Our Lady of the Flowers

ISBN: 1596541369
ISBN 13: 9781596541368
By: Jean Genet

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About this book

Jean Genet's seminal Our Lady Of The Flowers (1943) is generally considered to be his finest fictional work. The first draft was written while Genet was incarcerated in a French prison; when the manuscript was discovered and destroyed by officials, Genet, still a prisoner, immediately set about writing it again. It isn't difficult to understand how and why Genet was able to reproduce the novel under such circumstances, because Our Lady Of The Flowers is nothing less than a mythic recreation of Genet's past and then - present history. Combining memories with facts, fantasies, speculations, irrational dreams, tender emotion, empathy, and philosophical insights, Genet probably made his isolation bearable by retreating into a world not only of his own making, but one over which he had total control.

Reader's Thoughts


They should give Jean Genet a kids show. You know, like Sesame Street and Barney and whatever they have now -- Dora the Explorer? Jean could teach the kids outdated pimp argot instead of Spanish! But the language thing would be extra; the reason Genet gets a kids show is that the message of this book is the same as those shows': this message being the glorious imperative to use your imagination."Use your imagination!" When you think about it, it's a bit strange that there's such an emphasis on this in media for children, since they already are using their imaginations (or would be, anyway, if they weren't sitting in front of the TV). Since kids imagine things spontaneously without being told, this hysterical, unnecessary urging by the adults putting out TV probably has less to do with the children's edification than with something the adults are missing themselves. Maybe what Ernie and Barney are really saying is, "Use your imagination NOW, kid, because one day real soon, it is going to shrivel up into a flaccid and desiccated and useless old husk, and you will be serving a life sentence in a filthy French prison called Adulthood, surrounded by bedbugs, sociopaths, and the rank stench of shit. And you'll have no recourse then, and no hope for escape."This, then, in the kids' show I'm developing, provides a nice segue into the basics of how capitalism should work. See, adult, you have no imagination; you are incarcerated (so to speak) in the cramped stinking cell that is reality, from which you cannot escape because you no longer possess that once-prized power to use your imagination. Fortunately, you can benefit from the fruits of our neighbor M. Genet's vigorous labor, since he does still have an imagination, and for a nominal fee he will let you use it (and for a couple francs more, you can use something else of his, too).And this is why we read: to get out of our lives. To get out of our cells. Okay, so that's a bit overwrought, but I mean it. We need other people's books because our brains are not enough, and our own imaginations are too feeble to invent worlds that will make ourselves free. See, I bet that would've sounded less cheesy if I'd written it in French! Those bastards really do get away with a lot.Awhile ago I reviewed Jim Thompson on here, and someone on the thread wondered if he'd ever read Proust. The thought of that made my stomach lurch -- of course he didn't! gross! -- but I'm willing to bet Genet read both guys (maybe at the same time), and swallowed them in the same mouthful with no sense of dissonance.I definitely wouldn't recommend this to everyone. It's almost assaultively poetic and gorgeous while incredibly raunchy and scatological, like an overpowering bouquet of gardenias and lilacs with erect penises popping out between the petals, in a cracked crystal vase set on the back of an overflowing toilet. If you think you might be fascinated by a swooningly imaginative, lovely fever dream of a pre-pre-Stonewall, pre-pre-pre-AIDS degenerate homosexual underworld and aesthetic, then this could potentially be a book you'd enjoy. Think pimps, wigs and teacups, thieves, murderers and pearls, boxers and graveyards, news clippings of killers, and a drag ball of queens in stained nineteenth-century gowns.... Think cock after cock after huge erect cock, with paeans to farting and a few trips to Mass. There's a trial. There's a funeral. There's a lot of jacking off! Instead of furry blue monster Grover's "cooperation," M. Genet's neighborhood would emphasize the importance of "la masturbation," an almost diametrically opposite concept but one also essential for the development of young people.If I were a more artistic soul myself, I might try and put together a Geneted-out Sesame Street version, since the pimps and queens would make beautiful muppets, and the animated sequences could really be something. Our Lady of the Flowers doesn't need that, though. It doesn't need me or anyone else; we need it! Truthfully, I think I really did need Our Lady. This is the first book I've read in awhile that actually changed the way that I think; I feel like it gave me a bit of a trepanning, sort of relieved some pressure on the skull and gave my uninteresting organ some more room to breathe. I was really living in the world a bit too much, and now I'm not here if I don't need to be. Genet did remind me that I don't have to stay here, and that if things become too oppressive I can just run off to become a male prostitute and live in a Parisian garret above a cemetery with my Negro and my adolescent psychopath, and a whole lot of drugs and makeup and fake jewels. It's too bad the fascistic policies of public television would likely not allow this glorious message of freedom to be shared with a nation of tots. For now, unfortunately, this book is limited to people who have learned how to read. The good news is, you can probably buy it used for a dollar! Though I might recommend a newer edition than the one I have, which identifies itself on the cover as "A SHATTERING NOVEL OF HUMAN DEPRAVITY," which will make people look at you like you're just reading a bunch of trash. Which you are not. You're just using your imagination!

