Jack’s Naughty Bits: Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

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Jack's Naughty Bits

A few weeks ago I made the terrible mistake of reading the novel that’s become France’s latest cause célèbre, The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (pronounced WELL-beck). The book has been getting a lot of press for its blend of supposedly racy sex and hard science, first in France where it sold over 300,000 copies, then here and elsewhere abroad (it’s being translated into twelve languages). But contrary to the hype, it’s no Gravity’s Rainbow — on either the sexual or scientific front — nor even worth the slightest hors-France hubbub. In fact, the only thing at all radical about the book was that it was so unabashed in its misogyny.


Houellebecq, who lives with his mother, is clearly not a well man (judging not only from the novel, but from his having propositioned in the most vulgar way the New York Times Magazine journalist who came to visit him). One can only assume that the frustrated adolescent science student bitterness that marks his characters’ relations to women is a reflection of a long-stewed rancor of his own. Reading The Elementary Particles, I kept thinking that it was very much like A Confederacy of Dunces, only without the humor — not unlike the woman of whom Oscar Wilde remarked, “She resembled a peacock in everything but beauty.”


So why all the spilled ink, the sales and the busy-bee translators? Because France needs a voice for its would-be bad-boy self. It wants its own Bukowski (having more or less stolen ours), and, more than that, it wants another Genet. Yes, Genet. Genet both blessed and cursed France with his gallows humor and gallows sexuality, his generic indifference and his utter disregard for the class of people who came to champion him. I live in Chinatown and eat out a lot; sometimes, I have to confess, authenticity becomes a bit much. Genet can require as strong a stomach as pork blood congee, though the literary elite of France would love to pretend that he’s precisely their taste, that his incarcerated voice channels their lutte des grande ecoles. It doesn’t, and he would have spat thickly on most anyone he saw reading him in the metro. And yet the French persist, seeking proxies for their fantasized rebellion, thus accounting for why poor facsimiles like Houellebecq pass as well as they do. Houellebecq, pion that he is, is the closest they’ve had in quite a while. He is still incredibly far away. Here is the real thing.


From Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

Translated by Bernard Frechtman

The newspapers are tattered by the time they reach my cell, and the finest pages have been looted of their finest flowers, those pimps, like gardens in May. The big, inflexible, strict pimps, their members in full bloom — I no longer know whether they are lilies or whether lilies and members are not totally they, so much so that in the evening, on my
knees, in thought, I encircle their legs with my arms — all that rigidity floors me and makes me confuse them, and the memory which I gladly give as food for my nights is of yours, which, as I caressed it, remained inert, stretched out; only your rod, unsheathed and brandished, went through my mouth with the suddenly cruel sharpness of a steeple puncturing a cloud of ink, a hatpin a breast. You did not move, you were not asleep, you were not dreaming, you were in flight, motionless and pale, frozen, straight, stretched out stiff on the flat bed, like a coffin on the sea, and I know that we were chaste, while I, in all attention, felt you flow into me, warm and white, in continuous little jerks. Perhaps you were playing at coming. At the climax, you were lit up with a quiet ecstasy, which enveloped your blessed body in a supernatural nimbus, like a cloak that you pierce with your head and feet.

last week next week

Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.