“Notre Dame De Fleur” (“Our Lady of the Flowers”) is a feat of a novel in many ways, through the ways that it tackles various “problems” and reverses them to make them something beneficial.

It is this which makes it one of the most distinctive novels ever written.

Of course, attempts to write an introduction to “Notre Dame De Fleur” are extremely difficult considering the strength of Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic introduction to the text.
Few introductions to any book can ever be described as “classics”, but Sartre’s is so. (Let's not forget, it was Sartre who discovered Genet, labelled him ‘Saint Genet’ and bought him to the wider world. For the French, a stamp of approval from Sartre still appears to be of a great deal of significance – so much so that the ‘Saint Genet’ label appears to have stuck.)
Sartre’s own thought can, to a point, be applied to “Notre Dame De Fleur.” The core theme of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” is the distinction between en-soi, being-in-itself, and pour-soi, being-for-itself.

En-soi is conscious of its own consciousness, but in its concrete nature its inability to change itself is somewhat incomplete. En-soi here, then, defines human beings as a species. Pour-soi is a different matter as it has to create itself from nothingness, lacking as it does the pre-determined essence of en-soi. En-soi’s role in defining humans as a species is difficult to challenge, but to a point Genet does so. Gender, being fixed, could easily be seen as part of en-soi. But Genet’s protagonist Divine starts life as a young boy before he seamlessly changes from writing “he” to “she”, somewhat like Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, and also in a style that owes something to the creation of the hermaphrodite in Ovid’s “Metamorpheses.” But, unlike these, it is unlikely that Divine has actually turned into a woman and more likely that she is transgender.

But the key is that the characters are Genet’s creations, fully acknowledged within the text as fictional, and he can do with them as he pleases. Joseph Campbells “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” has never seemed so relevant as in Notre Dame de Fleur. Campbell’s argument starts with the basis that an everyday individual reading a book is going on some kind of journey through the hero. This may seem like mere “being lost in a book”, but for Campbell this concludes with being aware of the unity at the centre of the self. By following the path of his characters creation, Genet makes us acutely aware of the self, in a way few other twentieth century texts have achieved.

Amy Britton