REVIEW: Querelle by Jean Genet

Set in the midst of the port town of Brest, where sailors and the sea are associated with murder, Georges Querelle, is a bisexual thief, prostitute, and serial killer who manipulates and kills his lovers for thrills and profit.

Warnings: Violence, Internalized homophobia, Usage of homophobic slurs

Category: M/M, M/F

Querelle, or Querelle of Brest is one of the classics of queer literature. Originally published anonymously in 1947, and then translated into English from its original French in 1974, this work is a love letter to men and male sexuality, and a beautifully written account of male queerness in the 40s.

The writing in Querelle is some of the most poetic and sensual that I have ever read. It is full of incredibly luscious prose that meanders through thoughtful moments and concepts, exploring ways of being and thinking for each of the characters. It isn’t hugely plot driven, more concerned with thoughts and yearning and contemplation than it is on events. It follows Querelle, a drug dealer who kills his lovers, and the events of a few weeks in the seaport town of Brest, as well as a handful of other characters in Brest. Mostly it is about relationships and crimes, both of passion and per-meditated, and how these events and experiences shape the characters and their senses of self and identity.

As this is a very character-centric story, the character exploration being the main thrust of the narrative, this is an incredibly emotionally complex piece of writing. Its primary concept is in exploring the masculinity and masculine identities of its characters, and it is a fascinating exploration, especially as it explores queer men and how they see themselves and each other, and how wrapped up that is in their male identities and how it expresses itself. However, that does come with a whole host of baggage, and at times it gives us a very forcibly toxic version of masculine posturing, not to mention internalized homophobia.


There is a lot of interesting exploration of sailing culture in France in the 40s, with a lot of side characters that flesh out its world. Various sub-cultures from police culture, to brothels, masonry and more, and a lot of it is very mired in the time period of the time this was written. Reading Querelle from a modern day perspective makes it at times a very problematic piece of writing, but it is very inherently tied to its era and to its cultural setting, so really engaging with the setting is essential to appreciating the ways in which the characters interact.

This book features incredibly sensual prose, some of the most interesting depictions of yearning and longing I have ever read. Men’s bodies are constantly described in the most obsessive of ways, the prose lingering on various aspects of masculine expression and anatomy. This results in the most fascinating of sexual desire in prose form, despite the fact that there’s actually not a whole lot of on-screen sex. And beyond that, there is a huge emphasis on the ways that violence and sexuality interact in these characters, from murder to domination and the intimacy inherent in various forms of violence. I’ve seldom read anything so sensual, nor anything that applies the desirous gaze on masculinity and maleness to such staggering degrees. When there is sex, it is crass and brief, but the entire bulk of the story’s prose is made up with infatuation and sexual pining.

This is one of the most hauntingly erotic works I’ve ever read. Despite its dated and often problematic attitudes, it is a fascinating delve into 1940s sexuality and gender concepts, with a heavy helping of sensuality and power exchange. I adored it, and only wish I could find a copy that included the original illustrations.

Have you read Querelle? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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