God's Fool

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1487

It is with no small amount of irony that the 1980’s, a decade many already consider unparalleled for its acquisitiveness, should inspire Julien Green, the distinguished but underappreciated writer of fiction, to produce a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. The best-seller status it achieved when it first appeared in 1983 with the title Frère François in neo-Socialist France is only slightly less curious. Even so, irony and curiosity have always attended Green’s career: He is an American writer many Americans have barely heard of, let alone have read; he is an expatriate who writes in French but who retains both his United States citizenship and a great love of the English language; he is the first American ever elected to the Académie Française. His past experience of artistic success and commercial failure must make the widespread acclaim received by this work of his old age seem ironic and bittersweet.

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One argument for the relatively poor circulation of Green’s works in English translation is that his fellow Catholic convert and almost namesake Graham Greene covers much of the same literary territory. Both deal with the difficulty of faith and the darker side of self. Both seem convinced that potential for greatest saint or greatest sinner exists in every individual. Yet, the comparisons between Green and Greene, which extend beyond themes to affinity for France, are mostly incidental and another link in the chain of curiosities noted above, for Julien Green has never considered himself “a Catholic writer,” nor a Graham Greene, nor a Bernanos, nor a François Mauriac. His earliest works, such as Léviathan (1929; The Dark Journey, 1929), Le Voyageur sur la terre (1930; Christine, and Other Stories, 1930), and Minuit (1936; Midnight, 1936), have an Existentialist tone, and though admired by Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain for his “mysticism,” Green himself admires André Gide.

Green suppresses this existential bleakness in God’s Fool in favor of the visionary, though he never abandons it. His Francis is convinced, even when virtually disowned for irresponsibility and extravagance by his father, Pietro, even when imprisoned and starved by the Perugians, even when a leader of the Bacchic tripudianti, that he is destined for some noble undertaking. Perhaps it is this sense of the indomitable human spirit that most distinguishes God’s Fool from Green’s other works. Umbrian sun always seems to break through the Gallic clouds.

Indeed, Green makes consistent, sometimes factually tentative connections between the Italian saint and France. He portrays Pietro as an irrepressible Francophile, who renames his baptized son Francesco (“the little Frenchman”) and who cultivates in the boy a cosmopolitan style then unknown in provincial Assisi. Green’s Francis is a walking advertisement for French elegance. This elegance is merely superficial, as Francis discovers, but Green almost relentlessly employs French imagery as emblematic of Francis’ secular life. He imagines, for example, that Francis made regular trips north to buy fine French materials for his father’s shop. When young Francis decides to pursue a career as knight to gain acceptance among the nobility, he gives his allegiance to Gautier de Brienne. Francis’ mother, Giovanna, or Pica as she is called, represents the element of native Italian simplicity, which contrasts with the French veneer of Pietro. She had baptized her son Giovanni in Pietro’s absence. In truth, the boy is hers in name and values, though Pietro changes the former and almost successfully corrupts the latter.

By now, anyone who has read Green’s other works will recognize that his Francis is simultaneously the historical figure, the fictive protagonists of most of Green’s works, and the author’s self-portrait. Green’s choice of Francis is, therefore, not at all fortuitous, fortunate though it is. Though much material exists concerning Francis’ life, it is mystical and mythic rather than scholarly. This allows Green the same luxury enjoyed by the Greek tragedians: to give whatever dramatic form he chooses to the already existing outline. Quoting from the vignettes of Thomas of Celano, Green produces an effect somewhat like that achieved in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983), placing historical personages in actual settings and constructing undocumented details that could logically follow from what is known. For example, young Francis was worldly; farandoles were wild street dances current in twelfth century Italy. Did Francis participate in these? Was he a part of the orgiastic lovemaking that followed? Thomas had to be circumspect in such matters; after all, he had been commissioned by Pope Gregory IX to write an official life of a newly canonized saint. Green does not have to be so cautious, and indeed he is not. For him, great depravity foreshadows even greater sainthood. His Francis simply realizes to the fullest extent the possibilities that exist in every human being.

Green uses a similar paradigm in much of his fiction. Unusual, mystical, often-otherworldly children predominate among his protagonists (the little girl of Midnight, the young man of Si j’étais vous); they often have an overbearing parent, relative, or guardian who hastens them toward an inner life. In God’s Fool, Green fits Pietro into this role and thereby creates a father for Francis who is a welter of contradictions as well as a caricature. For example, the elder Bernardone begrudges his son pocket money, yet he provides elaborate armor for his son to pursue his career as a knight—this for a young man so weakened by tuberculosis that he can barely stand the armor’s weight, let alone the strain of combat. When Francis meekly returns to Assisi, having gone no farther than Spoleto because of his recurring illness, Giovanni thrashes him soundly for apparent cowardice (and because he sold the suit of armor) and locks him in a closet. Giovanna, however, has the key, thoughtfully provided by Pietro, so Francis does not remain there long.

Clearly, this Francis is another protagonist with whom his creator identifies. Green’s upbringing was similarly privileged, extravagant, and repressive. Though his parents were from Virginia, Green never saw the United States until he became a student at the University of Virginia in 1919. He spoke and read French before he learned English, and although his earliest education was received at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris, he was always a solitary child and had few friends his own age. He was reared with almost Puritanical strictness, has never married, and throughout his life has been haunted by what he calls “impossible” sexuality. Indeed, his works repeatedly, though unsensationally, argue the failure of homosexual love: L’Autre Sommeil (1931), Le Malfaiteur (1955; The Transgressor, 1957), Sud (1953; South, 1955). The “demon” is always present, however, and the pure soul wages daily battle to keep its purity.

As one might expect, psychological themes and mythic symbols figure prominently in God’s Fool. Green incorporates these seamlessly and, it would appear, instinctively. He has had no formal training in psychology and has intentionally refrained from extensive reading in the discipline. Even so, his Francis repeatedly makes new self-discoveries and reaches increasing degrees of spirituality when isolated, enclosed, imprisoned, or entrapped. Francis seems almost to relish these experiences for the insight they provide. He seems never happier than when alone or even when ill, never more meditative or melancholy than when with his contemporaries. In the midst of a revel, when his friends are about to pursue lovemaking, Francis abstractedly declares that he will become a king and wed the most beautiful woman of all. When the town’s simpleton lays his cloak before Francis and hails him as king, Francis sees it as God’s acting through a wise fool to prophesy his calling. Green’s Francis retains the naïve simplicity of a child, Green’s Franciscans the childlike assurance of favorite sons. Ecstatic visions replace the wild street dancing of his youth, and Francis becomes the “Pietro” of his own impractical and often exuberant flock.

Pietro had singled out Francis as his favorite son and was never so delighted as when the young man affected the French elegance the father himself could never quite achieve. In the same way, Francis is pleased when his follower John the Simple imitates Francis’ every action. As Francis had done years earlier, John gives his share of the family inheritance to the poor. Francis had copied the style and dress of Pietro; John imitates Francis’ gestures and manner of prayer.

Though Francis’ life was lived in vast and epic terms, Green typically limits his conception to Francis’ immediate family. He barely mentions Angelo, a younger brother. Pietro and Giovanna have an almost Manichaean influence on their son, the former pulling him toward the sensual, the latter toward the spiritual. Francis will later warn his companions that, even when mastered, the body is the enemy and its lusts are always there. For this reason, the body must be mortified. One can almost hear Green’s own voice in his protagonist’s words.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

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The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 29, 1985, p. 14.

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