerouac, or perhaps the deliberately cut-up work of William Burroughs (eg The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Wild Boys), although it was first published in 1947 so it cannot have been influenced by them (perhaps the influence was the other way around). Other autobiographical accounts of poverty include John Rechy's City of Night (about being a rent boy in the USA) which has as little plot but a much clearer structure and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London but Orwell's journalistic style is much clearer and more lucid.
A substantial part of its appeal must lie in its subject matter: one rarely gets granted an insight into the lives of the low-lives. But the reason for it being a classic has to be the originality and clarity of its observation of the world. Who else would link a riot to the corrosive effect of urine? “During the 1933 riots, the insurgents tore out one of the dirtiest, but most beloved pissoirs. It was near the harbour and the barracks, and its sheet iron had been corroded by the hot urine for thousands of soldiers.” (p 52)
Other brilliant moments:
- “Though they may not always be handsome, men doomed to evil possess the manly virtues.” (p 5)
- “Erotic play discloses a nameless world which is revealed by the nocturnal language of lovers. Such language is not written down. It is whispered into the ear at night in a hoarse voice. At dawn it is forgotten.” (p 5)
- “Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it. ... [It] smells of sweat, sperm and blood.” (p 5)
- “I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and hankering for danger. It can be seen in a look, a walk, a smile, and it is in you that it creates an eddying. It unnerves you. This violence is a calm that disturbs you.” (p 9)
- “The earth did not revolve: carrying Stilitano, it trembled about the sun.” (p 30)
- “I used to toss my things any old place when we went to bed, but Stilitano laid his out on a chair, carefully arranging the trousers, jacket and shirt so that nothing would be creased. He seemed thereby to be endowing his clothes with life, as if wanting them to get a night’s rest after a hard day.” (fn p 51)
- “Foreigners in this country, wearing fine gabardines, rich, they recognized their inherent right to find these archipelagoes of poverty picturesque” (p 135)
- “Having already been convicted of theft, I can be convicted again without proof, merely upon a casual accusation, just on suspicion. The law then says that I am capable of the deed. I am in danger not only when I steal, for every moment of my life, because I have stolen.” (p 175)
- “He had dared, not unconsciously, to depart from moral rules, with the deceptive ease of men who are unaware of them. In fact, he had done so at the cost of a mighty effort, with the certainty of losing a priceless treasure, though with the furthest certainty of creating another, more precious than the one he had lost.” (p 182)
- “Stealing determines a moral attitude which cannot be achieved without effort; it is a heroic act.” (p 185)
- “I love outlaws who have no other beauty than that of their bodies.” (p 222)
- Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin is a novel about a homosexual relationship in 1950s France