To begin with, the tale of Our Lady of the Flowers lulls present time, for the very words the murderer uses are the magic words that equally handsome hoodlums spat out like so many stars, like those extraordinary hoodlums who pronounce the word “dollar” with the right accent. But what is to be said of one of the strangest of poetic phenomena: that the whole world – and the most terribly dismal part of it, the blackest, most charred, dry to the point of Jansenism, the severe, naked world of factory workers – is entwined with marvels, the popular songs lost in the wind, by profoundly rich voices, gilded and set with diamonds, spangled or silky; and these songs have phrases which I cannot think of without shame if I know they are sung by the grave mouths of workers which utter such words as: succumb … tenderness … ravishing … garden of roses … cottage … marble steps … sweethearts … dear … love … jewels … crown … oh my queen … dear stranger … gilded room … lovely lady … flowered basket … treasure of flesh … golden waning … my heart adores you … laden with flowers … colour of the evening … exquisite and pink … in short, those fiercely luxurious words, words which must slash their flesh like a ruby-crested dagger.
There is no point in going into the details of her arrest. A simple policeman was enough to throw her into a state of terror worthy of a condemned man, the kind of terror every man has been through, just as every man has also known in his life the exaltation of a royal coronation.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Panther, 1966, pages 192–194.
Popular songs, operatic intensity of emotion and aesthetics, veneration of the common man and ignoble lives, but this time it’s not Terence Davies but Jean Genet‘s first novel, first published in 1943, two years before Davies was born. You could say Genet was patronising the working class unforgiveably, if he hadn’t been a delinquent orphan queer petty criminal writing in prison.
You could say, that would be a good first paragraph. Seduce the reader with poetry. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the story soon. But the memory of this indulgence will be like MSG for the rest of the text. Instead, he gives us this:
Weidmann appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded pilot fallen into the rye one September day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of the Flowers. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.
A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress.
A little later, the soldier Maurice Pilorge killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs, then, for his twentieth birthday, they cut off his head while, you will recall, he thumbed his nose at the enraged executioner.
Finally, a young ensign, still a child, committed treason for treason’s sake: he was shot. And it is in honour of their crimes that I am writing my book.
But what about the victims, Jean? What about their families? What about the children? Aren’t you glorifying crime? Do you really think you should? Yes, this is not going to be a nice book.
By the way, Weidmann was the last person to be publicly executed in France. It was in 1939, and was watched by Christopher Lee, who was 17.