To Catch a Thief

Thievery, homosexuality and treachery -- in a new biography the unruly life of Jean Genet gets a sober, subtle accounting

Jean Genet could be hard on his public. "I don't have readers," he once lamented, "but thousands of voyeurs." He might have added that it was he who raised the blinds and staged the spectacle -- a rabbity-looking thief rhapsodizing about transvestites and jailyard toughs. Not even the revered felons of French literary tradition, the poetes maudits from Villon to Rimbaud, had been so devoted to the triumvirate of personal virtues -- thievery, homosexuality and betrayal -- in Genet's great novels. First the French, then the world, couldn't tear their eyes away.

Edmund White's Genet: A Biography (Knopf; 728 pages; $35)...

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