Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. Indeed, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. DIvine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

Corydon

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Corydon
by André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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André Gide was an extremely influential, very prolific French author known for his autobiographical and moralistic works. Though he considers it to be one of his most important books, Corydon is one of his least discussed, at least in anglophone literary communities. This may be attributed to his full-throated defense of pederasty, homosexual relationships between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, a practice he engaged in throughout his life. Despite this complication, Corydon still has much to offer a modern reader.

Gide’s book is a series of four Socratic dialogues in which the eponymous Corydon defends the existence of homosexuality (and pederasty specifically) to an unnamed, rather obtuse narrator. His arguments range from the philosophical to the biological and historical in his attempt to prove that homosexuality is not only natural, but can also be virtuous and uplifting. He also criticizes other homosexuals for their refusal to be out and open about their sexuality, and allowing the public condemnation of them to persist.

Gide’s arguments are a mixed bag. Some have aged well, others less so, and some of them come across as weak and self-serving, even for the era. Regardless of these problems, Corydon is still an important landmark in the discourse of homosexuality, and we can see how some of his arguments contributed to the development of the current movement. One thing I found to be particularly interesting about Gide and this text is the fact that he speaks with demonstrated conviction. When he was 47 (well before Corydon was written), Gide eloped with the 15 year old Marc Allégret, and the two remained together for 11 years before Allégret discovered he preferred women. They stayed close friends even after this and Allégret went on to a successful career as a filmmaker, in part thanks to the connections he established during his time as Gide’s lover.