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.
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...
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