By Jean-Marc Beausoleil
Reading exerts a particular type of charm on prisoners: it offers them a unique window on the world. We can even say that the prison experience has shaped Western thought, if you reflect on all the great thinkers and authors who spent some time behind bars: Lahontan, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Sade, Céline, Mailer, Bukowski, Limonov, Gutierrez…
This very important relationship between writing and incarceration has given rise to a particular literary genre: prison literature. Most books in this genre are written by, or are about, prisoners. There have been innumerable books written by prisoners. The famous Au bagne, the 1923 report on the state of French forced labor penal colonies by journalist Albert Londres, shook French society to its core. De Tocqueville, Dumas and Henri-Lévy count among those who have written about prisons. In Québec, think of Pierre Falardeau’s great 1990 film The Party (Le Party). Here are some other noted examples:
A “master of immersion,” the American journalist Ted Conover is an expert in going undercover to get a story. No surprise, then, that he became a prison guard for a year at the notorious Sing Sing prison near New York just to write a book about his experiences. The result was 2001’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. “No one considers prison guards to be human beings,” he writes.
Piper Kerman’s book about prison recounts the adventures of a young woman battling the grind of prison thanks to a youthful error. Her book, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison will raise the hair on your neck. It spawned a popular Netflix series.
Rachel Kushner’s success The Mars Room contains this nugget of prison wisdom: “Remain sane, that’s the basic thing. And to remain sane, you have to forge an image of yourself that you can believe in.”
Obviously, the philosopher Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish is a landmark reflection of life in jail and its effects on society in general. According to Foucault, we’ve all integrated into our lives a sort of police officer and a doctor who watch over us and guide our conduct a little too often, a “societal superego.”
An Object of Fascination
The links between literature and crime go back as far as the Middle Ages, with the 1400s rebel poet François de Villon, who wrote La ballade des pendus à l’ombre de la potence (The Ballad of the Hanged in the Shadow of the Gallows). It begins: “Human brothers who live after us, / Do not have your hearts hardened against us…” We can also go as far back as the first century A.D. to find The Satyricon by Petronius, a work of fiction about the marginalized of Roman society.
These days, stories about criminals and bandits abound, especially in American cinema, where films about the Italian Mafia feed the imaginations of screenwriters. Godfathers inspire films, which in turn inspire godfathers. Bugsy Siegel, a famous mobster of the 30s and 40s, himself tried out for a part in a feature film but was turned down.
According to historian Antoine Lilti, literature and criminality have progressed hand-in-hand since the French Revolution.
Basically, the evolution of the novel and the biography as literary genres in the 18th century, parallel with dance and theatre, marked the birth of public opinion, giving people a subject around which they could share opinions. Stories about crime would feed the revolutionary flame and give courage to those who, through civil disobedience, would go on to establish modern democracies.
From Criminal to Hero
As well as biographies of famous people like great actors, the nascent public thirsted for tales of scoundrels and criminals. In Figures Publiques, published by Éditions Fayard in 2014, Lilti gave the example of Cartouche, arrested and executed in 1721 by the Paris police. Having escaped custody between his trial and his execution, he was recaptured by his jailers.
Writes Lilti: “The interest that Cartouche inspired had a lot to do with the actions of the police authorities, and their efforts to construct a totally negative image, that of a dangerous crime boss, a master of organized crime. The people of Paris seemed to react by going in the opposite direction, by inventing a positive image of a generous and courageous outlaw, redistributing the wealth of the rich and foiling the police.”
In Germany, portraits of Cartouche were printed up. Plays recounting his life did the rounds throughout Europe. Even when presented as an unscrupulous bad guy, he aroused interest, inasmuch as people got the impression they were in touch with a subject that was on everyone’s lips.
These days prison stories still captivate Québec audiences. Take the popular TV series Unité 9, for example. In a violent world rife with injustice and inequality, the fate of societal rejects still captivates audiences, eliciting reverie, sympathy or horror.
Cartouche was all the rage. His popularity fed on itself. He was at the heart of a new media phenomenon that was just getting going: the show society. This is the root of what would later give a movie like Natural Born Killers its allure, or more worrisome, Luka Magnotta when he dismembered his victim and filmed it for the Internet in 2012.
In the final analysis, is there any better place to read than in the shadows? Find a little light in the pages of a good book in order to escape your own prison.