Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Dreaming is nursed in darkness": Jean Genet, "Funeral Rites" (1947)

Jean Genet's dark and chaotic world is a trick mirror to life's surface appearance of order and propriety (and, for those who know Genet's work, "dark" is used here in the way Nabokov's Lolita can be described as "humorous" -- which it is, with its waves of world-weary acceptance). The author who was abandoned as a child, and who turned his life of juvenile crime into a novel (The Thief's Journal), eventually snubbed the French literary establishment which had ignored his work by refusing to accept its later awards. He who writes well enjoys the last laugh.

From a literary point-of-view, this is great reputation building. Yet reading Genet's last novel, Funeral Rites, is a sobering experience in the moral and ethical questions of war -- serious questions for a writer who was a sexual outsider. The author who once famously said "I'm homosexual... How and why are idle questions. It's a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green," here treats war as the universal human condition.

What individuals do in war, as well as love, transcends the boundaries of politics, idealism, or ethics. Funeral Rites is a serious book about the differ
ences between men, the governments who send them to die, and the personal conflicts that seek some kind of resolution in the confusion of battle (and sexual attraction).

The novel's plot becomes a funhouse mirror of relationships formed in immediate circumstance. Genet himself is the thinly-disguised narrator, who then becomes a character in the novel, and then part of a fantasy relationship duri
ng war-time France. (Genet's dead lover's brother is Hitler's lover too, in Genet's war-time fantasy).

Is it meant to be humorous? Yes, in the ironic sense; when the normal order of life is stripped away, a sense of humor (and acceptance) is a welcome defense against the rising tide of death and uncertainty. There's a long literary histor
y of ironic war humor: Heller and Vonnegut are the familiar ironists from an American perspective: their tales are told by the winners, leavened by obvious humor. Genet's European tale is darker, but with the same themes of sex, fate, and fantasy.

The book begins as a eulogy to Genet's lover and resistance fighter, also named Jean, killed on August 20, 1944 during the street-fighting for the recapture of Paris. The lover's brother is likely a German collaborator; at Jean's funeral he meets his lover's mother, a bourgeois middle-class woman who is hiding a Nazi officer. From the mother's "pink, plump face" to the neighbor's assessment of the 20-year old dead soldier's simple pine-wood coffin, Genet's sharp description of middle-class values could be an echo of Flaubert in Madame Bovary:

"We had not come to see a face but the dead Jean D., and our expectation was so fervent that he had a right to manifest himself, without surprising us, in any way whatsoever.

'They don't go in for style these days,' she said.

Heavy and gleaming, like the most gorgeous of dahlias, Jean's mother, who was still very beautiful, had raised her mourning veil. Her eyes were dry, but the tears had left a subtle and luminous snail track on her pink, plump face from the eyes to the chin. She looked at the pine wood of the coffin.

'Oh, you can't expect quality nowadays,' replied another woman in deep mourning who was next to her."

In the confusion of war-ravaged Paris, Genet fantasizes a relationship with the Nazi officer and another German soldier. One reviewer notes Genet's potshots at the French middle class: even in the middle of chaos and German tanks advancing on Paris, a woman retires to her bedchamber so she can, as
Genet properly puts it, "release her wind," rather than embarrass herself in front of her "client," a German soldier.

In a move Genet privately expected, the book's original French publisher balked at the last moment -- the experience of war just past was too new, they felt, the writing too scandalous. A limited edition appeared in 1948, and was finally openly published in Paris, and a translation worldwide, in 1953.

"A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness,"
Genet wrote. In 1975 the French Ministry of Culture awarded him a prize, which Genet refused, for a screenplay he had written. In 1983 he received the Grand Prix National des Lettres, and two years later The Balcony, which had been notoriously rejected by several producers when it was initially offered for stage production, was included among the repertory of works performed by the Com├ędie Francaise, a bastion of French cultural respectability.

After that, Genet was involved in various political causes, the most enduring being his association with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He moved to Jordan in 1970 and lived with the Palestinians for the next fourteen years. According to critic Mary Ann Frese Witt, Genet had a “desire to abandon stasis for action, poetics for politics.”

"Crimes of which a people is ashamed constitute its real history. The same is true of man." (Jean Genet)


Troy said...

I'm a Genet fan. However, if you want to read something truly hilarious -- and shedding some light on Genet at the same time -- I recommend finding Ed McClanahan's biographical masterpiece Famous People I Have Known. In it, Ed recounts the hilarious spectacle of attending (alongside Ken Kesey) a party thrown for Jean Genet by the Black Panthers at their HQ in Oakland. You will PEE YOUR PANTS!

M Bromberg said...

Oh yeah, that was a great piece -- I remember that from years ago. Funny writer, too: have you read "My Vita, If You Will"? More McClanahan mischief. Also -- Terry Southern's book "Now Dig This" has his Esquire piece on Chicago 1968 detailing the fun at the Dem convention with Ginsberg, Genet and Burroughs. Pages on McClanahan & Southern are in the Bellemeade Books archive, just do a search.

Troy said...

I'm on it!