Julien Green

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Green, Julien (Vol. 3)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2750

Green, Julien 1900–

Green, a French Catholic novelist, was born in France of American parents. Although he retains American citizenship, he has lived most of his life in France. His best known novel, Moïra, exhibits his continuing obsession with puritanism and evil. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

No doubt Green's American origin put the full range of English and American literature within his easy grasp. The sinister, lonely country house or castle plunged in darkness, haunted by mysterious characters whose secrets the hero or victim must sooner or later discover in an atmosphere of terror, is a recurring décor in Julien Green's early novels…. The sequestration of the hero or heroine, helplessly abandoned to sadistic torments—a prevalent source of dramatic emotion in the "gothic" novel—is a recurrent situation which Green exploits with all its accompanying themes. The closed world in which the characters live is fraught with horror, peopled by villainous figures, its heroes haunted by veiled or direct threats, plunged in darkness and promised to disaster. The plots are violent and simple…. But the plots matter little in themselves, and after his first experiments in novel-writing, Green makes no effort to give his story any appearance of verisimilitude. He uses the melodramatic elements in his tale to build a nightmare of increasing tension and terror—a nightmare for the reader, but for the characters who are part of this nightmare, a terrible reality…. Green uses the techniques of the thriller and, as he freely admits, plays on the ambiguous psychology of a childish fascination with terror—his own terror and ours.

Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (copyright © 1957 by Rutgers, The State University), Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1957, pp. 101-05.

Technical devices, farfetched reversals of chronology and surprise effects, interior monologues, author's invocations to his characters in the second person singular, ingenuously ingenious contrivances calculated to upset the reader's expectations are disarmingly absent from Green's classical, almost Victorian, novels….

The French … have been cool to Julien Green. The homage which he paid their language and their literature by choosing French as his medium touched them less than the weirdness of his dream world, which they dubbed at once 'Anglo-Saxon.'… Julien Green, it is true, has chosen to be a solitary writer, and not to parade his nonconformism as Cocteau or Montherlant has gained publicity in doing. He was, from his most tender years onward, the dweller of a private universe of his own, in which he alternately delighted and felt stifled…. He was convinced that, much like Rilke and Kafka, he had to write fiction or to perish, like many of his characters, from insanity or suicide….

The originality of Julien Green lies in his total disregard of literary trends and fashions and in his aloofness from all groups, theories, and schools. He is one of the most cultured of contemporary novelists, at home in the world of painting and of music, in love with English and French poetry, a student of religion. His Journal may well some day rank above that of Gide for its psychological penetration, for its spiritual profundity, and for the incisiveness of literary opinions modestly offered on writers of the past and, more discreetly and never in a spirit of slander or cant, on contemporary writers….

Julien Green ranks among the dozen French novelists of the years 1930–60 who have succeeded in creating and in imposing their own universe. Like Mauriac, he has imprisoned himself in narrow precincts, geographic, social, and psychological. Frightened and...

(This entire section contains 2750 words.)

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persecuted little girls, atrocious middle-aged women, young men whose charm recalls the handsomest and most mysterious noblemen of Bronzino, but who are desperately searching for the key to their own torn selves in the ghosts which elude them, older men whose gradual detachment from the flesh brings them closer to a mystical communion with mysteries: these are Green's favorite characters. Many of them are secretive, wily, wickedly sadistic. Nevertheless Green's sense of humanity is not relentlessly dragged in the mud as in Céline or derided as it is by the ferocious Voltairian sarcasm of Marcel Aymé….

Green's fiction oscillates between an impossible love, often ashamed of itself, and fear and death. Many other novelists in our age … have proved deeper explorers of love. Death … loved mystically as the ultimate and only solution to the vicissitudes of desire and remorse, and often sought half amorously by the many characters in Green who see no exit to their anguish but self-slaughter, is omnipresent in his fictional universe. But even more ubiquitous is the emotion of fear. Green is among the moderns the supreme master of dread…. Greenian heroes are incessantly pursued by their anguish, ready to flee from a dismal absence of love, but ever the captives of their nightmares…. The monotony of [Green's] vision and the weirdness of his universe have palled upon some critics, as has the lack of éclat and of lyricism in his style. Others, among them Father Blanchet, hail his work as 'one of the most original and most profound series of novels of our age…. He is perhaps the one who will longest command attention.'

Henri Peyre, in his French Novelists of Today (copyright © 1955, 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 195-208.

