I started translating Genet’s poems, in a spirit of wilful inaccuracy, in Cambridge in 1974, and stopped four years later, in the winter of 1978, in a high-rise flat in Portugal. In 1980, I was teaching in northern Italy and one of my tasks was to improve the English of managers at Edizioni Panini, Italy’s largest producer of figurine, the stickers of footballers and cartoon characters, among others, that every Italian schoolchild once collected, and may still collect. A student offered me the use of the Panini presses to produce a book. The Green Pavilion came out in 1981 in an unnumbered edition of, I think, 200 copies under the imprint Plain Editions, the name of the press set up by Alice B Toklas to publish Gertrude Stein. Charlie Bulbeck and I had used the same name to publish two poem sequences by RF Walker a year or so before. The Green Pavilion was the second and last Plain Edition to be produced by us. It was reviewed, generously, by Nick Kimberley in Time Out, but otherwise disappeared without trace until some thirty years later, when the Cambridge Literary Review published a small selection along with, more or less, the above introduction.
The cover I used came from a weekly magazine, Espresso or Panorama, and was part of a photograph used to illustrate an article about a clampdown on the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. All it had to do with the work of Genet was what I must have seen at the time as a rough, potentially dangerous, uniformed masculinity, although looking at it now the most obvious quality is a rather cute vulnerability. I may have confused the two, or hoped that the former would necessarily conceal the latter and that I would be the one to find this out. I wondered later what the young man would have thought of his image being identified with a collection of subversive, erotic verse. Still, what isn’t known can’t hurt and the chances of a copy of the pamphlet finding its way into a Calabrian barracks were small then, and are even smaller now, the only remaining copies being stored away in a box beneath a spare bed. But it’s odd to think how taken I was by this image, by this young man with his rifle and putto-esque good looks, and how I saw him as representing the thuggish heroes that strode through Genet’s dreams of possession and being possessed.
Genet was one of the two or three writers who helped me come to terms with my sexuality when I was a teenager. The others were probably Christopher Isherwood and Michel Tournier. Genet understood better than anyone what it was like to be an outcast, to be despised, to transform that contempt into an erotic covering and weapon, a protection that allowed the self to survive and even thrive on punishment. He also appreciated the redemptive value of revenge, even of the purely imagined kind. I was fourteen when homosexuality ceased to be a punishable offence in the United Kingdom and its removal from the criminal code made little difference to the actual business of living the life of a gay teenager attending a comprehensive in a small provincial town, where invisibility and the eroticisation of internalised shame were the only refuges available, apart from the greatest and most saving grace of all, that provided by books. To get hold of the books I wanted to read I had to order them from the town’s bookseller-cum-newsagent, Fred Hill, on Derby St. This meant enduring the puzzled and slightly disdainful look of whoever happened to be taking the order, and praying that the cover of the book would not be too obvious. Obviousness was the arch sin, whether in one’s manner, one’s speech or one’s book choices. After all, anyone might be in the shop when the book arrived, and no brown paper bag was fast enough to foil the attentive eye of an inquisitive, and potentially inquisitorial, customer. The covers of my first two purchases, The Miracle of the Rose (Dalì) and The Thief’s Journal (Tanguy), both Penguin Modern Classics, were odd, disturbingly so, but branded me as, at worst, an intellectual. The Grove Press edition of Our Lady of the Flowers – the face of a young man, apparently dead, surrounded by leaves – was a little more risky but just passed muster.
Querelle of Brest, published by Panther in 1969, when I was fifteen, was another kettle of fish entirely and I don’t know how I managed to smuggle it out of the shop and into my bedroom without mishap. It’s hard to imagine now, with the naked or semi-naked male body as objectified and primped and packaged as the female body, just how rare it was to catch a glimpse of exposed male skin. I cunningly recycled a Stoke-on-Trent Arts Festival programme as a makeshift scrapbook for my cache of men with at least some of their togs off, footballers usually, the occasional actor from a film starring gladiators or mythical heroes, a memorable photo of Starsky in bondage and not much else. The only source of full-frontal male nudity was the naturist magazine Health and Efficiency. But I digress. Given the nature of the text, perhaps the most available and explicit of all Genet’s novels, it was perhaps fitting that the cover of Querelle should be the most unequivocal of those given to the English translations, and it’s no surprise that it should be the only novel to be filmed, in an exemplary manner, by Fassbinder. Talking of which, Brad Davis was as close to my notion of an ideal Genet hero as might be imagined, and I bought the set of Warhol prints made to accompany the film and had them framed and hung on the wall of the flat I shared with friends in Rome, a sign if nothing else of how much the times and my life within them had changed.
And for those of you who might be curious to see what I made of the poems, and of the dreadful liberties I took with them, here’s a sample:
PS The Isherwood and Tournier links will take you to pieces I wrote some years ago for normblog, the greatly-missed blog of Norman Geras. They provide a bit more information about why these writers were important to me and, in the case of Tournier, about the fallibility of memory.