My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.


[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.


I remember Stephen Fry [who is gay, if that has somehow escaped you] once describing his perfect woman. Amusingly, this imaginary woman bore [almost] entirely male characteristics, like small breasts, short hair etc. Likewise, if I was asked to describe my ideal man he would be pretty and petite, with long hair, long eyelashes, shapely hips; a woman, in short, with a penis. And that penis? Well, if I could get rid of that he would be even better.

There are lots of things about myself that confuse me, that I am unsure of, but my sexuality is not one of them. I have never been in two minds about that. I find that some people, these days, scoff at that idea. There is the expectation that girls and boys [more so girls] will go through a confused phase, usually in their teens. I didn’t. Men, or typical men, have many admirable qualities but their bodies, their sex, have never appealed to me. You might anticipate, then, that there are aspects of the book under review here that cannot speak to me. And, yes, I think that is the case. I would accept that a narrative that prominently features homosexuality and bisexuality, that is, at least partly, about the pain caused by repression, will not resonate with me to the same extent that it might someone who has had similar experiences. However, I would also say that good literature is able to draw you in, to make you believe in, identify with, the most alien [a term I use literally, rather than negatively] ideas or concepts or ways of life.

It may seem like a strange thing to say about a novel that is often described as moving, harrowing, and brave, but, for me, Giovanni’s Room is, more than anything, really very clever. There are lots of stories about young people lost [existentially speaking] in a foreign country, many dealing with the torment of being torn between two lovers, but Baldwin manages to bring a freshness and greater intensity to these subjects, actually ratchets up the sense of tragedy, by having his narrator torn between a man and a woman, which, in its turn, gives extra significance to the fact of his being far from home. There is a suggestion, and it is mentioned in the text, that perhaps David [the central character and narrator] is doing what a lot of people do on holiday, or when away from home, i.e. indulging a part of himself he would not otherwise acknowledge. Giovanni’s Room is, in this way, much like Henry James’ The Ambassadors. In The Ambassadors the errant son, Chad, has a choice to make between returning home and settling down to a comfortable, financially stable life or remaining in Paris to continue his exciting existence there. In Giovanni’s Room the choice is almost identical, except that while in James’ novel it is Paris that represents freedom, and America that represents conventionality, in Baldwin’s novel it is Giovanni and Hella [David’s two lovers] who take on those roles.

I have read elsewhere that Giovanni’s Room upsets or enrages or disappoints many gay people. And I can see why that would be the case, because David is not accepting of who he is [or part of who he is, anyway]. Indeed, he is almost disgusted by it and at various points in his testimony quite viciously lambasts and lampoons certain kinds of homosexuals. Yet had he been comfortable with his inclinations the novel would not be as absorbing as it is, it would be reduced to a question of how does one choose between a man and a woman, between femininity and masculinity, both of which attract you? Now, that might seem like an intriguing question, but David’s situation is more complicated, more interesting, because he knows, one senses, which of the two he wants to be with, which one he loves, but doesn’t know which will be better for him, in the long run. David’s dilemma isn’t about genitals, but about how he sees himself, who he can picture himself as being. He can’t, much of the time, see himself, accept himself, as someone who will be, openly and happily, in a relationship with a man. Crucially, it is not pressure from outside, from friends and family, which makes him shy away from committing to Giovanni, but pressure from within himself. I found that fascinating.

In terms of Baldwin’s prose, it has the Hemmingway-like quality that so often characterises American literature, while being, at times, also lyrical. As one would expect of this kind of thing there are some nice insights and snappy lines and aphorisms. There are, too, one or two memorable scenes, my favourite being David’s first homosexual experience. What is so impressive about this scene is that it perfectly captures the fear, the nervousness, the tension involved in early sexual experiences, and simultaneously manages to be erotic; it struck me this way despite me not being able to directly relate to the situation of being with someone of the same sex for the first time. However, while I loved the opening of the novel – including this scene, David’s subsequent rejection of the boy, and his relationship with his father – I feel that it sets a standard that is not maintained; the book remains enjoyable and engrossing, as I outlined previously, but it does not, for me, fulfil the promise of its first third.

Before explaining why Giovanni’s Room falls down somewhat, why it cannot be called a consistently great novel, I ought to point out, because it is a criticism levelled at the book, that there is a great deal of bombast and melodrama in it. Yet I don’t, myself, find that too much of an issue; I am, largely, ok with melodrama. I mean, sure, there are times when I have been reading Balzac and I’ve got very tired of characters bursting into tears and wringing their hands every two pages, but it has never bothered me to the extent that it appears to do with some readers. Yes, Giovanni’s Room is ridiculous, is overwrought, but novels, in my opinion, are meant to, at least some of the time, deal with higher [or extreme] emotions, with the stuff that makes us cringe. Besides, people, from my experience anyway, are melodramatic, especially when things go wrong or they find themselves in a tight or tough situation.

My biggest criticism of the book, its most fatal flaw, is that I found Giovanni insufferable. I’m not entirely sure why that is, why he aggravated me so much. I guess I couldn’t understand David’s attachment to him. He is described as beautiful, certainly, and we’re all suckers for a beautiful face, but we’re meant to believe that the bond between the two men runs deeper than lust; and yet Giovanni comes across as pretentious and pettish and infantile. I dreaded him opening his mouth, although thankfully he doesn’t do so very often. Furthermore, I didn’t understand his character, I could not get a handle on his reactions, his motivations. This is in contrast to David, regardless of how unsympathetic many find him, and Jacques, both of whom are psychologically sound. Giovanni, despite being so central to the story, feels entirely one-dimensional. Indeed, while David claims to find queenish, theatrical gay people distasteful, it’s odd that he falls for the one character in the book who is closest to that description.