The newspapers that appeared at the time of the Liberation of Paris, in August 1944, give a fair idea of what those days of childish heroism, when the body was steaming with bravura and boldness, were really like.
“PARIS ALIVE!” “PARISIANS ALL IN THE STREETS!” “THE AMERICAN ARMY IS ON THE MARCH IN PARIS.” ‘sTREET FIGHTING CONTINUES.” “THE BOCHES HAVE SURRENDERED.” “TO THE BARRICADES!” ‘dEATH TO THE TRAITORS!” . . .
As we turn the pages of the old sheets, we see once again the stern and smiling faces, gray with the dust of the streets, with fatigue, with four or five days’ growth of beard. Shortly thereafter, these papers bring before us the Hitlerian massacres and the games, which others call sadistic, of a police that recruited its torturers from among the French. Photographs still show dismembered, mutilated corpses and villages in ruins, Oradour and Mont-sauche, burned by German soldiers. It is within the framework of this tragedy that the event is set: the death of Jean D., which is the ostensible reason for this book.
When I returned from the morgue, where his fianc”e had taken me (she was an eighteen-year-old housemaid, an orphan from the age of twelve. She used to stand next to her mother and beg in the Bois de Boulogne, offering to the passers-by, with a dull face of which only the eyes were beautiful, a few songs in a beggar-girl’s voice. Her humbleness was already such that at times she would accept only the small coins of the money that the ladies offered her as they strolled by. She was woebegone, and so dejected that in all seasons one saw around her the stiff rushes and pure puddles of a swamp. I don’t know where Jean picked her up, but he loved her), when I returned alone from the morgue, darkness had set in. As I walked up the Rue de la Chauss’e-d’Antin, swimming on waves of sadness and grief and thinking about death, I raised my head and saw a huge stone angel, dark as night, looming up at the end of the street. Three seconds later, I realized it was the bulk of the Church of the Trinity, but for three seconds I had felt the horror of my condition, of my poor helplessness in the presence of what seemed in the darkness (and less in the August darkness of Paris than in the thicker darkness of my dismal thoughts) to be the angel of death and death itself, both of them as unyielding as a rock. And a moment ago, when writing the word “Hitlerian,” in which Hitler is contained, it was the Church of the Trinity, dark and formless enough to look like the eagle of the Reich, that I saw moving toward me. For a very brief instant, I relived the three seconds in which it was as if I were petrified, appallingly attracted by those stones, the horror of which I felt but from which my trapped gaze could not flee. I felt it was evil to gaze in that way, with that insistence and that abandon, yet I kept gazing. It is not yet the moment for me to know whether the F”hrer of the Germans is, in general, to personify death, but I shall speak of him, inspired by my love for Jean, for his soldiers, and perhaps shall learn what secret role they play in my heart.
I shall never keep close enough to the conditions under which I am writing this book. Though its avowed aim is to tell of the glory of Jean D., it perhaps has more unforeseeable secondary aims. To write is to choose among ten materials that are offered you. I wonder why I was willing to set down in words one fact rather than another of equal importance. Why is my choice limited and why do I see myself depicting before long the third funeral in each of my three books? Even before I knew Jean, I had chosen the funeral of the bastard child of the unwed mother which, disguised by the words, prettified, decorated by them, disfigured, you will read about later. It is disturbing that a gruesome theme was offered me long ago so that I would deal with it today and incorporate it, despite myself, into a work meant to decompose the gleam of light (composed mainly of love and pain) that is projected by my grieving heart. I am writing this book near a monastery that stands deep in the woods, among rocks and thorns. As I walk by the torrent, I enjoy reliving the anguish of Erik, the handsome Boche tank-driver, of Paulo, of Riton. I shall write freely. But I wish to emphasize the strangeness of the fate that made me describe at the beginning of Our Lady of the Flowers a funeral I was to conduct two years later in accordance with the secret rites of the heart and mind. The first was not exactly the prefiguration of the second. Life brings its modifications, and yet the same disturbance (though one that, paradoxically, would spring from the end of a conflict–for example, when the concentric waves in a pond move away from the point at which the stone fell, when they move farther and farther away and diminish into calm, the water must feel, when this calm is attained, a kind of shudder which is no longer propagated in its matter but in its soul. It knows the plenitude of being water). The funeral of Jean D. brings back to my mouth the cry that left it, and its return causes me an uneasiness that is due to having found peace once again. That burial, that death, the ceremonies lock me up in a monument of murmurs, of whisperings in my ear, and of funereal exhalations. They were to make me aware of my love and friendship for Jean when the object of all that love and friendship disappeared. Yet now that the great eddying is over, I am calm. One of my destinies seems to have just been fulfilled. Jean’s mother appeared to understand this when she said to me:
“That set you off.”
