Jean Genet’s Treasures of the Night: once an outlaw…

The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….

Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)

The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.

They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems.

Treasures of the Night consists of six poems of varying lengths, all longish for lyric verse and all related to Gide’s difficult, Bohemian life as a criminal and as a member of the gay demi-monde. These are poems that juxtapose brutality with tenderness, joy with despair, beauty with hideousness. Some titles alone give some indication that one is not going to be reading hearts and flowers stuff: “Le Condamnè à Mort”; “Marche Funèbre”; “La Galère.” Others suggest more hopeful themes but continue in much the same vein “La Parade”; “Un Chant d’Amour”; “Le Pêcheur du Suquet.”

It is not necessary to examine all these poems, nor would that necessarily be a good idea in this translation. This version of Genet’s poems suffers, as translations sometimes do, from being too much a transliteration of the French, not enough an expression of Genet’s work in equivalent English idiom, which a good translation should do. (Mark Spitzer has done a much better job translating Genet’s poems for those interested.)

Genet’s fascinations with beauty, sex, and death intersect most clearly in the poems “Le Condamné à Mort” and “Le Pêcheur du Suquet.” In the former of these poems, a single quatrain serves to show how Genet brings all these themes together (I offer these first in French, then the English translation I read):

Enfant d’honneur si beau couronné de lilas!/Penche-toi sur mon lit, laisse ma queue qui monte/Frapper ta joue dorée. Ecoute, il te raconte,/ Ton amant l’assassin, sa geste en mille éclats.

Fair child of honor crowned with lilac!/ Bend over my bed, let my rising cock/ Smack your golden cheek. Listen, your killer lover/Is telling you his story in a thousand explosions.

In “Le Pêcheur du Suquet,” Genet describes the pain of love as the alternating experience of peace and disquiet, pleasure and pain, life and death – and sex:

Enfouis sous vos pieds les trésors de la nuit/ Sur des chemins de braise allez en souple’sse./La paix est avec vous./Dans les orties, les ajoncs, les prunelliers, les forêts, votre pas/Dépose des mesures de ténèbres./Et chacun de vos pieds, chaque pas de jasmin/M’ensevelit dans une tombe de porcelaine./Vous obscurissez le monde.

With the treasures of the night buried under your feet/Along paths of live charcoal, go lithely./Peace is with you./Among nettles, furze, blackthorns, forests, your steps/Lay down measurements of shadows./And each foot, each step of jasmine/Buries me under in a porcelain grave./You darken the world.

This lyrical moment passes and Genet jerks us back to the dirty reality of the narrator’s rough and tumble affair with a handsome but coarse fisherman:

Les trésors de cette nuit : l’Irlande et ses révoltes,/let rats musqués fuyant dans les landes, une arche/de lumière, le vin remonté de ton estomac, la/noce dans la vallée, au pommier en fleur un/pendu qui se balance, enfin cette région que/l’on aborde le coeur dans la gorge, dans ta culotte/ protégée d’une aubépine en fleur.

Treasures of the night: Ireland and her revolts,/muskrats fleeing across wastelands, an arch/of light, the wine you threw up,/the wedding in the valley, a hanged man swinging/from a blossoming appletree; in short, this region/that one, heart in mouth, reaches in your shorts,/protected by a blossoming whitethorn.

Despite the sometimes clumsy translation of the edition of Genet’s poems I read, I can recommend him as a poet who sees the beautiful in the garbage and the garbage in the beautiful with clear eyes and records them with honesty that is both a hand outstretched in friendship and a fist drawn back in anger. It is powerful, potent, and passionate work. That, in any translation, is enough.

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