Toward a New Chronology: Jean Genet's Life and Works in 1939

by Harry E. Stewart
Toward a New Chronology: Jean Genet's Life and Works in 1939
Harry E. Stewart
The French Review
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License


THEFRENCHREVIEW, Vo1. 61, NO. 1, October 1987 Printed in U.S.A

Toward a New Chronology: Jean Genet's Life and Works in 1939

by Harry E. Stewart

THEPURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE is to reveal recently discovered information about Jean Genet's early life-his criminal and military record, his history of psychi- atric examinations, and his claim to have written novels prior to 1939. This information demonstrates the need not only to re-examine the accepted chro- nology of his works, but also to re-evaluate Genet's statements about himself and his work.

On 7 May 1939, in Auxerre, France, Jean Genet and his traveling companion, L6on Pelta, were arrested for "Infractions A la police des chemins de fer, vagabondage et escroquerie" ("Minute" 2). Both men were incarcerated 9 May 1939. On 13 June 1939, Genet and Pelta were acquitted of the vagrancy charge due to insufficient evidence. However, both men were convicted of an "Infrac- tion" for having used invalid tickets while traveling with the "Soci6t6 Nationale des Chemins de Fer" (SNCF). Genet was also convicted of swindling:

I1 s'est . . ., en faisant usage de la fausse qualiti de soldat en permission, en employant des mancpuvres frauduleuses pour persuader I'existence de fausses entreprises d'un pouvoir ou d'un cridit imaginaire, fait remettre ou dilivrer par la SNCF un billet a tarif militaire auquel il n'avait pas droit et a par ce moyen escroqui partie de la fortune de la dite sociiti. ('Minute" 2)

The "jugement" establishes that they had traveled by train illegally from Paris to Auxerre via Brunoy, Combs-la-Ville, Melun and Bois-le-Roi, and that Genet had been sentenced to one month in prison plus a fine of fifty francs, Pelta to a fine of fifty francs. This judgment, and an article in Le Bourguignon ("Curieux" 4) describing the public audience, establish with certainty Genet's whereabouts in the spring of 1939 and provide information about his military career and mental competence. In addition, they cast doubt on Genet's oft repeated statement that his literary career began in prison when he wrote a Christmas card in December 1939.

Obviously, the arrest record places Genet in France during May-June 1939 and in prison from 9 May to at least 13 June. According to officials at the French Ministry of Justice, time spent in prison prior to trial is deducted from the sentence. Therefore, since Genet was arrested on 7 May, jailed on 9 May and tried on 13 June, he probably did not have to spend any further time in


jail. The newspaper article verifies that Genet was a forger, for he had "maquill6 un billet" ("Curieux" 4). According to the "jugement" and the newspaper reporter, Genet had acquired Pelta's ticket "avec un faux titre de permission, bien que n'itant plus militaire" ("Curieux" 4; italics added). Genet's various versions of his military career being mostly unverifiable, particularly his anec- dote about deserting from the Foreign Legion five days after he had enlisted for the enlistment bonus, this "jugement" represents the first official documen- tation that he had indeed been a member of the armed forces. In his works and in interviews he has on occasion referred to his military career, especially to his service in Syria during 1928-1929, and to assignment in Morocco.' Although there is no definite proof, thesourt record suggests that since Genet was still in possession of valid military passes, he may have only recently left military service. In any case, an exchange between the judge and Genet during the trial provided the court reporter with Genet's version of why he had left military service:

M. le Prksident Girentes: -Et ces permissions que vous aviez gardk [sic] par-devers 
Jean Genet: -Ce sont des titres de permissions que j'avais pris lors de ma rkforme 
du rigiment. 

M. le Prksident Girentes: -Pourquoi avez-vous etk rkformk? 
Jean Genet: -Pour dbsiquilibre psychique! ("Curieux" 4) 

Genet's reply supports Cau's statement that "I1 a 6th reform6 . . . pour bizarrerie de caract6re" (Cau 38). This 1939 statement was Genet's first public reference to a psychiatric problem that he either experienced or feigned in order to be discharged from military service. When combined with other references, an interesting picture of Genet's mental health begins to emerge. In a passage from the 1946 extracts of Journal du voleur (33-34), published in Les Temps modernes, Genet described his encounter with a Doctor H, whom he later referred to as Heuyer. Accorlng to Genet, "Le juge d'instruction, doutant de mon bon 6quilibre mental, commit un ali6niste pour en d6cider. H. m'attendait dans une cellule de la Sant6" (Journal 33). Genet reported that his entire psychiatric examination consisted in Heuyer's asking him whether or not he preferred the asylum or prison, and whether he was or was not crazy.

