After reading Our Lady of the Flowers I am certain that Jean Genet, French criminal turned avant-garde writer, would have thrived in lockdown. Whilst writing Our Lady of the Flowers in Paris’s Prison de la Sante in 1941, Genet initially intended his audience to be composed of only one – himself. This novel is unlike any piece of literature I have read in its disguised yet intended meta-theatricality, its careful balancing of opaque autobiography with outlandish fantasy, and its sheer voyeuristic motivation. Jean-Paul Satre perfectly encapsulated the novel when he called it ‘an epic of masturbation.’ This book is the most imaginative, elaborate and artistic way that I have ever heard of anyone getting off and it is now considered to be one of the greatest twentieth-century canonical texts.
Our Lady of the Flowers is a free-flowing and poetic narrative that charts an individual’s experience of the Parisian underworld – namely Jean the fictional character. The novel opens with the imprisoned narrator’s uninterrupted stream of consciousness. In this he informs us that each night he uses a gallery of ‘vacant-eyed’ criminals torn out of newspapers ‘tattered by the time they reach my cell’ to help him orgasm, by conjuring up explicit fantasies in which each face assumes a role. These narratives comprise the body of the novel. The characters are puppets in the hands of Genet, the omniscient God of his own universe, and are mere figments of fantasy, who, if they fail to stimulate, are cruelly killed off.
The value and worth of each character is measured by the effect they produce on both Jean the narrator and Jean the author – though the two are meta-theatrically inextricable. The protagonist of these fantasies – a drag-queen prostitute named Divine – is the only character who Genet spares from this cycle of manufactured pleasure. She is the epicentre of the novel and all other characters exist in orbit around her. Genet reveals the criminal underworld of Montmartre to be a network of pimps, thieves, prostitutes and blackmailers, where the common conception of ‘morality’ holds no meaning.
Genet once claimed that his books were not novels because none of his characters made their own decisions. For Genet, writing was an erotic act. The reader’s function is simply to be an amplifying instrument of Genet’s own desire, rather than inhabiting the traditional role of target audience. The reader almost acts as another layer in Genet’s latticed voyeurism. Through the creation of Jean the narrator and then subsequently Divine, Genet is able to further separate himself from these imagined bodies and gain a voyeuristic pleasure as he consumes his own art. He draws the characters in through the present-tense to his cell room in the Prison de la Sante.
Genet was a pioneer of the Theatre of the Absurd, and his embellished sentences that favour impressionism rather than directness are evidence of his avant-garde concern with anti-plot and anti-drama. Like his contemporary, Samuel Beckett, Genet’s philosophical concern with isolation and a sense of entrapment are both literally and fictionally the reason for this text’s creation. While admittedly I indulged my immaturity and sent all the crudest moments in the creative seven-page long sex scenes to my friends, I couldn’t miss the fact that the book carries a tinge of tragedy in its very existence. Injecting inner fantasies into the photos of real individuals seems to me an almost child-like way of participating in reality and life outside the four walls of his prison of subjectivity.
Genet creates a complex and multi-faceted life for his protagonist, Divine, so that he can share her physical and emotional experiences. Despite the explicit nature of a lot of the novel, Genet captures moments of such whispered tenderness:
[they] were winding their two imaginations into one another, they were entwining like two violins unreeling their melodies…something like the emotion I feel when I read a thrilling phrase or see a painting or hear a musical motif, in short, when I detect a poetic state
That these imagined bodies give the imprisoned narrator Jean, and in turn the imprisoned author Jean, bodies to inhabit creates one of the most intimate and original pieces of literature I have ever read. Whilst Our Lady of the Flowers attributes to imprisonment the ‘pleasure of the solitary…that makes you sufficient unto yourself,’ the nuanced and unadulterated moments of human connection that are woven into Genet’s narrative are perhaps evidence that ‘Solitude is sweet. It is bitter.’
Image: Habitat Floral Studio, on instagram @habitatfloralstudio