Vanessa (V.C.)

Our Lady of the Flowers isn't an easy read. It has a twisted premise and an even more twisted way of when, where, and how it was written. I didn't love this novel, but I didn't hate it either. I was intrigued by the characters and more or less impressed by Genet's writing style, but on the other hand I think Genet's style was also a turn off. He rambles...A LOT. It is pretentious rambling, many times too self-indulgent, so much so that it at times made it difficult to really take this book seriously. At times he is poetic, extremely erotic, but for the most part the narrative just keeps on growing increasingly self-indulgent and just loses focuses on what the hell is actually happening or going on. The plot practically loses itself, but the characters still remain very memorable and sometimes endearing, even if these aren't characters that you can love. For what it is worth, Our Lady of the Flowers is worth reading for the sheer fact that it will be one of the most interesting and "out there" novels that you can ever read. Unfortunately though, at least for me, it is only worth reading just once and only once.


This was hard, but there is an unmistakable art in Genet's writing--a sensuality as it should be: consumed with textures and scents. I got lost and am certain I did not always understand but the book left me impressed with Genet's eye for details, humor, and poetry. Like poetry, it should be read more than once; it's blunted characters and blurred identities fall like sunlight or shadows on whatever you as a reader bring. This is not a celebration of gay or criminal lives, but a perspective that like any other includes joy and hardships, and is different enough to mistake for seduction when it is merely true to itself while asking for the same in return.Towards the end a single terrible act anchors the book in tragedy. It was here, I had the hardest time and lost a lot of sympathy for Divine. However, along with other sad moments, Genet offers us this uneasy bed to lie in--the kind of trap we all learn to sleep with.


Frequently beautiful & certainly one of the few books to legitimately make me blush when reading it in public (particularly on the train, where I was v. attentive to whether or not fellow passengers were reading over my shoulder). That said, after the first 50 pages, I found it an incredible chore to get through. Perhaps I just needed to be reading, at that point, something more narratively driven. The sense of awe awarded figures like Divine and Our Lady, &co was evident, wonderful, now and again literally thrilling in a physical way. But I ultimately felt that the book meandered in a way that didn't even seem to me to be a comment on meandering-ness, or some sort of experimental refusal of convention. It just felt like Genet needed a solid editor. But then again, maybe I just wasn't in the mood to "get" it & will return to him in future. I'd like to read something shorter of his in the original French soon.

Ralowe Ampu

i’d want to say that it was hard for me to finish reading this because i couldn’t stop masturbating but honestly i was masturbating because of something else. which is not to say that this book was a contributing factor. i think the spate of masturbation which coincided with the reading was because i was having anxiety about my neighbor screaming, which did make it very hard to read the book and really enjoy it. so you see i share something in common with genet—disclosing too much information. i can see the roots of what we would one day call anti-relationalism in the description of farts, the joy of watching babies fall off balconies and ratting out your friends. i’m not saying that there’s nothing here for other people to masturbate to. i really want to say that the beautiful masturbatory imagery just took me to this place, but maybe if i read it a bunch of years ago. this is the first piece of fiction i’ve read for a while. the last thing i read shares some similarities with genet—120 days of sodom—both french, incarcerated, perverted and canonical. please don’t get the wrong idea about me. i want to find out what angela davis thinks about genet's writing.