To Leave Before Dawn ("Partir avant le jour," 1963), the first volume of [Green's] memoirs,… retraces the first seventeen years of his own spiritual journey…. Painfully torn between sensuality and spirituality, usually estranged from all or part of his environment, he would not admit the claims of the daily world and human nature. Not surprisingly, his attempts to suppress them made him all the more their prey…. Here he shows the beginnings of his rapture with the unseen, his distrust of the seen and suggests why it is understandable, if not inevitable, that his quest has moved between the guilty pleasure of the ashamed homosexual and confident ecstasy of the sensual mystic.

His autobiography reads like a touching confession novel. Not rigidly chronological, Green revives his memories as they impinge upon him….

Of course, Green is hardly unique in being torn between flesh and spirit: this fate common to Judeo-Christian men gives Green community with his readers. But certain atypical features of his life encouraged the nearly metaphysical estrangement in his works. First of all, expatriation. He grew up in a transplanted Savannah household; in Paris his loyal Confederate parents maintained the traditions of the early post-Reconstruction era. Green has never had a fatherland; France is not his country, and his America ceased to exist before he was born. Second, his bilingualism. He was the only confirmed French-speaking member of an English-speaking household. In a sense, whether at home or at school, in France or the United States, he has never met anyone who speaks his language. Third, his female rearing. With his older brother in the United States, with his father's work with the Southern Cotton Oil Company and the American Chamber of Commerce keeping him away from home and frequently out of Paris, Green grew up in the heady feminine world of five affectionate older sisters, doting maids, and a passionately adoring mother, all of whom alternately ignored and indulged him. (Women, he once said to this writer, belong to a different race.) In his case, this matriarchy failed to complement the exclusively boys' world of the French school system. He had very few friends. He apparently was acquainted with only one little girl. Ignorant of the facts of life, which his family expected him to pick up at school and which his classmates assumed that he would have learned outside the lycée, he maintained effortlessly the naïveté which drew predatory adolescents to him. This unwholesome attention was the first indication of the fourth cause of his estrangement: homosexuality. Green did not identify his sex until he was a student at the University of Virginia in the early nineteen-twenties and read Havelock Ellis. Then, rather reluctantly, he chose to live on the margin of so-called normal society. Finally, his affective mysticism and religiosity. They have led him to live to one side of the tolerant artistic milieus open to him. He has been beset by the delirium of mystical exaltation and the rage of puritanical fanaticism, both making the outside world intermittently unreal, at best contaminated. Like the pilgrims in the book of Hebrews, he has always been unwilling to go back from where he had come….

His adolescence, actually, was far from over as demonstrate the next two volumes of his memoirs, still untranslated. Mille Chemins ouverts (1964) takes him through World War I and the Occupation and ends as he catches sight of America from the Red Cross repatriation ship. Terre lointaine (1966), which takes place chiefly at the University of Virginia, relates his attempts to feel at home in his legal homeland. These college years confirmed his latent homosexuality, but the physical commitment was not to come until he returned to Paris. His commitment, obviously, precluded his vocation.

As his subsequent novels and plays and his eight-volume diary, perhaps his masterpiece, make clear, these decisions brought him little peace. Neither did his abandonment of the Church in the late twenties and early thirties nor his reconversion in 1939 resolve his turmoil. Only age could quiet his conflicts. Through writing he sublimated them, and his dilemmas became object lessons for others. Although he has taken part in the outside world when called—as teacher, soldier, lecturer, broadcaster—he has preferred a secular retreat. His perspective of the sympathetic observer, the never-to-be reconciled sinner, has developed his wisdom and authenticated his advice. He would not live for the visible world, and at last it seems as if a life which nurtured, even exacerbated, estrangement, has brought him close to a better country. Probably his journey which began before dawn is nearing its destination.

Marilyn Rose, "Julian Green: Setting Out," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1968, pp. 88-92.

The year 1971 marked a signal moment in the long literary career of the French-born American novelist, Julien Green, when he became the first foreigner elected to the Académie Française. The same year also marked the publication of his latest novel, L'autre, which embodies many of the themes that have haunted Green's works over the decades. Green, who converted to Catholicism at the age of sixteen, then had a long bout with agnosticism before returning to the Church, has always been obsessed by questions of religious faith and spiritualism, mysticism and hallucination, and the claims of the flesh versus the yearnings of the soul. His characters are often racked by sensual torments and temptations, suffer the pangs of social humiliation, and through a fruitless love affair experience the intolerable void of existence.

