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


in an excellent introductory essay Sartre calls this book the "masturbation epic." and so it is. Genet in prison writing to excite himself. violence and blue-eyed killers conflated with the sacred, flowers and churches.


I'm giving this book three stars but by the end of the book I could not put it down and I must say it is very poetic in an enigmatically and shockingly sensual way. I think if I were to read this book again I would give it more stars because I would understand it a little better.

Carlos Mock

Our Lady of The Flowers - Notre Dame des Fleurs - by Gene Genet, translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman This is Gene Genet best known novel. It was written in 1942 while he was incarcerated in the Fresnes Prison. Genet wrote it on sheets of brown paper which prison authorities provided to prisoners - with the intention that they would make bags of it. As recounted by Jean-Paul Sartre in his foreword to "Our Lady of the Flowers", a prison guard discovered that the prisoner Genet had been making this "unauthorized" use of the paper, confiscated the manuscript and burned it. Undaunted, Genet wrote it all over again. The second version survived and Genet took it with him when leaving the prison.The novel is, basically, his way to pass time while being incarcerated. Genet would collect pictures cut from the magazines and newspapers and then create erotic stories of these people so that he would be aroused and then masturbate. Because incarceration diminishes your senses, Genet uses all of them to achieve stimulation and orgasm: "The odor of prison is an odor of urine, formaldehyde, and paint. I have recognized it in all the prisons of Europe, and I recognize that this odor would finally be the odor of my destiny."Narrated mostly from the first point of view by Genet himself, the stories are highly erotic, often explicitly sexual, filled with all kind of fetishes and are spun to assist his masturbation. Jean-Paul Sartre called it in the introduction "the epic of masturbation". The novel tells the story of Divine, a drag queen who, when the novel opens, has died of tuberculosis and been canonized as a result. "I shall speak to you about Divine, mixing masculine and feminine as my mood dictates, and if, in the course of the tale, I shall have to refer to a woman, I shall manage, I shall find an expedient, a good device, to avoid any confusion." Therefore, Divine is Louis Culafroy when Genet refers to him as a male. Divine lives in an attic room overlooking Montmartre cemetery, which she shares with various lovers, the most important of whom is a pimp called Darling Daintyfoot. "Divine and Darling. To my mind they are the ideal pair of lovers. From my evil-smelling hole, beneath the coarse wool of the covers, with my nose in the sweat and my eyes wide open, alone with them, I see them." One day Darling brings home a 16 y/o hoodlum and murderer, dubbed Our Lady of the Flowers. Our Lady is none other than Adrien Baillon. Baillon was arrested, tried, and executed. Death and ecstasy accompany the acts of every character, as Genet makes betrayal the highest moral value, murder an act of virtue and sexual appeal. The book was dedicated to Maurice Pilorge, who murdered his lover Escudero. The book was first published anonymously by Robert Denoël and Paul Morihien at the end of 1943. The first printing was designed for sale to well-to-do collectors of erotica; it circulated by private sales lists and under the counter. But Genet never intended his work as mere pornography and later excised more graphic passages.This is a difficult read, mainly because the anecdotes are either told from the third person point of view of the characters, or Genet's first person point of view. Sometimes the characters have female names, and other times, they have male names. As in many books of the absurd - there is no timeline. The narrator will jump back to Divine's (Louis Culafroy) youth and then to the present: the only way you can tell is by the name used. Culafroy is for Divine's youth, Divine is for the present. Even though the book is sold as "erotic," I found this not to be the case. It does deal with fetishes and violence - among them a certain propensity for fecal fetishes and violence - from sexual assault all the way to murder. Apparently these were the ones that would turn Mr. Genet on. If you read it, you'll need an open mind....

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!"

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.


** spoiler alert ** In Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers we are given a firsthand look into the world of masturbation, anal sex, and bowel functions. Genet transforms the sounds, images and smells of these experiences through the use of poetic language to the point where we could forget that we are reading about the profane and fringe world of prisoners, pimps, prostitutes, thieves and drug dealers.The narrator celebrates masturbation and raises it to an art form in the multiple descriptions of his time spent pleasuring himself. Genet takes the reader through the journey of elation but then quickly drops the reader into depravity. Genet’s word choices evoke images and sounds of bird wings flapping instead of hands grasped around penises trying desperately to achieve orgasm when “He strokes it through the sheet, gently at first, with the lightness of a fluttering bird” (Genet 120). The narration quickly descends into the profane when the narrator “Discharges into the toothless mouth of the strangled old man” (Genet, 120). These manic descriptions are what challenge the reader and give the story its depth. We are on the wings of a bird and then we are the toothless mouth of a strangled old man.The sexual relations and male genitalia are described creatively and with great power. Using descriptors like the “shying” horse and the whinnies of a centaur, Genet provides the audio and image to a powerful sexual experience. Genet uses this animal story to describe Gabriel and Divine’s intercourse. Gabriel dominates Divine, “with his usual fury” as all of her sexual partners do, in this passage: Gabriel had acquired such virtuosity that he was able, though remaining motionless himself, to make his tool quiver like a shying horse. He forced with his usual fury and felt his potency so intensely that – with his nose and throat - he whinnied with victory, so impetuously that Divine thought he was penetrating her with his whole centaur body. She swooned with love like a nymph on a tree.” (Genet 150)Even basic bodily functions like flatulence get a rich treatment from Genet’s narrator. As a prisoner, the narrator revels in the simple pleasure of swear words and farts described as “words of argot which stream from pimps’ lips as his farts (pearls) stream from Darling’s downy behind.“ (Genet 242) In these words Genet calls argot (profanity) farts and then in turn describes the farts as “pearls” from a “downy behind.” In the narrator’s world there is nothing about the male form or what is emitted from it that cannot be painted with a loving brush stroke.. It is these kinds of prose that transport the reader to lovely heights then drop the reader down as they realize what is being described to them.In conclusion, Genet uses multiple sensory experiences to loving transport his narrator from fringes of society partaking in activities many would consider to be “dirty” to a world of centaurs, nymphs, pearls, and fluttering birds. This is where the reader experiences the divine