Genet's anecdote does not ring true for two reasons. First, Dr. Georges Heuyer (1884-1977) was a respected and eminent psychiatrist who dedicated his life and work to the treatment of mentally disturbed juveniles and to the improvement of penal care for juvenile delinquents.' Dr. Heuyer, who as early as 1914 had published works on juvenile delinquency, was associated in 1928 both with La Petite Roquette, a juvenile prison where Genet claimed to have spent time (Miracle 275), and with the "H6pital psychiatrique Henri-Rousselle." He may well have encountered Genet at either or both places. During a court- ordered psychiatric examination in 1943, Genet told Dr. Henri Cla~de,~

another well-known psychiatrist, that he had spent three months at Henri-Rousselle in 1925. Although it is possible that Genet's statements about his psychiatric discharge from the army and his commitment to Henri-Rousselle were ploys to influence the court, it seems more likely, given his lawyer's defense based on his "erudition and education" (cf. below), that the court was simply verifying what was contained in Genet's military dossier. As is clear from his own statements that he had spent time in a psychiatric hospital at age 14 (1925), that he had been examined by Dr. Heuyer, probably at La Petite Roquette circa 1928, that he had been discharged from the army as mentally disturbed, and that in 1943 he had been examined by Dr. Claude to determine his mental competence, Genet did indeed have a verifiable history of mental illness, or at the very least a history of psychiatric examinations.

The article in Le Bourquignon appears under the rubric "Correctionnelle dfAuxerre" and provides an unusual insight into Genet's character, physical appearance, and literary aspirations in 1939. Titled "Curieux tandem! . . .," the article begins: "Ce sont deux ktres bizarres qui comparaissent. . . ." M. le Prksi- dent Girentes concurred: "11s sont en effet deux garcons bien mystkrieux." Already in 1939, as noted by the court reporter, "Jean Genet est celui qui inquiGte le plus le trib~nal."~

The reporter describes Genet as "Elkgamment vktu, le visage plat surmontk d'une chevelure brune friske, les yeux caves et le nez en trompette . . . avec une voix douce et fluette qui fait sourire I'assistance." The judge commented on Genet's "pass6 fort trouble" and his wanderings through Spain, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Genet's military service and his extensive wanderings led the reporter to speculate: "I1 a voyagk un peu partout . . . si bien que l'on a pu penser iun certain moment que l'on se trouvait en prksence d'un espion. I1 est fort probable, toutefois, qu'il n'en est rien" ("Curieux" 4).

Certainly forged military passes and "lettres fort mysterieuses" found in the possession of this widely-traveled "rkformk" must have aroused considerable interest during this anxious period less than three months before France declared war on Germany. According to Genet, however, the mysterious letters "rkdigkes dans un style excellent" were from "des camarades journalistes" with whom he claimed to have collaborated in Paris. He also stated that he worked "i'La Chaine d'Amour" avec un journaliste connu de tous." (Unfortunately, no trace of such a review or newspaper can be found in the BibliothGque Nationale.) Genet urged the judge not to attach any importance to these letters because "Les journalistes sont des gens pleins d'imagination qui exagGrent toujours."

Were these letters written by Genet himself? What could they have possibly exaggerated? Was the "style excellent" Genet's own emerging style? Did he indeed work with a famous journalist in 1939? What was "La Chaine dfAmour"? Such unanswered questions fascinate the researcher.

Jean Genet was skillfully defended, says the reporter, by Maitre Brkjoux, "qui le reprksentait comme un homme krudit, superieurement lettre et qui passe ses annkes en prison-car Genet a dkji passe pas ma1 de sa jeunesse dans les ge6les de France-a tcrire des romans qu'il entend faire tditer duns un temps futur" (italics added). As recently as 1975, in an interview with Hubert Fichte, Genet related that he began writing seriously in 1939:

J'itais en prison. Donc, c'6tait en 39, 1939. J'Ptais seul au cachot ...D'abord, je dois dire que je n'avais rien kcrit, sauf des lettres des amis, des amies, et je pense que les lettres itaient tres conventionnelles, c'est-i-dire des phrases toutes faites, enten- dues, lues. Jamais Pprouvies. Et puis, j'ai envoy6 une carte de Noel i une amie allemande qui itait en Tch6coslovaquie ... Et au lieu de parler de la f6te de Noel, j'ai parli du grenu de la carte postale, et de la neige que Fa ivoquait. J'ai commencP a icrire i partir de la. Je crois que c'est le diclic. (Fichte 32)

According to the records, Genet was arrested and imprisoned twice in 1939, in May and October. He began to serve the second sentence in December, which does indeed verify that he was in prison during Christmas 1939. However, as the court reporter has already indicated, Genet told the court in June 1939 that he had already written novels which he intended to have edited in the near future. This would lend credence to Frau Pringsheim's contention that already in 1937 Genet had "a number of manuscripts which he had written during his most recent term of impri~onment."~

Given Genet's statement in court in June 1939 that he had already written novels he intended to have edited, and given the fact that most of the historical events which Genet described in his first two novels occurred between 1935 and 1939,6 it seems reasonable to conclude that Genet's early works may have been written or at least begun in prison, not between the years 1939 and 1943, but more probably between the years 1935 and 1939. Such a chronology would then make "Le Condamn; A mort," which Genet claimed was his first serious literary eff~rt,~

a relatively late work which can be dated by Pilorge's murder of Escudero (7 August 1938), his trial (25-26 October 1938) and his execution (4 February 1939).

