Interviouve with Genet

I have always felt a little uncertain about approaching an interview with a writer.

If a writer cannot say what he has to say in his own words, why should he need an interviewer to prod him?

But here I am interviewing Jean Genet in the modest hotel room where he is staying in Paris. He is wary enough, put perfectly willing to talk, and we spend a while exchanging the usual mutual banalities.

Then I bring up the subject of our mutual friend Alberto Giacometti, and he tells me what a wonderful time he had posing for him and then writing a little book about him in which he said that while Rodin and Maillol snored in the public places of Paris, the little statues of Giacometti lived and danced in the dark little studio on the rue Hippolyte-Maindron.

One of the things he liked about Alberto was his delight, not in the bizarre but in the bizareness of the ordinary. Once when he was posing in the static silence that Alberto demanded and was acutely uncomfortable because he was having attacks of diarrhea, Alberto said with a sly smile, Yes diarrhea is awful but there is a certain pleasure in it too, isn't there.

I couldn't help being reminded of the passage in Genet's memoirs, it was some time during the war years he was having ecstatic anal intercourse with a young friend, a member of a Communist resistance movement, whose family apparently approved of the match, they called him Monsieur Genet, and the instant when he withdrew after the glorious ejaculation, in a common gesture of tenderness and fraternity, each of them reached out to wipe off the traces of shit that might be left staining his lover's skin. It was an extraordinarily delicate rendering of what might in other writers' hands might have seemed a not especially attractive incident. And I was glad to read in Jean-Paul Sartre's hagiography of Genet that he shared my admiration for this passage. But I wondered, as I told him, why Sartre had felt compelled to identify the lover, not as a Communist, but as a "patriot," a word which in Sartre's and my youth was considered rather offensive. Presumably he was anxious to avoid hurting the feelings of his Communist friends who disapproved of homosexuality as a form of bourgeois decadence and would disapprove the suggestion that a hero of worker-and-peasant Resistance might be capable of such unseemly behavior, but it seemed to me that this was being delicate in a coarsely political sort of way.

Genet suggested that I put the question to Sartre instead of to him, and I thought it best to change the subject.

I said that in all the years I had spent seeing movies, one of the most beautiful and dramatically effective love scenes I had ever seen was in the single movie Genet had made, the scene in which a prisoner, who has spent countless secret hours drilling a tiny cigarette-sized tunnel through the stone wall separating his dark dirty cell from the next one, lights a cigarette, inhales with all his might, and then blows through the pitiless wall a soft steady stream of smoke which his neighbor, his lover, can gulp down and soar to heaven.

Genet wanted to know where I had seen the film.

I said I had seen it in the home of Joe Burstyn, a wonderful little hunchback who was the only man I had ever met in the movie business who really loved movies. He was the man who first started importing Rossellini and de Sica to America at the end of the war and started the invasion of the American psyche by foreign films. He was -

Where was this home? asked Genet.

It was an apartment on East 54th Street in New York. Joe loved to give little parties to show a few privileged guests the films he really loved, and of course one of them was -

How did a print of that film get to New York? demanded Genet.

Oh, he had smuggled it in. He knew it would never get past the customs inspectors. He had a girl friend, a black girl friend, he sent her to Paris to pick up a print, and when she came back she camouflaged it as a make-up kit.

And where did she get this print?. No print was authorized for sale to any such person. No print was ever licensed for any such exhibition in America. This was a stolen print.

The easygoing little man on the chair opposite m had changed utterly. The pleasantly relaxed shifty-eyed little ma who had been playing the polite conversational games, perhaps calculating the value of the minutes taken off from work on his next manuscript against the value of the publicity that might result from this interview, was now sitting up straight, his eyes bored holes in mine, he was a judge, a prosecuting attorney, all sharpness and precision and facts. He was the Law, and the Law is not mocked. A valuable piece of property had been stolen, had been illegally removed from one country to another, had been used for illegal gain. Jean Genet, author of the classic work of modern literature The Thief's Journal, had been robbed, he had been deprived of his proper compensation, as recognized in the copyright laws of all civilized nations.

And he wanted something done about it. He didn't want to hear about any charming hunchbacks. He wanted to know where he could get hold of whoever had stolen his property, and make him pay through the nose.

I had to tell him that Joe Burstyn had died of fright -- he was deadly afraid of air travel - on a flight to Paris, and I hadn't the slightest idea if the Genet film formed part of his testamentary property and if so, who might have inherited it.

Genet was not assuaged. He told me he hoped I had enjoyed the Interviouve

he had accorded me, and indicated that he had more important matters to attend to.

Perhaps it is just as well that I never got around to asking him the question which had been forming in the back of my mind. Granted that he -- the Unrepentant Thief incarnate, the apostle of degradation and betrayal, the worm at the core of the apple of bourgeois hypocrisy - had found salvation by wallowing in the deepest mud available to the human psyche, just how deep was the mud? His notes from underground that he gives in the Thief's Journal are sordid enough, but not quite as horrifying as those of, say, Dostoeyvsky. There is always something grotesquely mischievous about them which gives them a dim human resonance; think of the fat burgher he has allowed to allure him to an isolated spot down by the docks who, when he has had his pants pulled down and his hands tied behind his back and his pockets picked turns to spread hi buttock open to the young thief who is running away, begging him to go ahead and do what he has been paid so well to do.

In the Parisian underworld of the lean and dangerous Occupation years, Genet had many friends, not just that Communist boy but young toughs who had enlisted in the Milice, the paramilitary outfit created by Vichy to round up and give the proper rough treatment to Communists, Jews, and other inferior specimens. In such a world everything is for sale, and the suspicion is bound to surface, Did Genet ever, desperately short of cash , roughly treated by his pimp and by the police, ever pick up some of that cash by squealing on his Communist friend to his Milicien friends?

I put the question once to a man who has written extensively about him, and he gave me look of haughty hostile contempt, as if to say, You should know that he would never have done anything of that sort. Jean Genet was a gentleman.

©2005 Robert Wernick

Le Trait (Paris) 2005