French novelist and dramatist.
Genet was born in Paris, the unwanted illegitimate son of a prostitute. Convicted of petty theft at an early age, he spent part of his youth in the reform school at Mettray; his experiences there inspired part of the novel Miracle de la rose (1946; translated as Miracle of the Rose, 1965). In the 1930s Genet made his living as a pickpocket and male prostitute in various European cities and was frequently imprisoned; the autobiographical Journal du voleur (1949; translated as The Thief's Journal, 1965) describes this period of his life. While in Fresnes prison in 1942 Genet began to write poetry, and the novel Notre-Dame des Fleurs (translated as Our Lady of the Flowers, 1964) followed in 1946. This vivid account of crime and prostitution in the Montmartre underworld brought Genet to the attention of such literary figures as Cocteau and Sartre; when the writer was convicted of burglary again in 1947 an appeal from his supporters in the literary world secured a reprieve. Other novels of this era include Pompes funèbres (1947) and Querelle de Brest (1947).
The eroticism and unsavoury subject-matter of Genet's novels prevented their official publication in Britain and the USA until the more tolerant 1960s. Meanwhile, Genet had begun to write for the theatre; the influence of Sartre is evident in his early avant-garde plays. Les Bonnes (1947; translated as The Maids, 1954), a complicated drama of false identities and impostures, ranked him alongside contemporary dramatists of the Theatre of the Absurd. Later plays, dealing with contemporary prejudices, were intended to shock his audience and encountered censorship problems in France. These include Le Balcon (1956; translated as The Balcony, 1958), set in a brothel; Les Nègres (1958; translated as The Blacks, 1960), a play within a play about racial killings; and Les Paravents (1961; translated as The Screens, 1962). Vividly symbolic, they combine a skilful use of imagery with a total rejection of social, moral, and political values.
Subjects: Literature — Theatre.