LITERATURE

The Criminal Child: Selected Essays

New York Review. Jan. 2020. 128p. ISBN 9781681373614. pap. $15.95. LIT
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Revolutionary, French poet, and playwright Genet (1910–86) sees the world slant in this new assemblage of essays, which includes the first English translation of the title piece from esteemed translators Mandell and Zuckerman. In this account of the author’s youth in the penitentiary Mettray, commissioned for broadcast by a French radio station, provocateur Genet writes “not in complaint but in exultation,” declaring that “from children’s own passion for evil” the cruelties of incarceration develop. His argument (safeguard rebelliousness in children) demands readers to see that what is acutely reasoned coheres despite his radical storytelling. Genet’s multifaceted and wildly original aesthetic is embodied in associative takes and close reads: He compares a friend’s drawings to the “complex architecture of swamp odors” and keenly observes the anguish fellow poet Jean Cocteau hides in his work for readers to discover. Also enthralling are reflections on the inner void, queer life, disease, and death (“Get up! Go die!”); a lush conversational poem to his tightrope-walker lover; and a zigzag inquiry into sculptor Giacometti’s oeuvre.
VERDICT Essential for followers of Genet, inquisitive general readers, and enthusiasts of 20th-century avant-garde French writing.

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