Jean Genet interview with Nigel Williams
Interview filmed in London in the summer of 1985 for BBC2. The present version is based on a transcript of the film soundtrack.
On November 12, 1985, at 10 P.M., a 58-minute program was broadcast in England on BBC2 entitled “Saint Genet.” It consisted of a long interview with the writer, intercut with documents and film segments (from Un Chant D’Amour, The Balcony, The Maids, etc.).
Conducted in early summer 1985, less than a year before Genet’s death, this filmed interview would be his last. It was obtained with relative ease by the English television station, for ten thousand pounds sterling, paid in cash in advance, and was filmed in London over two days in the apartment of the young writer Nigel Williams, who conducted the interview. Williams had recently translated Deathwatch for a London production staged earlier that year.
As was his custom (the year before he had also given another interview on German television), Genet displays a mastery of the rules of the genre, which he plays with in an ironic and authoritative way, bringing his interlocutor and even the technical crew into the discussion. More than any other, this film reflects Genet’s constant preoccupation with interrogating, challenging, and sometimes endangering the mode of expression he is using.
This very lively interview nonetheless took place at a time when Genet’s health had begun to deteriorate considerably. In remission for a while after intense chemotherapy, the cancer he had suffered from since 1979 had returned, leaving him with little hope to live much longer However, he was about to finish writing Prisoner of Love, and would send the completed manuscript to Editions Gallimard in October. Unlike in his previous interviews, in which Genet considered his work to be “in progress”, here, in responding to Nigel Williams’s questions, he knows that his last work has taken shape, and it is without any apparent sadness that, at the end of the program, he can say, “I’m waiting for death.”
Jean Genet: I believe that my criminal record contains fourteen convictions for theft. Which amounts to saying that I was a bad thief, since I was always getting caught.
I was in prison, I was locked up. I said yesterday that in one trial I could have been given life imprisonment. I would never have gotten out of prison. So I was convinced that no one would read my book. I could say what I wanted, since there would be no readers. But it turns out that there were readers.
Nigel Williams: Monsieur Genet, you were born in 1910. Is that right?
Jean Genet: Yes.
NW: In Paris?
NW: But you didn’t know your parents, I believe?
JG: At the time? No. Not now either.
NW: Were you not raised in a family?
JG: Yes, I was, but not in my own.
NW: Was it difficult to live in a family that wasn’t your own?
JG: You’re asking me to speak of my childhood feelings. To speak of this in an adequate way, I would have to do a sort of archeology of my life, which is absolutely impossible. I can only tell you that the memory I have of it is the memory of a difficult period, indeed. But by escaping from the family I escaped from feelings I might have had for the family and from the feeling the family might have had for me. I am therefore completely – and I was from very early on – completely detached from all family feeling. That’s one of the virtues of the French Public Welfare system, which raises children quite well precisely by preventing them from becoming attached to a family. In my opinion, the family is probably the first criminal cell, and the most criminal of all.
If you like, now at my age, I do see the child I was. But I see him among other children who were kids like me, and all their struggles, all their humiliations, and all their courage seem rather derisory to me, rather distant…
JG: I had indeed stolen before, but I wasn’t sent to Mettray for theft. I was sent to Mettray because I took the train without a ticket. I took the train from Meaux to Paris without a ticket. And I was sentenced to three months of prison and to the Mettray colony until the age of twenty.
NW: Do you think that if you had paid for that train ticket, your life would have been completely changed?
JG: Listen… Do you believe in God?
JG: Well, ask him. Ask him if my life would have been completely changed. Me, I don’t know.
JG: I think that at Mettray the relations between the older brother (who was in a position of authority) and the colonists, the other young people like me (who were bound by relations of submission), I think this was a spectacle the guards enjoyed quite a lot. You could say that the guard were the first spectators, and we, we were the actors. And they delighted in the pleasure of seeing.
NW: Was the discipline at Mettray very harsh?
JG: Oh! The discipline was very, very strict. I assume it was a military discipline. Does Mettray interest you?
NW: Very much.
JG: You see, Mettray was created in 1840, under Louis-Philippe. It was at the beginning of France’s colonial voyages throughout the world. The French empire, which you have certainly heard about – France still had a navy of sailing ships, and Mettray was used to provide sailors. In the courtyard of the Mettray colony, there was a huge sailing boat, and we learned how to handle boats on land. But in any case the discipline wasn’t even a military discipline, it was the discipline of sailors. For example, we slept in hammocks; all the boys my age, all those who were being punished, slept in hammocks. The language we used among ourselves was a language that came from sailors. It was sailors’ slang.
NW: In your books you spoke of the love in the colony. For you, did love begin with a boy?
JG: Did you say “love (l’amour)”? I thought you said “death (la mort)”!
NW: Love, I want to talk about love, not death!
JG: Right, okay. What was the question?
NW: For you, love didn’t start with the family, but with a boy, I believe…
JG: No! Not with a boy, but with two hundred! What are you talking about?
NW: With two hundred?
JG: Well, one at a time…
NW: But didn’t you have a favourite, a special one?
JG: Oh! Favourites, special ones, you know, there were so many!
