Starting in 1970, Jean Genet—petty thief, prostitute, modernist master—spent two years in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. Always an outcast himself, Genet was drawn to this displaced people, an attraction that was to prove as complicated for him as it was enduring. Prisoner of Love, written some ten years later, when many of the men Genet had known had been killed, and he himself was dying, is a beautifully observed description of that time and those men as well as a reaffirmation of the author's commitment not only to the Palestinian revolution but to rebellion itself. For Genet's most overtly political book is also his most personal—the last step in the unrepentantly sacrilegious pilgrimage first recorded in The Thief's Journal, and a searching meditation, packed with visions, ruses, and contradictions, on such life-and-death issues as the politics of the image and the seductive and treacherous character of identity. Genet's final masterpiece is a lyrical and philosophical voyage to the bloody intersection of oppression, terror, and desire at the heart of the contemporary world.
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Jean Genet (1910-1986) was born in Paris. Abandoned by his mother at seven months, he was raised in state institutions and charged with his first crime when he was ten. After spending many of his teenage years in a reformatory, Genet enrolled in the Foreign Legion, though he later deserted, turning to a life of thieving and pimping that resulted in repeated jail terms and, eventually, a sentence of life imprisonment. In prison Genet began to write—poems and prose that combined pornography and an open celebration of criminality with an extraordinary baroque, high literary style—and on the strength of this work found himself acclaimed by such literary luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, whose advocacy secured for him a presidential pardon in 1948. Between 1944 and 1948 Genet wrote four novels, Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, and Querelle, and the scandalizing memoir A Thief’s Journal. Throughout the Fifties he devoted himself to theater, writing the boldly experimental and increasingly political plays The Balcony, The Blacks, and The Screens. After a silence of some twenty years, Genet began his last book, Prisoner of Love, in 1983. It was completed just before he died.
Ahdaf Soueif is a novelist and a writer on political and cultural affairs. Her novel, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. She was born in Egypt and lives in Cairo and London.
Barbara Bray (1924–2010) was a translator of twentieth-century French literature into English. She was an early champion of Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett, and also translated the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Her translations of The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart, Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret, and Prisoner of Love by Jean Genet are available as NYRB Classics.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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