The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet: An Autobiographical Masterpiece in Gay Literature

An incomparable autobiography, a milestone in gay literature, and an existentialist masterpiece. Jean Genet’s outsider classic has been hailed by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Susan Sontag.

Jean Genet’s Early Life

Before we get to the Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet an autobiographical masterpiece – let’s briefly try to summarize some events in the French writer Genet’s life, without losing his breath completely.

He was born in 1910 to a sex worker and adopted when he was seven months old. At the age of 15, he was sent to a youth correctional institution after allegedly stealing a significant amount of money from his foster parents, where he lived for several years. He joined the French Foreign Legion when he turned 18 but was quickly expelled due to homosexual activity, which was considered “indecent behavior”.

Thus began a wandering life around Europe, where he stole and sold sex to survive. As a result of his activities, Genet went in and out of prison. As a prisoner, he wrote his first poem, as well as the novel Our Lady of The Flowers. His charismatic writing style and use of intelligent words brought him recognition from some of the greatest intellectuals of the time.

Jean Genet in a tread photo
Image: Paris Review

Set Free from Life Sentence and Becoming an Intellectual Elite

In 1949, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and several other prominent figures in the French intellectual community asked the president to pardon Genet. At that time French judicial put him on a life sentence and now he would never be arrested again.

Free from the long arm of the law, and with access to the intellectual elite, Genet wrote several poems, plays, and novels. Sartre wrote an essay about Genet’s life and writing titled Saint Genet where Jean-Paul Sartre, portrayed him as an example of an existentialist hero, a person who truly lived up to Sartre’s view of freedom.

Disagreed to Sartre and on Par with Kafka and Proust

Genet himself never agreed with Sartre’s analysis, but both the existential and literary freedom in the Thief’s Journal is difficult to overlook. Here all norms stand for fall, and society’s ideologies are turned upside down. The outsider is the hero, crime is almost a religious virtue. Homosexual experiences are portrayed with an openness that shocked the past.

Genet’s writing style proves to be one of the foremost provocateurs of the 20th century, but with literary finesse, he excels his contemporaries. And because of his literary genius, Susan Sontag draws the greatest comparison writing: “Only a handful of twentieth-century writers, like Kafka and Proust, have such an important, mature and irreplaceable voice and style”. 

Jean Genet with Black Panther on a protest
Jean Genet with Black Panther on a protest (Image: La Regal du Jeu)

Provocative Autobiography with A poetic Diction

The thief’s Journal by Jean Genet is tell of life outside society and inside the prison walls. The book may be called an autobiography but in the most literary and flowing sense of the word. The text is poetic and myth-building rather than revealing, an obscure mix of fiction and reality.

“Behind the first – degree myth – The Thief, the Murderer, the Beggar, the Homosexual – we discover the reflective myths: the Poet, the Saint, the Double, Art. Nothing but myths, then a Genet with Genet stuffing, like the Prunes of Tours”, Sartre writes in the preface to the book. The preface also refers to the Thief’s Journal as” the most beautiful that Genet has written”.

Like Sartre, many writers agree that the Thief’s Journal left deep traces in their life. From my point of view, I am shocked and did not know that such books existed and that it was possible to use the language in such a way.

To any writer or a good reader, the encounter with the Thief’s Journal is like an ambush, a brutal introduction to a new universe of thoughts. It is a kind of horror, that snatches away peaceful sleep.

One of the Most Important French Writers of the 20th Century

When Genet died of neck cancer in 1986, he was considered one of the most important French writers of the 20th century. Towards the end of his life, Genet became increasingly politically active, supporting the Black Panthers, the Palestine cause, and the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion).

Genet has been an inspiration to many, but he was always a controversial outsider. As one of the few openly gay writers of his time, he was a pioneer, and the Thief’s Journal stands as a milestone in the history of gay fiction.

No doubt that the Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet is one of the strongest and most vital accounts of a life ever recorded. The writer has dramatized the story of its own life with a power and vision that takes one’s breath away. And The thief’s Journal has undoubtedly established Genet as one of the most daring literary figures of all time.

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