Our Lady of the Flowers. Jean Genet. Blond, 30s.

‘My books are not novels because none of my characters make decisions on their own.’—Jean Genet.

Genet wrote this book in prison in 1942. The first manuscript was found by a warder and destroyed. The queens, pimps and murderers who populate it have no individual identities; they are archetypes from the author’s erotic imagination. The central character Divine (the boy Culafroy) is Genet, but he identifies with the other queens and with the ‘male’ pimp Darling. The relationships of the characters are similarly universalized; Divine’s image of Darling is obscured by her memories of later lovers, Our Lady of the Flowers strangles an old man, ‘one of the thousands of old men whose lot it is to die that way’, the negro Gorgui wears ‘gold rings with fake or real diamonds (what does it matter!)’. Closely described scenes seem to be distillations of hundred of similar events; dialogue is banal.

Genet’s criminals are ‘dream characters’, reform school their seminary. He manipulates them ruthlessly: Our Lady of the Flowers, caught with a stolen tailor’s dummy (sham murder) by police looking for cocaine, confesses to his real murder and goes uncomprehending through a trial to the guillotine. Divine murders a child ‘to kill my kindness’ and dies of consumption. Darling allows himself to be arrested for shoplifting because the detective calls him ‘young man’. In his introduction to this edition Jean-Paul Sartre says that Genet thinks in terms of predestination because‘...an exile from our bourgeois, industrial democracy (Genet) was cast into an artificial medieval world’. But at the same time he is realistic:‘...if I were sick, and were cured by a miracle, I would not survive it. Miracles are unclean...’

Genet calls the obscene‘...the off-scene, not of this world’. The student of Genet’s own world is plunged into close physical intimacy with the author, through an exquisite prose style. This is an oddly moving and genuinely disturbing book well worth reading. Bernard Frechtman’s faithful and elegant translation does it justice. John Howe