Genet by Edmund White, Chatto & Windus, £25 THE LAST BIG book in English to discuss the life and work of Jean Genet was Bernard Frechtman's translation of Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, an extraordinary and provocative piece of psycho-analysis by Jean Paul Sartre. Saint Genet was intended as a preface to Genet's collected works but Sartre got carried away and produced a book of more than 600 pages. Frechtman's translation was published 30 years ago, so it is far from the last word on the complex poet dramatist thief homosexual activist who died in 1986.
Sartre and Genet were at opposite ends of French social experience. The one was a privileged, self-styled "traitor" to his past, the other a true outsider who had experienced illegitimacy, abandonment, imprisonment and "forbidden love" but had remained in his past, re-working it in elaborate and poetic fictions.
As Edmund White observes in his brilliant new biography of Genet: "The concrete biographical content of Sartre's book could be reduced to a 30-page summary."
The deliberate wrong-footing of biographers which Genet included in his books must have given White the occasional patise for thought during the seven years he devoted to charting Genet's life-story, but this is a labour of love written with a cool head and compassionate pen
White has been known up to now for a series of novels such as A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty which relate to his own development as a gay man in the American Midwest and in the codified world of New York's Greenwich Village. His books might be described as "autobiographical fictions"— so he is wise to Genet's tricks from the start.
From the beginning, White exposes the "invention" that Genet brought to his own biography. For instance, though he was well-treated by his foster-parents, Genet recalled them in his writing as cruel child-beaters. In fact, he was stealing the experience of one of his schoolmates who had not been so fortunate in the family who fostered him.
But, if White is scrupulous in separating fact from fiction, he is also careful to pay tribute to the sociological accuracy of Genet's invented world. Genet, he admits, "had remarkable powers of selftransformation" and this was merely the basis of his art.
White reveals that behind the carefully cultivated mask of the lawless, uneducated outsider, lay a sensitive and deeply cultured man who befriended many of the most brilliant personalities of French intellectual life.
White's book remains a celebration of a man who chose a deliberately difficult route for himself as well as his writing, but who wrote with a liberating truthfulness which is the final confirmation of his genius.
BY PAUL RYAN