Sunday, 2 June 2013

Francois Sentein

Jean Genet, Lettres au petit Franz
François Sentein, Minutes d’un libertin (1938-1941)
François Sentein, Nouvelles minutes d’un libertin (1942-1943)

The first volume of François Sentein’s journals or ‘minutes’ was published in 1977.  It gave the impression of a somewhat marginal figure, running errands with the expedient sycophancy of ambition and youth, typing other men’s words and even rolling their cigarettes.  His antennae were sensitive to the slightest compliment from an older writer.  In this respect he was at his most normal: slightly bumptious and self-regarding, trying in the usual ways to kick-start a literary career.
            The second volume, now published for the first time, is far livelier.  Sentein strikes fewer attitudes and meets more interesting people.  He moves in literary circles marked by their flirtations with right-wing politics and single-minded dedication to the pursuit of youth (meaning youths).  He feasts with such panthers as Henri de Montherlant (‘I wrote Les jeunes filles, yet I know nothing about young girls’), Jean Paulhan, Maurice Sachs, Marcel Jouhandeau, Max Jacob and Roger Peyrefitte.
These are the diaries not of a libertine but of a bookish young pederast.  Sentein conveys no real sense of excess.  Even his extremist politics—a disciplinarian monarchism which, as a follower of Charles Maurras, he calls ‘maurrassien’—he is keen to distinguish from the excesses of fascism.  Sentein’s main claim to fame is that he helped Jean Genet during the early years of the latter’s reinvention of himself as a writer.  It was he who crucially persuaded Genet to show Notre-Dame des Fleurs to Cocteau, and it was he in turn whom Cocteau asked to correct the book’s messy typescript.  When he first met Genet, Sentein was reminded of Paul Verlaine, if in a somewhat rougher-edged version: he was shocked when Genet urinated in a washbasin. 
Genet’s letters to Sentein from jail are models of their sort.  As you would expect, there are frequent requests for tobacco, chocolate, money and other comforts.  Sentein thinks of these as a pregnant woman’s cravings, as the prisoner labours to give birth to his first book.  But Genet is different from other convicts in that his most insistent need is writing paper.  At times he is reduced to writing his poems on the covers of books, as well as on his committal papers and those of his cellmates.
Genet was really only a small-time crook and mugger and he knew he could only worship the ideal figure of the murderer from a lower level of criminality but much higher level of literacy.  In one letter he notes that there are ‘certain natures’—poets—who have difficulty sleeping.  He means himself.  He is fascinated by his cellmates’ capacity for sleep, even during daylight hours and even amid the mundane turmoil of prison life.  On another occasion, he points out how astonished the other convicts are that he writes at all.  He takes the time to quote what one of them asked him about his work: ‘C’est des chansons?’  It is a perfectly reasonable question.  The fact that Genet finds it strange is itself strange.  His use of slang to state this man’s age ‘(50 berges)’ only underlines the self-consciousness of the writer’s attempt to identify with the constituency to which he only belongs in part.
One of Sentein’s most interesting observations is of how quickly Genet came to seem self-consciously literary, rather than a merely ‘natural’, untaught talent.  As early as July 1943, reading an early draft of the Journal d’un voleur, he identifies not only ‘a Genet who has read Genet’ but one who has read ‘a Cocteau who has read Genet’.  In a footnote Sentein adds that there would later be an even more sophisticated Genet who had read the Sartre who had read Genet.  At its worst, this awareness would collapse into self-parody.
On the very day that Genet was released from one of his spells in prison, Sentein took him for a drink with Marcel Jouhandeau, the homosexual novelist who was closeted within a conventional domestic arrangement; as he said on this occasion, ‘My house is my prison and my wife is my turnkey’.  I take this tactless outburst of self-pity as an emblematic moment.  Genet fascinated other homosexual writers, but they tended not to invite him to their homes: he would shock the wife or steal the spoons.  It is easy to see how his books drove a rude swathe through the lofty, classical certainties of educated French pederasty.
For all the help he gave Genet, Sentein ultimately got little in return.  When denounced as a traitor after the war, he would receive no support at all from the patron saint of personal betrayal.

[This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement 5151 (21 December 2001), p.11.]

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