Stealing Jean Genet's diary


For Sartre Genet, like Montaigne, “the project is naive and simple to represent. But he is never simple, even with himself.”

By Afrânio Catani*

Much has already been written about Jean Genet (1910-1986) and his books that, I believe, it would be impossible to try to dialogue with the respective critical fortune in this limited space. I will use as support only excerpts from Patti Smith and Pierre Bourdieu, which help to map the author and work a little, to talk about diary of a thief (1949)

In your Self-analysis outline (Companhia das Letras, 2005) Bourdieu (1930-2002), writing about the period he lived at the boarding school, between 1941 and 1947, stated that he could not say “everything that would be necessary to do justice to those who lived through such experiences, to the his despair, his outbursts, his desire for revenge. To give you an idea, when invoking Goffman from Asylums, prisons and convents, I might remember that the boarding school is only distinguished by differences in degree, in the series of “total institutions”, of instances such as the prison or the psychiatric hospital, or even closer still, of the penitentiary colony as evoked by Jean Genet in The miracle of the rose (Paris, Gallimard, 1945)” (p. 117). Then he adds: “I believe that Flaubert was not wrong in thinking that, as he wrote in the Memoirs of a Madman, “the one who knew the boarding school knows almost everything in life at the age of twelve”” (p. 120).

In the short introduction to the edition published by Nova Fronteira of this daily, written by Jean-Paul Sartre, one reads that Genet speaks “without intermediary”, narrating “his life, misery and glory, his loves” (p. 9). For Sartre he has, like Montaigne, “the naive and simple project to represent. But Genet is never simple, even with himself” (p. 9). He is not simple at all. The narrative follows orderly, jumps, returns, ramblings appear here and there. Patti Smith, in “Holy Disobedience”, preface to the American reissue of diary of a thief, says that this is “his most beautiful work of autobiographical fiction”, dedicated to Sartre and the beaver (Simone de Beauvoir).

If the content of his text could be summarized in a single sentence, I would use what he wrote on page 190: “Betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the essential subjects of this book”. And he adds: “a relationship exists between them, if not always apparent, at least I think I recognize a kind of vascular exchange between my taste for betrayal, theft and my loves” (p. 130).

Genet betrays almost all of his lovers, Stilitano, René, Armand, Robert, Salvador, Lucien, Guy. He roams all over Spain, France, lives in Marseilles stealing, prostituting himself, robbing and associating with men who have his grace, his charm or a fabulously gifted member.

Born in Paris, on December 19, 1910, abandoned by his mother and with an unknown father, he became an orphan in the care of the State. He was brought up in Morvan by peasants, but at the age of 16 he was an offender, being taken to the detention house for minors in Mettay, where he stayed until he was 21. He ran away, enlisted in the army for five years, and after a few days he deserted, stealing officers' bags (p. 38).

The opening sentence of daily it has exactly 9 words: “The clothes of the convicts have pink and white stripes” (p. 13). Their arrests go on in a mind-boggling sequence, from 16 to 30 years old: young people, adults, arrests for lack of documents, for begging. He says he was never arrested while he was stealing or scamming. He walked incessantly, clothes in tatters, alone, a true beggar, living by petty theft and stealing money from the church alms box, with a stick dipped in glue (p. 78).

He did not commit murder, preferring crimes that he saw as more demeaning: theft, begging, betrayal, abuse of trust (p. 83). He lived in Berlin prostituting himself and said that he had 15 or 16 different names to lessen the effects of new arrests (p. 96 and 103). He details his action as a thief, the bodily sensations that this causes, the blows he applied to deer with other partners: “I continued [in Marseilles] in my profession as a thief, despoiling at night the deer that had chosen me. The whores of rue Bouterie (this neighborhood had not yet been demolished) bought stolen objects from me” (p. 146).

At the same time that he tried not to be arrested, he said that he did not care about arrests, narrating more than once acts of solidarity received when placed in solitary confinement. He goes so far as to state that “prison surrounds me with a perfect guarantee. I'm sure it was built for me” (p. 70). He aspired to be arrested and sent to French Guiana, on the so-called Devil's Island, in the prison of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, for him a sacred territory, where the most feared criminals of his country were detained. However, the prison was deactivated before he could get there.

Patti Smith, in M line, talks about the trip he made to that prison, visited the abandoned cells – examined “the faded graffiti tattooed on the walls. Hairy balls, chicks with wings, the primordial organ of Genet's angels” (p. 20). She collected some small stones and some dirt from the prison and, many years later, deposited them in Genet's tomb in the Larrache Christian Cemetery in Morocco.

The book was written, in large part, when he was 35 years old, being completed until its publication in 1949. Right in the opening pages he wrote in this diary that the simplest reason for becoming a thief was the need to eat. However, he adds that revolt, bitterness, anger or any feeling of that nature never entered his choice. “With maniacal care, “a jealous care”, I prepared my happiness as one prepares a bed, a room for love: I had a hard-on for crime” (p. 15).

Already consecrated, Genet was “marginal” until the end of his days. Living in Morocco, he traveled to Paris with his partner Jacky Maglia to proofread his latest book. His residence in Paris was the Hôtel Rubens, but he was stopped by “an employee on the night shift [who] did not recognize him and felt uncomfortable with his bum appearance” (Smith, 2016, p. 184). Both went out in torrential rain and ended up at the Hôtel Jack, 'at the time a sordid one star near the Place d'Italie'” (Smith, 2016, p. 184). He had terminal throat cancer and avoided taking painkillers to stay sane and complete his book – he who, his whole life, took barbiturates. Death found him in that hotel, in a tiny room, with the manuscript intact on the bedside table (Smith, 2016, p. 184).

Talking to the actress and cultural producer Ruth Escobar during her visit to Brazil in the 1970s, Genet reproached her more than once, adding that “life is a fraud”, while teaching her how to imitate his signature in books he authored. he refused to sign autographs.

This can be read several times with pleasure diary of a thief. I would just add that the copy I have in my hands was bought in a used bookstore and, ironically, bears a stamp that reads “Forbidden Sale”. Long live Saint Genet!

*Afrânio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.


BOURDIEU, Pierre. Outline of self-analysis. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2005 (

GENET, Jean. diary of a thief. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2015 (

SMITH, Patti. M line. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2016 (

SMITH, Patti. Holy disobedience. Folha de S. Paul, 19.08.2019. See here.

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