In conclusion, the arrest and conviction of Jean Genet in Auxerre, France, in May 1939 and the subsequent article about the trial on 13 June 1939, reveal several important facts about Genet's life, criminal record, psychiatric history, military service and the chronology of his literary works. They establish that Genet was a recently discharged soldier with a history of psychiatric problems, and a convicted forger and swindler who represented himself as an erudite, well-educated novelist. Given Genet's claim to have written novels prior to 1939, given the numerous incidents that date from 1935-1939 in the early novels, it seems clear that "Le Condamn; Mort" is not, as Genet later maintained, his first serious literary effort, but a relatively late one. Clearly, the entire chronology of Genet's works needs to be re-evaluated.


'See further, Jean Cau, 'Portrait: Jean Genet," L'Express 438 (5 novembre 1959): 37. See also, Jean Genet, Un Captif amoureux (Saint-Amand: Gallimard, 1986) 113, 114, 449, 451, 453.

'For further information on Dr. Georges Heuyer, see Hommage a Georges Heuyer: pour un humanisme medico-social (Paris: PUF, 1961).

For further information on Dr. Henri Claude, see Jean Lhermitte, Henri Claude (Paris: Ancienne Imprimerie de la Cour d'Appel, 1946) in La Presse medicale (Extrait du no 28 [15 juin 19461: 402). Dr. Claude's report, of which I have a copy, is preserved in Jean Genet's dossier at the Archives de la Seine. The material in this report will appear in my forthcoming book on the life of Jean Genet.

It is difficult not to sense a relationship between the court's reaction to Genet and to Andre Gide's statement (1224): 'Belle fonction iassumer, celle d'inquieter." The relationship becomes even more intriguing when one knows that Genet wrote a letter to Gide in 1933. Cf. ~atalogue de fonds speciaux de la Bibliothique Litteraire lacques Doucet: lettres a Andri Gide 154.

Richard N. Coe, The Theatre of Jean Genet: A Casebook (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1970) 25. It is most probable that the "amie allemande en Tch~coslovaquie" was Frau Pringsheim. For information on Genet and Pringsheim, see also pp. 20-30.

Ange Soleil's trial in February, 1935, Weidmann's murders and trial in 1937-38 and his execution in 1939, the Spanish civil war in 1936, Soclay's murder of the Marescot grl in 1935 and his trial in 1936, Marc Aubert's trial and execution for treason in 1939, etc.

'Sartre (474), admitting that Genet learned versification from a "chansonnier connu" (Reni. de Buxeuil), reported that Genet had written a poem at age twenty to a dead grl he had loved, but he then quoted Genet on how he came to write seriously in prison ten years later: "Or il y avait parmi eux un detenu qui faisait des poemes idiots et pleurnichards ... A la fin, agace, je declarai que je serais capable d'en faire autant. 11s me mirent au defi et j'hcrivis 'Le Condamn6 a mort' (475).

Works Cited

Cau, Jean. 'Portrait: Jean Genet." Express 5 nov. 1959: 37-38. 
Coe, Richard N. The Theatre of lean Genet: A Casebook. New York: Grove, 1970. 
'Curieux tandem!" Bourquignon 14 juin 1939: 4. 
Fichte, Hubert. 'Propos recueillis." Magazine litteraire 174 (1981): 23-37. 
Genet, Jean. Un Captif amoureux. Saint-Amand: Gallimard, 1986. 

---. 'Journal du voleur," (Extraits). Temps modernes 10 (1946): 33-56. 
---. Miracle de la rose, Paris; Gallimard, 1951. Vol. 2 of Euvres complites. 3 vols. to date. 

1951Gide, Andre. Journal. Dijon: Gallimard, 1951. Hommage a Georges Heuyer. Paris: PUF, 1961. Lhermitte, Jean. "Henri Claude." Presse midzcale 28 (1946): 1-7. 'Minute de jugement." Tribunal de Premiere Instance en Matiere de Police Correctionnelle. Auxerre,

13 juin 1939: 1-3. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint-Genet: comidiel: et martyr. Paris: Gallimard, 1951. Vol. 1 of Jean Genet, (Euvres complites. 3 vols. to date. 1951-

  • Recommend Us