D.S. West

“What truth do I want to talk about? If it really is true that I am a prisoner who plays (who plays for himself) scenes of the inner life, you will require nothing other than a game.” (215)I blogged about this one already. Not going there again. You can read it if you want: http://charlessnarls.wordpress.com/20...I bought this on a whim to distract me on the walk home after a terrible night of despair. Our Lady... is fused to that night, and will always benefit from that romance. My situation is far from prison, but feels at at times. Commonalities between the nature of the work and impressions contained in my inner life that night give the memory of my introduction to it a glittery coat. The timing couldn't have better, like God crying down from the 88th dimension, "Try this on, you miserable bastard!"


It's been weeks now, and I've been trying to figure out something, anything to say about this novel. Oh, I liked it—very much so, as my rating surely indicates—but I keep circling around and around it, desperately searching for the detail upon which to structure and make sense of my reactions. I have to admit I still haven't found it, though there's plenty that could be rhapsodized over—the cruel beauty, the unexpected possibility of transcendence, the influential, still-avant garde style. But no, I just keep returning to a single thought:This novel just doesn't give a damn about me. Honestly, I can't think of another text that is so completely disregards the reader—Genet makes no concessions, doesn't even pretend to create some kind of connection between character and reader; everything is on Genet's terms, and the reader can accept that or simply fuck off. Oh, I can certainly pretend that being gay offers me some kind of "in," but that just as quickly unmasks me for what I am, a bourgeois queer as far removed from Genet's world as anything else. I can observe, I can try to keep up; I certainly can't relate. And that's kind of the wonder and power of it: six decades on, and Genet still resists assimilation into contemporary gay culture—he'd undoubtedly mock post-Stonewall living as scathingly as he does polite French society in the first half of the 20th century. He still remains the perpetual brooding outsider. And frankly, I don't think he'd have it any other way."I was his at once, as if (who said that?) he had discharged through my mouth straight into my heart."

Nik Kane

Jean Genet writes some of the most beautiful, unforgettable prose about some of the most off-putting subject matter. I could not continue, yet I could not stop. I wonder what could have been if he chose to write about nobler universal human themes rather than just shit, cocks, cum, and queers.


An odd but truly beautiful book. The casual, preoccupied way in which Genet relates the deeds of Divine, Our Lady & Co. is a gesture of pure ego, and while as a reader I found myself at times wishing for more structure, more "story" from the narrative, there is comfort in knowing that little occurs in the book without it expressly pleasing Genet at the moment of its construction. This is true to the point that he entreats us to fill in our own blanks in the story when it displeases him to do so:"I leave you free to imagine any dialogue you please. Choose whatever may charm you. Have it, if you like, that they hear the voice of the blood, or that they fall in love at first sight... Conceive the wildest improbabilities. Have it that the depths of their beings are thrilled at accosting each other in slang. Tangle them suddenly in a swift embrace or a brotherly kiss. Do whatever you like."Despite being disconcerting, this moment of ego has a charm that despite its selfishness endears the reader to it and makes him or her feel almost accomplice to Genet in completion of the work. The sketched out, moment-to-moment nature of the book (I here removed the word "story" because it feels at times an inaccurate descriptor) and its tendency to flit to whatever will most excite its author, sometimes at the expense of what might further interest its reader, makes it an imperfect one, but one perfectly in keeping with its author's principles of what is good and beautiful. A 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Michael Cross

grit and down and fleshy veils and veils . . .


If asked to name the single greatest book I've read it would be Our Lady of the Flowers. I was introduced to it by a rough trade male hustler in 1975 and it's hard to believe I got past the first page at that time. This novel purports to tell the story of a circle of pimps and transvestites in 1940's Paris. That, however, is surface, and it is unfortunate that gay and feminist factions have appropriated Our Lady as a kind of political manifesto. Genet himself stated that this was not his aim at all and that he only intended here to explore his love of language and metaphor. I would not recommend this novel to the impatient, it is very difficult to get through. The characters are dream creations and thus can dissolve, merge into each other or simply pass physical characteristics back and forth. Genet uses a type of free association which may link the moisture of a leaf to Roman Legions moving through an ancient forest to a drag queen funeral procession suspended in mid-air. I think this work exemplifies the difference between genius(Joyce) and vision (Genet).

