Monday 27 July 2020

Querelle of Brest - Jean Genet (1947)

Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Jean Genet by reputation, but initially through Bowie's sneaky play on his name for the 1973 song The Jean Gene. I found a copy of Querelle of Best in WA's Mostly Books about five years ago when it was closing down. I was amazed at the time as it was the only Genet book I'd ever seen around. I didn't really know what to expect, but such was the quality of Genet's prose within the first few pages I felt more than willing to be be immersed in the seedy sailor world of Querelle. Ah yes, Querelle - a young sailor (matelot) full of raw sexual swagger, ranging about in the fog shrouded harbour town of Brest in the south-west of France. Querelle is somewhat of a sociopath, robbing, killing and taking advantage of those around him. He also just happens to be gay and most of the sex in this novel is of the homosexual kind; some of it is quite explicit, but some is merely implied. If Querelle of Brest were published today it would still be regarded as shocking, but not necessarily due to to the homosexual sex scenes (although they'd still shock some people, but then they wouldn't be reading Genet in the first place really), rather it would be for the extreme psychologies of Querelle and many of the other characters. There's not a great deal of love in this novel, rather human relations are presented as sadomasochistic and desperate. Coupled with Genet's unyieldingly rigorous prose style, this makes for compelling reading.

Genet was certainly a great writer, although style-wise barely any authors write with such florid and knowing prose any more. No doubt the likes of Bukowski would have hated Genet's style, being the opposite of his pared back existential prose. The novel flirts with postmodernism, with its slightly hyperreal tone, fragmented form (although subtly) and Genet's meta authorial interjections; even suggesting toward the end of the narrative that Querelle had being getting up to things that were unknown even to the author. Since finishing the novel I've read that one of Genet's main themes in his work over-all was the struggle for identity. Many of the characters in the novel, including Querelle himself, are in a state of psychological flux, and as such the homosexual elements throughout the novel are actually secondary to the exploration of the human psyche. However this would not stop many people from being perturbed by some of the scenes in the novel and I had to be a bit careful reading it on the train lest someone read over my shoulder, receiving an early morning shock to their conservative senses. Still, I'm sure Genet would have enjoyed the thought of one of his novels' still causing consternation seventy or so years after publication.

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