‘set me off?”
She was arranging books on the sideboard. She hesitated a bit, nervously pushed a volume that struck the photograph of her husband, and, without looking at me, she uttered a sentence of which I understood only the last words:
“. . . the candles.”
I made no reply, perhaps out of laziness, and, it seems to me, so as to be less alive. Indeed, every act that was too precise, too explicit, put me back into the life from which my grief tried to uproot me. I felt ashamed, at the time, of still living when Jean was dead, and it caused me great suffering to rise to my own surface. Nevertheless, in my pitiful, illogical mind, which was drifting more and more into vagueness, those two words, which probably referred to the candles on the sideboard, arranged themselves in the following sentence:
“You’re setting yourself off amidst the candles.”
No longer remembering what preceded these few words, I am surprised to recall the following statement by Jean’s mother, who was staring at me:
“People can say what they like but breeding will tell.”
I looked at her and said nothing. Her chin was cupped in the hollow of her right hand.
“Jean took after his grandmother a bit in that respect.”
“Yes, he might have been distinguished. He was quite refined.”
Her gaze turned away from me and rested on the polished surface of a service plate, lying on the sideboard, in which, with her head bent forward, she was admiring herself as she tucked her hair back into place:
‘my mother was very distinguished. She was a society woman. It was I who inherited the aristocracy in the family.”
A gesture with which she arranged the candles had released that confidence. The mother wanted to prove to me that she was worthy of such a son and her son worthy of me.
She raised her head and, without looking at me, left silently. She was going to inform Erik of my arrival. She had never loved Jean, but his sudden death nevertheless glorified her maternal conscience. Four days after the funeral I received a letter from her thanking me–did she mean to thank me for my grief?–and asking me to come to see her. It was the little housemaid who opened the door to me. Jean’s mother had taken her in despite her disgust at the fact that the girl was a maid and the daughter of a beggar. Juliette ushered me into the living room and left. I waited. Jean’s mother was no longer in mourning. She was wearing a white, very low-necked, sleeveless dress. She wore mourning, that is, in the manner of queens. I knew that she had been hiding a German soldier in her small three-room apartment since the insurrection of Paris, but an emotion very much akin to fear gripped my throat and heart when Erik appeared at her side.
‘monsieur Genet,” she said, simpering and putting out her white, flabby, plump hand, “this is my friend.”
Erik was smiling. He was pale despite the memory of a sun tan. When he tried to be attentive, his nostrils grew tense and white. Without consciously formulating the thought that he must have been quick-tempered, I felt the kind of discomfort one feels in the presence of a man who is ready to bite. Undoubtedly he had been the lover of the Berlin executioner. His face, however, was veiled with a kind of shame in my presence, and that shame later led me to imagine him in a posture which I shall speak of. He was wearing civilian clothes. I first saw his frightening neck, which emerged from a blue shirt, and his muscular arms in his rolled-up sleeves. His hand was heavy and steady, though the fingernails were bitten. He said:
“I know about your friendship with Jean. . . .”
I was very surprised to hear a very soft, almost humble, voice speak to me. Its timbre had the roughness of Prussian voices, but it was softened by a kind of gentleness when I discerned in it what might be called shrill notes, the vibrations of which he tried–deliberately or not–to muffle. The smiles of both the woman and the soldier were so hard, perhaps because of the stiffness and immobility of the curl of the lips, that I suddenly felt as if I were caught in a trap and being watched by the smiles, which were as alarming as the inevitable jaw of a wolf-trap. We sat down.
“Jean was so gentle. . . .”
“That’s true, Monsieur. I don’t know anyone. . . .”