Jeffrey Keeten

“The despondency that follows makes me feel somewhat like a shipwrecked man who spies a sail, sees himself saved, and suddenly remembers that the lens of his spyglass has a flaw, a blurred spot -- the sail he has seen.” I think everybody who tries to write a review about Our Lady of the Flowers starts out confounded, befuddled, muddled as to where to start because for one thing Genet's writing style has jumbled up the coherent, organized part of your brain.I was fortunate that the edition I chose to read included the Jean-Paul Sartre introduction. I'm sometimes on the fence about introductions, especially long introductions, Sartre's intro is 49 pages, because I think sometimes they suck the life out of the novel before you even have a chance to read the first page. Many introductions also assume that the reader has read the book previously. I took a chance mainly because I like Sartre and he did a wonderful job of preparing me for what I was about to experience.This book is an ode to onanistic activities or in other words masturbation. To be more specific this is a collection of fantasies that Genet wrote while in prison to help him achieve a chain of orgasms. Yes there are explicitly written parts, but do not categorize this book as pornography or a book of cheap thrills. Genet writes such lush, evocative scenes that the sex that may or may not occur is immaterial. Really this is about passion. This is about Genet making love to himself. The characters that flow through this novel from Divine, to Darling, to Our Lady of the Flowers, to Mimosa are all just derivatives of himself. He uses shells of ultra masculine males, gypsies, thieves, and beautiful young boys, that he has cut out of magazines, to fulfill his sexual fantasies, but underneath in the hollow parts of their bodies they are Jean Genet. "When she talks to herself about Darling, Divine says, clasping her hands in thought: I worship him. When I see him lying naked, I feel like saying mass on his chest." We all hope that we can experience a moment where someone feels this way about us. For Jean Genet these characters sprang from his imagination fully formed as the perfect, flawed lovers that his mind could move about like furniture building up fantasies that ultimately leads to his satisfaction. Our Lady of the Flowers by Miriam Laufer"Darling's life is an underground heaven thronged with barmen, pimps, queers, ladies of the night, and Queens of Spades, but his life is a heaven. He is voluptuary. He knows all the cafes in Paris where the toilets have seats. To do a good job, he says, I've got to be sitting down. He walks for miles, preciously carrying in his bowels the desire to shit, which he will gravely deposit in the mauve tiled toilets of the Cafe Terminus at the Saint-Lazare station."I thought this was a good example of Genet talking about something most of us never want or need to talk about and yet when I read this I had to stop and read it again and again because it is a beautiful statement about one of the most base things that we all are required by our design to perform. Yet he jolts us by uses the coarse word shit which is quickly softened with the word mauve. He has made taking a crap a pilgrimage, an event, that the character Darling will cherish, and look forward to consummating. And consuming. “I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, and then the Universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: that is how I see the end of the world.” I've never read anything like this. There are flashes of Genet in the stream of consciousness of the Beat writers, certainly Thomas Pynchon had read Genet before writing Gravity's Rainbow. The surprising part of the book is how accessible it is. This book was compelling to read and even though some of the twists and turns left me dazed and confused I just let it wash over me and continued on.

Robert Swanger

The manifestation of sexual depravity realizes itself when exposed by incarceration. Imprisoned by its own existence and learned definition, the protagonist's sexuality is acted out in grotesque craving and fulfillment made possible by a lifetime of repression. A must for those intrigued by the abstract mystery of sex and its revelation about the unconscious, but for me a bit too abstract for my taste.


The best prison novel ever! Well, actually it's a piece of erotica from a genius writer. Jean Genet is one of the greats, because he can express suffering, joyment, and a world that is extremely eroticize. To go into his world is like having a feverish dream and realizing that your world that you work in can not possibly exist. Genet's world is much more real, dirty and very very beautiful.


The cover of my edition of Genet's tale of homosexuals and thieves hails it as a masterpiece of eroticism and depravity. While that may have been true in the forties when the book was written, we live in an age where such stories just aren't as shocking. Instead I found this book to be almost more of an account of the kinds of spirituality that still haunt the edges of society where such notions as religion have seemed to cease to apply, and as such it was quite moving, and for the most part beautifully written. I would have given it another start except that the text as a whole tends to be more of a character study then a sequence of events, and though the ending scenes are worth reading to I felt that the plot could have gotten there without as many incidental character-development scenes. Another interesting authorial technique Genet uses is placing himself within the story, and actually writing the story as the novel goes along.

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