John Tipper

Jean Genet was a French professional criminal during the 20th century. An abandoned child, he lived for a while in an orphanage and then dropped out of school to become a homosexual prostitute, a petty thief and had a stint in the French Foreign LegionHe wrote this novel entirely in prison. Divine, a homosexual, is the central character, who dies early on in the narrative. It is difficult to say what the novel is precisely "about", since the prose is poetic and disjointed. Genet fantasizes a lot about Divine and other men while engaging in masturbation, which seems to be how he handles his solitude. The improvised, poetic nature of the writing was a major influence on the Beat Writers of the fifties, particularly Kerouac and Burroughs. There have been many prison writers down through the ages, but most critics consider Genet the most influential. A tough guy gay sociopath, he delights in breaking norms, going against the grain and questioning morality and even reality itself.This novel is worth reading if for no other reason than it gives one a window into the mind of a sociopath.

Vincent Flock

I do enjoy being quite ignorant of 20th century literature. It allows me to go stumble upon a masterpiece such as this book without knowing how deeply moved, delighted, broken-hearted it will leave me. This particular edition has a wonderful introduction by jean-Paul Sartre, which I read when I was halfway through the first time (I could not help but read it twice consecutively), and I recommend this approach to anyone else who has not been acquainted with the work of Genet. Sarte gives wonderful insight, but I think that it would have spoiled a bit of the mystery and the intrigue had I read his essay first. Even worse, it would have steeled me against the grotesque surprises that await. For this reason, I am reluctant to say more, for I want the unwitting reader to be shocked at the morbid and nauseous turns which Genet is sometimes inclined to take. This is part of the book's charm and a great part of its power. And it is a very powerful and moving book, a bible for the contemporary maudit and a perfect portrait of humanity at its saddest, and yet at its most triumphant.


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.

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.


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.


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."

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.


The title Our Lady of the Flowers turned me off at first – another self-absorbed piece of trashy drag. But why then did Sartre write a long preface? There lay the key. Sartre had been fleshing out his program of existential psychoanalysis, and then he suddenly found it all here, in the flesh. It’s a rare feat when a novelist breathes life into untested ideas. Almost every reader has trouble describing this book, no matter how they like it. Now I’ll give it a try. Jean Genet performs here a sort of self-analysis. The narration takes no account of readers, but even so readers are necessary as witnesses, judges who enable Genet to talk out loud. No book I’ve read engages the reader in such a way.Genet exerts striking authorial control. He breaks in on his basic story, a mystery of mayhem involving two main characters, whenever he needs to bring himself back to earth about his actual imprisonment in 1942. Centering on the hustling bar life of pre-war Paris, the story splits into a frame narrative that changes the focus among characters, explodes into new stories and angles, and ultimately shatters the whole against the concrete of tight-assed morality. Pimps and trannies alike go up in a whirl of Parisian pixie dust. And what a dustup! The surrealistic metaphor and allusion take genius to pull off, far more than you would expect from a prisoner scribbling in his cell in pencil on paper bags. An exotic prose-poetry comes at us out of nowhere. Such precise detail reminds me of Flaubert’s obsession with the perfect word. The aura of the book reminds me of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Words generate their own reality, enough to transport an inmate beyond his cell walls and into a parallel universe “so perfect in its inevitability that this world has only to disappear.” We know Genet’s telling himself a story, yet we become fully involved. Samples of Genet’s prose give a taste of his style:--Her hands, freed from the revolver, which disappeared beneath the bed like an ax at the bottom of a pond, like a prowler into a wall, her hands, lighter than thoughts, fluttered about her.--Culafroy did not know that a violin ... could upset his sensitive mother, and that violins moved about in her dreams in the company of lithe cats, at corners of walls, under balconies where thieves divide the night’s loot, where other toughs slouch around a lamppost, on stairways that squeak like violins being skinned alive. --Night emerges from his eyes and spreads over his face, which begins to look like pines on stormy nights ...Just superb. As to the self-analysis, fans of Sartre will be amazed at degree of existentialism in Genet’s descriptions. But that’s subtext, and most readers will enjoy the story without that added layer of meaning. A jackboot of masochism kicks faces, but the overt sex isn’t nearly as much as you’d expect. The prose, then, is strong enough to cross over to a straight audience with diverse reading habits. I've got to add that the Frechtman translation is so good that I went for pages thinking I was reading about Americans. I recommend the book as a classic of its genre.


I found this book to be an intriguing journey through the mind of the author who - whilst imprisioned - creates characters to satisfy masturbational fantasies. However, intriguing as it is, and wonderfully poetic and comic at times, it was a real struggle to pick up and read each evening. My greatest satisfaction was in getting to the last page! For me, this was probably due to the lack of a cohesive narrative or 'plot'. Each time I picked it up I entered into the author's dreamscape and knowledge of what I read the previous evening often had no bearing on what I read the following evening. This lack of cohesion made for a very difficult reading experience. I would recommend the book - but it is probably best not read when tired.

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