“But you’re not going to call each other Monsieur,” said the mother laughingly. “After all, you’re a friend. And besides, it’s too long. It makes for endless formality.”
Erik and I looked at each other hesitantly. For a moment, we were ill at ease. Then, moved by some force or other, I immediately put out my hand first and smiled. Confronted with mine, the two other smiles lost their cruelty. I crossed my legs and a really friendly atmosphere was created.
Erik coughed. Two dry little gasps that were in perfect harmony with his pallor.
“He’s very shy, you know.”
“He’ll get used to me. I’m not a monster.”
The word ‘monster” must have been awakened by the echo of the words “get used to.” Was it possible that in my personal life I was accepting without anguish one of those against whom Jean had fought to the death? For the quiet death of that twenty-year-old Communist who, on August 19, 1944, was picked off at the barricades by the bullet of a charming young collaborator, a boy whose grace and age were his adornment, puts my life to shame.
I ruminated for perhaps six seconds on the words “get used to’ and felt a kind of very slight melancholy that can be expressed only by the image of a pile of sand or rubbish. Jean’s delicacy was somewhat akin (since it suggests it) to the grave sadness that issues–along with a very particular odor–from mortar and broken bricks which, whether hollow or solid, are made of apparently very soft clay. The youngster’s face was always ready to crumble, and the words “get used to’ have just crumbled it. Amidst the debris of buildings being demolished, I sometimes step on ruins whose redness is toned down by the dust, and they are so delicate, discreet, and fragrant with humility that I have the impression I am placing the sole of my shoe on Jean’s face. I had met him four years before, in August 1940. He was sixteen at the time.
At present, I am horrified with myself for containing–having devoured him–the dearest and only lover who ever loved me. I am his tomb. The earth is nothing. Dead. Staves and orchards * issue from my mouth. His. Perfume my chest, which is wide, wide open. A greengage plum swells his silence. The bees escape from his eyes, from his sockets where the liquid pupils have flowed from under the flaccid eyelids. To eat a youngster shot on the barricades, to devour a young hero, is no easy thing. We all love the sun. My mouth is bloody. So are my fingers. I tore the flesh to shreds with my teeth. Corpses do not usually bleed. His did.
He died on the barricades of August 19, 1944, but his staff had already stained my mouth with blood in May, in the orchards. When he was alive, his beauty frightened me, as did the chastity and beauty of his language. At the time, I wanted him to live in a grave, in a dark, deep tomb, the only dwelling worthy of his monstrous presence. It would be lit by candle, and he would live in it on his knees or crouching. He would be questioned through a slit in the slab. Is that the way he lives inside me, exhaling through my mouth, anus, and nose the odors that the chemistry of his decaying accumulates within me?
I still love him. Love for a woman or girl is not to be compared to a man’s love for an adolescent boy. The delicacy of his face and the elegance of his body have crept over me like leprosy. Here is a description of him: his hair was blond and curly, and he wore it very long. His eyes were gray, blue, or green, but extraordinarily clear. The concave curve of his nose was gentle, childish. He held his head high on a rather long, supple neck. His small mouth, the lower lip of which had a distinct curl, was almost always closed. His body was thin and flexible, his gait rapid and lazy.
My heart is heavy and succumbs to nausea. I puke on my white feet, at the foot of the tomb which is my unclothed body.
Erik had sat down in a chair with his back to the window draped with long, white lace curtains. The air was dense, painful. It was obvious that the windows were always kept closed. The soldier’s legs were spread, so that the wooden front of the chair on which he put his hand was visible. The blue workman’s trousers he was wearing were too tight for his thighs and behind. Perhaps they had been Jean’s. Erik was handsome. I don’t know what suddenly made me conceive the notion that his sitting on a straw-bottomed chair cramped his “oeil de Gab’s.”* I remembered an evening on the Rue des Martyrs, and in a few seconds I relived it. Between the dizzying cliffs of the houses the street climbed uphill toward a stormy sky that paid heed to the melody of the gait and gestures of the group of three kids and a bataillonnaire, who were all delighted with a story the soldier was telling. As they went by, the shopping bags of the bareheaded women hit against their calves.
“. . . that was all I wanted, so I stuck my finger in his eye.”
