on The Crime of Jean Genet by Dominique Eddé, translated by Andrew Rubens and Ros Schwartz (Seagull Books)
The French novelist and activist Dominique Eddé met Jean Genet in 1975 when she was 22 years old and he was 65. They were introduced by the French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun. Eddé was born in Beirut – and at the moment she met Genet, the Lebanese civil war had just begun. The impression Genet left on her is so indelible that even the abrupt end of their friendship in 1983 could not dilute his influence. In fact, it seems to have intensified the effect.
By the time they met, Genet had already written five of his six novels, all of his plays and significant poetry, and most of his essays. “During the time I knew him, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the place he had provisionally granted me,” she writes. The Crime of Jean Genet probes the place that she has granted to him. Part of Genet comprised a “supreme indifference.” The other part cared excessively. In her intuitive and sometimes agitated remembrance of Genet, Eddé is sorting out much for herself.
Because Genet so ardently waged “war against order and law, against fixed images of existence,” she is compelled to evaluate her own efforts. At book’s end she says, “I now better understand why I wrote this book. Trying to understand Genet, following in his footsteps, led me to adopt the most appropriate position: placing oneself right at the heart of all contradictions, in the place where reality, weakened to the extreme, forces us to hold onto our vertigo in order to maintain our balance.”
Eddé’s several incisive descriptions of Genet’s behavior underscore the actively conflicting elements of his psyche. "He was not intoxicated by the speed of his thoughts," she writes, "but he savoured the bewilderment of his interlocutor. He took hold of his listener, he took control. And he who hated orders forced himself into an absolute, impenetrable, all-powerful solitude in order to issue his own." She clearly perceives that Genet’s obsession with crime was a long concern with “the repercussions of guilt or lack of guilt for the fate of thought. In other words, the autobiographical roots of all moral convictions.” In his many works, Genet exploited the gap between guilt and shame. Guilt was a by-product of “breaking with the world’s omnipotence.” Shame had no utility.
For an American reader (or writer) currently agonizing over the degradation of civic values, The Crime of Jean Genet insists on a bracing distinction between literary art that assumes its anger exerts a force for change versus writing that “never seeks to resolve or explain but, rather, to dissolve and destroy. In other words, to reverse the gesture of expulsion that produced it and with that same gesture take under its wing everything and everyone spat out and rejected by the world … criminals and victims together.”
In one of his now famous interviews with Madeleine Gobeil, Genet said, “I am for every man alone.” It is a pristine yet enigmatic statement, containing all humanity while insisting on the absolute integrity of the individual. As a philosophical tagline, it does not point to the satisfying merger of its two elements. Eddé grasps the value Genet places on the desire of people, as she describes it, “to free themselves from the illusions of space, to wrench life from the grip of reality.”
Yet in that interview, Genet went on to say, “I would very much like to throw off conventional morals, those that are crystallized and impede growth. But an artist is never completely destructive … In an esthetic philosophy, there is always a morality.” The lyrical core of The Crime of Jean Genet contends with this very contradiction of artistic attitude – and with the fluctuating moods of the man. But Genet himself never comes off as one who ever agonizes over such shifts. He was “impervious to the torments of indecision or contradiction.” And this, I believe, is what both captivates and challenges Eddé.
She also has much to say about some of his most notable writing. While it is helpful for the reader to know these works, a stranger to Genet will benefit almost as much from her observations. Still, Genet’s utter uniqueness is not so easily observed in quick swipes. She writes, “It is even harder to deal, today, with an author whose territory is so locked down – closed, from one end to the other, behind the bars of a ‘funereal’ homosexuality. A universe that had no common cause with that of Gide, Proust … He turned his homosexuality and his fiction and plays into a single, unified creation: an erotic monument to death.”
Lebanon also figured in their estrangement, which occurred just after the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps. Knowing that she was a friend of Genet, the director of the publishing house L’Herne asked her to relay an invitation to him to write a book for the firm. But Genet suddenly turned on Eddé: “ ‘And what about you?’ he added, icily. ‘Why haven’t you written anything about the massacres? Why? It’s because you don’t care. That’s why. It’s because you don’t care about the Palestinians. What interests you is the cahiers de l’Herne’” And that was that. Genet then entered the final phase of his work, taking up the causes of the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, and writing Prisoner of Love, his ruminative final autofiction.
Eddé went on to exert herself creatively and politically in ways that most surely would have pleased Genet. She took from their friendship what she needed. About their estrangement, she writes, “I was surprised, shortly after, at how little resentment I felt. I was barely angry with him. From which I today conclude that, to a certain extent, it suited me not to see him anymore.”
[Published May 15, 2016. 152 pages, $21.00 hardcover]