NW: Did you engage in a politics of homosexuality?
JG: But is there a homosexual politics? How could you think that while I was still a child – let’s say that I felt my first sexual attractions around the age of thirteen or fourteen – how could you think that at such an age I could have decided to make homosexuality a political issue?
NW: Yes, of course, I understand. But now, in our era, it’s a political question. Because you were one of the first to talk about it in…
JG: What are you talking about! What are you talking about! Listen, you had Oscar Wilde… If we think of England alone, you had Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Byron, and so many others… What are you talking about!
NW: Were you proud of that?
JG: Of Byron and Oscar Wilde? I was never proud of Byron!
JG: The French refused me since they put me in prison, and at the same time I wanted nothing other than this: to be chased out of France, to escape from the oppressive French atmosphere and to know a different world. There weren’t many passports, but when you finished military service they gave you a booklet that had more or less the same format as a passport. I added a photograph to it and when I presented it to the customs officers, as soon as it had two or three stamps on it, the booklet was valid!
NW: Did you start stealing because you were hungry?
JG: You could say that two things were involved together (since you like this word, “involved”): on the one hand there was hunger, real hunger, meaning a stomach demanding food, and then on the other hand there was the game. It’s amusing to steal, much more amusing than answering questions for the BBC!
NW: But it wasn’t funny when you caught by the cops, was it?
JG: When I was caught by the cops, obviously that was… a fall into the abyss. It was the end of the world. When a policeman’s hand… You see, like that… (He moves forward and places his hand on Nigel Williams’s shoulder.) That, I knew what that meant.
NW: Oh! It still frightens me. When I was a kid I stole, but… I’m still afraid of the police.
JG: Yes, but the hand that comes from behind, that comes down on your shoulder.
NW: Not very pleasant, is it!
JG: No. But you have to pay for the pleasure you take in stealing.
JG: You have to pay for everything.
NW: During the period of the Occupation, were you happy with the presence of the Germans in France?
JG: Thrilled! I was thrilled! I hated France so much – and still do – so much that I was utterly thrilled that the French army had been beaten. It was beaten by the Germans, it was beaten by Hitler. I was very happy.
NW: Is it still like that? Are you not at all proud of being French or of writing in French?
JG: God, no! Oh, no!
JG: I was telling you that I started writing my first book on pieces of paper that were supposed to be used for making paper bags. And I wrote about the first fifty pages or so of Our Lady of the Flowers on this paper. Then I was summoned to the law courts for a hearing on my case – I forget which theft it was for – and I left the papers on the table. The shop foreman had keys, he could enter the cells at any moment, and while I was in court he went into my cell and saw the papers covered with writing. He took them and handed them over to the director of La Santé Prison – since you’re confusing the two words love and death, I’ll tell you that the director of La Santé was called Monsieur Amor. The papers were given to him, and the next evening when I came back to my cell, they were gone. So the beginning of my novel had disappeared. I was called to the director’s office the next day and he gave me three days of confinement in my cell and three or six days of dry bread. And they just dumped my papers. Well, what did I do? When I left the cell after three days were up, I went to the supply room and ordered a notebook, which was within my rights. I hid under the covers and tried to remember the sentences I had written, and I started over on what I had done.
NW: Let’s imagine that we met the writer Jean Genet himself. Would it be the real Jean Genet that we’d meet?
JG: Is there a fake one running around? Is there a fake Genet somewhere out there in the world? Am I the real one? You’re asking me if I’m the real one. Well, where is the fake one?
NW: Okay, I understand.
JG: Perhaps after all I am an imposter who never wrote any books. Perhaps I am a fake Jean Genet, as you say.
NW: Have you always felt like someone who is separated, set apart?
JG: Listen, you’re there, I’m here, and at this moment I feel separated too. I have always felt separated, whether in the Morvan or in your house.
NW: But have there ever been any moments when you didn’t feel separated?
NW: Never in your whole life?
NW: Even, I don’t know, when you were with someone, even in love? You believe that man is always alone?
JG: Man, I don’t know, I don’t want to generalize. But me, yes.
NW: And has that caused you anxiety?
JG: Not at all. What would cause me anxiety would be if there were no distance between you and me.
NW: And how can one get closer to another human being?
JG: I prefer not to get closer.
NW: You prefer always to keep at a distance.
JG: Oh, yes.
NW: But why?
JG: What about you, do you prefer to keep at a distance?
NW: Not always, no.
JG: And why is that?
NW: Because I like the experience of being with someone, of being involved with someone.
JG: Well, I don’t!
NW: It’s a little bit like the game you play in your plays?
JG: The last play I wrote was written thirty years ago. You’re speaking to me of something I’ve completely wiped from my memory: the theater.
JG: I practically never went to the theatre. I had seen a few plays, but not many. Not many, and they were plays by Alexandre Dumas… But it wasn’t really very difficult, because – as I explained to you yesterday, I think – my behaviour in society is oblique. It’s not direct. It’s also not parallel, since it intersects an crosses through society, it crosses through the world, it sees the world. It’s oblique. I saw the world from an angle, and I still see it from an angle, though perhaps more directly now than twenty-five or thirty years ago. The theatre, in any case the theatre that I prefer, is precisely the kind that grasps the world from an angle.