The Joyeux pronounced oeil (eye) like ail (garlic). The three youngsters, who were walking at the same pace, with their heads down and shoulders slightly bent and their hands in their pockets pressing against the muscles of their taut thighs, were a bit winded by the climb. The Joyeux’s story had a fleshy presence. They said nothing. Within them hatched an egg from which emerged an excitement charged with cautious love-making under a mosquito net. Their muteness allowed the excitement to make its way quiveringly to their very marrow. It would have taken very little for the kind of love that was developing within them for the first time to escape from their mouths in the guise of a song, poem, or oath. Embarrassment made them curt. The youngest walked with his head high, eye pure, lips slightly parted. He was nibbling his nails. Because of his weakness he was not always able to be calm or self-controlled, but he felt deeply grateful to those who brought him peace by dominating him.
He turned his head a little. His open mouth was already a fissure through which all his tenderness passed and through which the world entered to possess him. He gazed docilely at the Joyeux. The sensitive Joyeux understood and was pained by the excitement he had aroused. He drew his head back proudly. His little foot, which was surer, mastered a conqueror. He snickered a bit:
“. . . In the oye, I’m tellin” ya, in the oyye!”
He came down hard on the o so as to let the yye stream out. Then, a slight silence. And he ended the sentence so bombastically that the story became the relation of a deed witnessed in the land of the gods, at Gab’s,* or at Gab’s in the broiling, sumptuous country of a lofty disease, of a sacred fever. Pierrot stumbled over a stone. He said nothing. Without moving the fists in his pockets, the soldier again threw back his round little burned head, which was as brown as a pebble of the wadis, and added with his hoarse laugh, in which the blue tattooed dot at the outer angle of his left eyelid seemed to be painted:
“. . . of Gab’s! In the eye of Hab’s! And bango!”
It is not a matter of indifference that my book, which is peopled with the truest of soldiers, should start with the rarest expression that brands the punished soldier, that most prudent being confusing the warrior with the thief, war with theft. The Joyeux likewise gave the name “bronze eye” to what is also called the “jujube,” the “plug,” the “onion,” the ‘meanie,” the “tokas,” the ‘moon,” the “crap basket.” Later, when they return to their hometowns, they secretly preserve the sacrament of the Bat-d’Af, just as the princes of the Pope, Emperor, or King glorified in having been, a thousand years ago, simple brigands in a heroic band. The bataillonnaire thinks fondly of his youth, of the sun, of the blows of the guards, of the prison queers, of the prickly-pear trees, the leaves of which are also called the Joyeux’s wife; he thinks of the sand, of the marches in the desert, of the flexible palm tree whose elegance and vigor are exactly those of his prick and his boy friend; he thinks of the grave, of the gallows, of the eye.
The veneration I feel for that part of the body and the great tenderness that I have bestowed on the children who have allowed me to enter it, the grace and sweetness of their gift, oblige me to speak of all this with respect. It is not profaning the most beloved of the dead to speak, in the guise of a poem whose tone is still unknowable, of the happiness he offered me when my face was buried in a fleece that was damp with my sweat and saliva and that stuck together in little locks of hair which dried after love-making and remained stiff. My teeth went at it desperately at times, and my pupils were full of images that are organizing themselves today where, at the back of a funeral parlor, the angel of the resurrection of the death of Jean, proud, aloft in the clouds, dominated in his fierceness the handsomest soldier of the Reich. For at times it is the opposite of what he was that is evoked by the wonderful child who was mowed down by the August bullets, the purity and iciness of which frighten me, for they make him greater than I. Yet I place my story, if that is what I must call the prismatic decomposition of my love and grief, under the aegis of that dead boy. The words “low” and ‘sordid” will be meaningless if anyone dares apply them to the tone of this book which I am writing in homage. I loved the violence of his prick, its quivering, its size, the curls of his hairs, the child’s eyes, and the back of his neck, and the dark, ultimate treasure, the “bronze eye,” which he did not grant me until very late, about a month before his death.
On the day of the funeral, the church door opened at four in the afternoon on a black hole into which I made my way solemnly or, rather, was borne by the power of the grand funeral to the nocturnal sanctuary and prepared for a service which is the sublime image of the one performed at each grieving of the fallen prick. A funereal flavor has often filled my mouth after love.