Our Lady of the Flowers – Jean Genet

OLOTFRegarded as his finest work, this is a mixture of memories, facts, fantasies, speculations, irrational dreams, tender emotion, empathy, and philosophy: ‘one must lie to be true…what sort of truth do I want to talk about?’

He alludes to another incarcerated French writer, the Marquis de Sade. He takes us to the internal abyss that he occupies and describes how he transcends this to make it a heaven. He probably made his isolation bearable by retreating into a world not only of his own making, but one over which he had total control.

He masturbates regularly; his fantasies fuel his writing and his writing spurs on his fantasies in turn…. Legs thrown over shoulders, “Jean” is not only the serpent that eats its tail but becomes a small, circular, self – imbibing universe all his own. The alchemists’ motto could his own: “Every man his own wife.”

The book is full of different phallic images e.g. hat pins, the Eucharistic host, holy water sprinkler.

He praises the sanctity of ‘tea rooms’ as being like churches, though with a different object of worship.

He extols the criminal underclass as aristocratic and he made his solemn entrance through the door of crime aged 16.

His “moral universe” is  a mirror universe where amorality reigns; his world is so exclusively concerned with flea – ridden prostitutes, child murderers who don’t wipe themselves, handsome pimps who eat what they scratch out of their noses, [prostitutes] with rotting teeth, strutting, uneducated alpha male hustlers, and masochistic sodomites.

There is his usual cast: a virile young thug, transvestites, handsome, amoral, and homosexual or bisexual “toughs,” (with pet names like “Darling Daintyfoot,” “Mimosa,” and “Our Lady of the Flowers”) jokes concerning lice, flatulence, constipation, and faeces, the criminal’s code of honour, emotional betrayal, the road to “sainthood,” theft, masochistic love.

In her twenties, Divine cruised the Mediterranean (in both senses): the yacht touched at Venice, where a film director took a fancy to her. They lived for few months through the huge rooms, fit for giant guards and horsemen astride their mounts, of a dilapidated palace.

Later, Divine returns to her origins in Jean’s prison cell. Her cruise never happened but were written “to console” the narrator in his squalid prison cell: “I invent for Divine the cosiest apartments where I myself wallow.”

When Our Lady, on trial for his life, uses the word ‘erection’ the jury is embarrassed: the twelve old men, all together, very quickly put their hands over their ears to prevent the entry of the word that was big as an organ, which, finding no other orifice, entered all stiff and hot into their gaping mouths.

The narrator enjoys the beauty of young males who are unaware of their beauty and he’d like to kill a blond boy so as to get pretty ghost visitations.  By contrast, he feels distaste for a woman while robbing her.

He finds beauty, suffering, vulnerability, humanity in everyone.

It’s very Catholic but the sensuous rites of the Church are stripped of religion, and reapplied to the secular world. Genet insists on the holiness of his characters so it’s no coincidence that the central character is named Divine. As for title, Our Lady of the Flowers, maybe in part a shrine set up in opposition to the other Notre-Dame (‘dry to the point of  Jansenism’ – the counter reformation movement that emphasised original sin) He writes of a baptism of blood, asserts that the tabernacle is empty so there is no miracle, just a dead God.

In drag, he and a friend are dressed as nuns until a dog pulls at the skirts.

His observation of prison life: prisoners cut matches sideways, smoke 10 cigarrette butts, no longer have to bother about being clean or wearing a tie. (The first draft was written while Genet was in a French prison; when it was discovered and destroyed he immediately set about writing it again)

He confesses to a murder so as to get away from police, who dismissed him as being a lunatic. The warrant officer felt unable to utter the word ‘homosexual’ but asks whether it’s one or two words. He goes to his execution like a scapegoat of expiation.

It runs backwards, starting with Divine’s death and then retracing the course of her life. There’s no suspense: no sooner do we meet Our Lady than we are told he will be executed for the murder he commits. The conclusion is a hearing at which Jean might be set free. But he also wonders if he will remain a prisoner, in which case he plans to “refashion lovely new lives” for his characters. We never learn what happens and the novel ends not with a climax but with frustrated desire. It closes with the image of the outline of an erect penis – a dotted line which is a representation of virility, of Divine’s lover and of the contours of an absence: The dotted line that Darling refers to is the outline of his prick. I once saw a pimp who had a hard-on while writing to his girl place his heavy cock on the paper and trace its contours. I would like that line to portray Darling.

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