73. Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, Jean Genet (1943)

I loved Genet when I was in my teens and 20s, and honestly thought he was a genius. I don’t think so any more, in fact I think he’s comically over-rated – but Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs (Our Lady of the Flowers) is one of those books that meant so much to me as a young man that I don’t have the heart to dismiss it. To be honest, if Genet hadn’t peppered his books with really good sex scenes, I think he’d be forgotten today. Sartre’s ridiculous hagiography gave Genet entrée to the French intellectual pantheon, and I, like everyone else, was seduced by the idea of the artist who lived outside society, bla bla bla. Today I no longer confuse the life with the work, and God am I over the idea of gay artists being ‘renegade’. I read Genet (and Burroughs) for ‘the good bits’, the artiness of his style and the whiff of criminality; now I just find all that irritating. Somewhere, buried deep in this book, there’s a great story about a young man, Louis Culafroy, who becomes the notorious Montmartre drag queen Divine, has an affair with a sexy pimp, Mignon, and a cute murderer, Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, and then dies of TB. It should have been the gay La Dame aux Camellias, but it’s so muddled and obscured by Genet’s fragmented, overheated style that it fails to deliver any kind of drama. The snapshots of Parisian gay life are mesmerising, but how I wish that Genet hadn’t disguised it all as ‘art’.

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