The Thief's Journal  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Thief's Journal is perhaps Jean Genet's most famous work. It is a part- fact, part-fiction autobiography that charts the author's progress through Europe in a curiously depoliticized 1930s, wearing nothing but rags and enduring hunger, contempt, fatigue and vice. Spain, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Nazi Germany, Belgium... everywhere is the same: bars, dives, flop-houses; robbery, prison and expulsion.

The novel is structured around a series of homosexual love affairs between the author / anti-hero and various criminals, con artists, pimps, and even a detective.

A common theme is a sort of inverted system of ideals, wherein betrayal is the ultimate form of devotion, petty delinquency is brazen heroism, and confinement is freedom.

Genet hijacks Christian language and concepts to pursue an alternative form of "sainthood" with its own trinity of "virtues" - homosexuality, theft and betrayal. Each burglary is set up as quasi-religious ritual and he describes his self-preparation for his crimes like that of a monk in a vigil of prayer, readying himself for a "holy" life. He establishes a "constructed reader," a fictional personnification of the bourgeois values of the late 1940s, against which to measure his deviance from the "norms" of society.

This is an epic voyage of self-discovery, transcending moral laws; it is the philosophical expression of perverted vice; the working out of an aesthetic of degradation.

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