I’ve probably mentioned before on the Ramblings the potential issues faced by all readers when returning to a favourite author after a long period of time, and this came up recently when I revisited a writer I read a lot of in my twenties. That was one of my periods of huge exploration of different authors and kinds of writing, and also when I first starting a wider reading of translated literature. Many of the books I read were from the French, and one author I came to was Jean Genet.

Genet may well need no introduction; a fascinating and often difficult character, during his younger years he was a petty criminal, living rough; however, he went on to become a novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, and I read his major fictions and plays at the time I first discovered him (and the books are still on my shelves). However, a recent gift from my BFF J. (which featured in my round up of Christmas and birthday incomings) started me thinking about his essays, which I’d never read. After J. first mentioned his essays, I recalled that there had been a slim volume of these issued in 2020 by NYRB under the title “The Criminal Child”; and so it wasn’t long before a copy of this was winging its way to me!!

“The Criminal Child: Selected Essays” is translated by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman, and contains eight pieces: the title essay, ‘adame Miroir, Letter to Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Fragments, Letter to Jean-Jacques Pauvert, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, and The Tightrope Walker. The essays are varied, from the title piece which Genet prepared for a radio broadcast which was never made, through a portrait of the great Cocteau, meditations on the life and art of a tightrope walker, poetic fragments and a masterly study of Giacometti. Genet’s range was obvious wide, and his choice of subjects fascinating.

The essays are drawn from the late 1940s and the 1950s, and it’s particularly wonderful to have the title essay available as it’s never been translated into English before. Dating from 1949, it was commissioned by Radiodiffusion Francaise while there was a national debate about the French reform-school system; Genet was expected to provide a piece exposing the horrors of the system and condemning it, but instead wrote a radical piece praising the system, celebrating the private language the criminals used and the rituals undertaken there. As an early celebration of those who stand outside of society and its normals, the essay is groundbreaking.

…We violently refuse this compromise and come to claim our rights over a poet who is not light, but serious. We deny Jean Cocteau the stupid title of “enchanter”: we declare him “enchanted”. He does not charm: he is “charmed”. He is not a witch, he is “bewitched”. And these words do not serve just to counter the base privolity of a certain world: I claim that they better express the true drama of the poet.

It *is* literally decades since I read Genet, so in many ways I was coming to writing cold and I found his voice wonderfully individual. His portrait of Cocteau is a powerful yet somehow tender one; “Fragments” is a beautiful prose-poem; and “The Tightrope Walker” a wonderful celebration of an artiste who risks all for his art. I think the stand-out for me might be the Giacometti portrait which vividly captures the man at work in his studio with a deep understanding of his art. Genet’s writing is lyrical and poetic as well as powerful and often ribald, and he’s never less than entertaining.

Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for temporary, but profound solitude.

Revisiting the work of Jean Genet through these essays was a real treat, and of course I had to go and dig out my whole collection to make sure I still have them safe. Of course, I still have unread the essay collection J. presented me with, and also a wonderful collection of his poems which lovely Melissa sent me; both have now moved up the TBR! I was also happy to discover I still have a grainy old VHS tape with a recording of a 1985 BBC Arena programme on Genet – I knew there was a reason I was hanging onto all those dusty old cassettes!

My complete Genet collection. Yes, there are two copies of “Funeral Rites”. No, I don’t know why….

“The Criminal Child” was actually the last book I finished in 2021 and it was a joy to go back to a favourite author. Will 2022 be the year I continue to rediscover his work? I certainly hope so!! 😁