Sartre in Search of Genet

By Subashini Navaratnam

sartre_saint coverIt seems necessary at the outset of this review to note that Jean-Paul Sartre’s magisterial Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr is a book that resists reviewing. Saint Genet is excessive: it spills over with words, and any commentary that is likely to do it justice will necessarily have to be another book-length endeavour. As such, this review is more of a record of impressions and fragments than an authoritative statement or judgment of it as a “text”. Indeed, to review Saint Genet is to fail from the start, but it’s a kind of failure that produces its own illuminations and insights.

I can’t help but turn to Susan Sontag’s words in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, where she begins an assessment of the same book with these words: “Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” Grotesque and ghastly—Sartre’s work is a monster that will devour the reader’s presence of mind, to be sure. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I began reading Saint Genet while Kanye West’s “Monster” played in the background: much like Nicki Minaj’s persona in the song, Sartre’s implicit announcement to his future reader seems to be “First things first, I’ll eat your brains.”

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