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Jean Genet

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Shortly after his birth, Jean Genet (1910 - 1986) was left at a home for abandoned children by his mother. He was lodged with foster parents in the French countryside, who, in exchange for a small fee, raised him until he was old enough to fend for himself. He started stealing from an early age and was sent to the Mettray reformatory. During his time there his homosexuality manifested itself and Genet learnt to survive the perverse power relationships and harsh circumstances.

Mettray proved a formative environment for Genet and he left it a dedicated delinquent, wandering across Europe like a vagabond for years afterward, providing for himself as a thief and a rent boy. It brought him into contact with the pimps, former convicts and killers that would become the inspiration for the characters in his novels and plays later. During one of his prison sentences he started writing and self-published his first poem. It brought him into contact with Jean Cocteau, who was deeply impressed with his work and helped him sign a writing contract. In his debut novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) Genet introduces his readers to male prostitutes, transvestites and murderers; characters living on the fringes of society. His work was highly appreciated in literary and intellectual circles and other works followed soon, including The Miracle of the Rose (1946) and the clandestine publication The Thief’s Journal (1948). With his first plays, which included The Maids (1947), he finally established himself as an avant-garde author.

At the height of his fame, Genet faced possible lifelong imprisonment because of  several outstanding convictions, which he managed to escape thanks to a petition signed by influential intellectuals and artists. However, he was unable to stave off a profound artistic crisis after Sartre had published Saint Genet in 1952. For five years, he dried up, a period followed by a second creative phase during which he wrote two of his most important plays: The Balcony (1956) and The Blacks (1958), in addition to a film script and several essays. Genet moved from a life of obscurity to a life in the spotlights. But he continued to feel deeply connected to the oppressed in society. Toward the late 1960s his political engagement became increasingly prominent, with Genet demonstrating for causes such as better living conditions for migrant workers, sympathizing with the Black Panthers and dedicating himself to the Palestinian cause.


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