You could say what interests me is to do work that is as good as possible. (The cameraman is asking me to position myself in a certain way.) Of course in this sense I became interested in the work, but I didn’t look at it and ask: was this a new kind of work, this theatre? I don’t know, and it’s not my place to say, but in any case, it amused me. It’s a theatre that, if it wasn’t new, was certainly awkward. And being awkward, perhaps it had something new about it. Because it was awkward.
JG: I was in the theatre that was occupied by the students in May ’68. It wasn’t just any theatre, but the one where The Screens had been staged. If they had been real revolutionaries, they wouldn’t have occupied a theatre, especially not the National Theatre. They would have occupied the law courts, the prisons, the radio. They would have acted as revolutionaries do, the way Lenin did. They didn’t do that. So what happened? That theatre is like this, right? It’s more or less round, a theatre in the Italian style. On the stage there were young people holding placards and giving speeches. These speeches came from the stage into the hall and then came back to the stage – there was a circular movement of revolutionary speeches that went for the stage to the hall, the hall to the stage, the stage to the hall, the hall to the stage… it went on and on and never went outside the theatre, you see? Exactly, or more or less, the way the revolutionaries in The Balcony never leave the brothel.
NW: Did it make you laugh to see that?
JG: It neither made me laugh nor… I’m just saying that’s how it was.
NW: But you weren’t really for the revolutionaries?
JG: You mean the pseudo-revolutionaries.
NW: Or for the real revolutionaries, like Lenin?
JG: I’d rather be on Lenin’s side, yes.
JG: I had a dream last night. I dreamed that the technicians for this film revolted. Assisting with the arrangement of the shots, the preparation of a film, they never have the right to speak. Now why is that? And I thought they would be daring enough – since we were talking yesterday about being daring – to chase me from my seat, to take my place. And yet they don’t move. Can you tell me how they explain that?
NW: Yes. Uh… How they…?
JG: How they explain that. Why they don’t come and chase me away, and chase you away too, and then say, “What you’re saying is so stupid that I really don’t feel like going on with this work!” Ask them.
NW: Okay, sure. (He speaks to the technicians and translates Genet’s question into English.)
JG: The sound man too.
NW: (Nigel Williams asks the sound man, Duncan Fairs, who answers that he doesn’t have much to say at the moment, that the people who work every day lose their sense of objective judgment about what they’re doing and remain prisoners of their personal world. He adds that the technicians always have something to say after the filming, but that if they spoke in front of the camera it would cost a lot of money and would be very expensive for the film production company.) Is that what interested you about your dream: disrupting the order of things? In a certain way you wanted to disrupt the order that exists in this little room?
JG: Disrupt the order of things?
JG: Of course, of course. It seems so stiff to me! I’m all alone here, and here in front of me there are one, two, three, four, five, six people. Obviously I want to disrupt the order, and that’s why yesterday I asked you to come over here. Of course.
NW: Yes, it’s like a police interrogation?
JG: There’s that, of course. I told you – is the camera rolling? Good. I told you yesterday that you were doing the work of a cop, and you continue to do it, today too, this morning. I told you that yesterday and you’ve already forgotten it, because you continue to interrogate me just like the thief I as thirty years ago was interrogated by the police, by a whole police squad. And I’m on the hot seat, alone, interrogated by a bunch of people. There is a norm on one side, a norm where you are, all of you: two, three, four, five, six, seven, and also the editors of the film and the BBC, and then there’s an outer margin where I am, where I am marginalized. And if I’m afraid of entering the norm? Of course I’m afraid of entering the norm, and if I’m raising my voice right now, it’s because I’m in the process of entering the norm, I’m entering English homes, and obviously I don’t like it very much. But I’m not angry at you who are the norm, I’m angry at myself because I agreed to come here. And I really don’t like it very much at all.
NW: But your books are taught in the schools, right here in England.
JG: Oh! What are you talking about?
NW: It’s true. I myself studied Genet at the university.
NW: Do you like that?
JG: There’s both a feeling of vanity.. and at the same time it’s very unpleasant. Of course, there is this double… this double imperative almost. Is the camera rolling?
NW: Yes, it’s rolling.
JG: Good. Ask me questions then, since the system says that I’m the one who’s supposed to interrogated.
NW: You’re not living in France now, right?
JG: No. In Morocco.
NW: You have a house in Morocco.
NW: You’re “hanging out” there with friends, if I can use that term?
JG: No, I live in a hotel.
NW: Why Morocco?
JG: Can I ask you a question? Why not Morocco? And why this question? Because you want to transform me again, you too, into a myth, because you belong to your – what’s it called – BBC, huh?
NW: Or else perhaps because there is another reason, because you have an affinity with the country, the people, because you like the landscape…
JG: Oh! You know, I like all the landscapes. Even the most destitute, even England…
NW: You can live anywhere?
JG: Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. Of course.
NW: It really doesn’t matter.
NW: And what do you do with your days there?
JG: Ah! Yes… You want to bring up the problem of time? Well, when it comes to time, I’ll answer the way Saint Augustine did: “I’m waiting for death.”