Gretchen R. Besser, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1972, pp. 260-61.

Julian Green … is the only American—indeed, the only foreigner—to have been elected to the French Academy. In his lifetime he has achieved the almost equally rare distinction of publication of his collected works in that exclusive series of classic authors, La Pléïade. All his novels have been written in French, though he is an American …, and he is as French—and as Catholic—as, say, François Mauriac.

The Other One (L'Autre) is his first work in 10 years; and the hiatus, it shows, has not impaired his considerable gifts, loss though it has been to those who hunger after the art of fiction and come upon it increasingly rarely as the novel is deformed and degraded by those who profess to be its practitioners. Literature, it has been said, is inseparable from the problem of moral choices, and in fact these have always been important in Green's fiction. The Other One is a novel of nothing else; and Green makes it clear that the crisis of conscience can be at least as dramatic and traumatic as, say, buttered buggery….

Green has always had an enviable, virile style and the elegance natural to writers who have had a classical education…. Conversations are always supremely right in Green's French; I had never before read him in translation and at times I thought it must be Angela Thirkell.

Julian Green does not deserve that. His is the inner world of that other American Southerner, William Faulkner. The search for grace (one does not have to be a Catholic or an adherent of any faith to understand it) pervades the lives of this novel's protagonists….

The Other One, in spite of its translation, is to be read by all who are troubled by the human condition. If they read it in French, so much the better.

Charles Lam Markmann, "A Statement of Grace," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 27, 1973, pp. 8-9.

In the 1930's, an American reviewer complained that [Julien] Green's characters never read the newspapers. I haven't the heart to pursue this complaint—though the two young lovers in his 12th novel ["The Other One"] boast of not reading the newspapers even on the eve of World War II—when the poor creatures are being mercilessly pursued by so much else. Most Green readers, if they are gentle, soon come to forgive his characters their besetting sin of uncontemporariness. Living in "Greenland" takes all the energies happier characters in other peoples' novels might lavish on the issues of the day.

Life for [Julien] Green's creations is truly Hell, Hell medieval-style, where the flesh alternates between burning and crawling and the soul is never requited by the here-and-now. Real wars, even on a global scale, do perhaps take on a slightly removed quality when you realize that your creator has turned you into the deadliest battlefield of all, upon which your flesh wages war against your spirit till one kills the other….

Green has told us in his journals (eight volumes have so far been published in French, the language in which he chooses to write all his works) that if he did not put his madness in his books it might become his life. His novels are regarded highly in his adopted country which recently elected him the first foreign member of the French Academy. His personal history, elucidated in three volumes of autobiography, is eerily, morbidly interesting….

Since the age of 28 he has kept a faithful record of his peculiar personal trinity of torments: the creative, spiritual and sensual forces inside him that refuse to make friends with one another. He has professed his hatred for the sexual instinct again and again. He believes that if you drag a writer away from his sin he no longer writes. He specifies that his own greatest sin will have been "not to accept the human condition."

Gail Godwin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1973, p. 5.

I recall reading, very slowly, some years after the war, Julien Green's early novel Mont-Cinère, in the original French. It was a gloomy story, told with style. A few glances at extracts from his Journal was all that followed. Reading now, in English translation, his 1971 novel L'Autre therefore presented various problems. But none so great as the pace of the book. Times have changed, and whether we like, or notice, it or not, we change with them. But the pace of Mr. Green's writing has not changed. The book is so slow it makes reading in the year 1973 almost impossible. The writing is crammed with the recording of small details which, as far as I could see, remain irrelevant. Life, maybe; but art? No. The book is also quite extraordinarily devoid of humour. Laughter (people laughing) is recorded, but nowhere does laughter ring. It is literary laughter in a hyper-literary book.

The prose, too, seems all but mummified. Now, this will be attributed by many to the translation…. Reviewers, however, should think twice before blaming translators….

French is least like English when it waxes literary and philosophical. The difficulty lay, I suspect, in the original text. There are some foreign styles one cannot translate into readable English without changing them and therefore failing to reproduce the original with reasonable faithfulness. And this problem is at its most acute when the author whose work has to be translated is celebrated—celebrated often for his style.

James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, p. 78.


Green, Julien (Vol. 11)