Julien Green

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Green, Julien 1900–

Green, a French novelist and playwright, has also published his journals and diaries. Born in France of American parents, Green resides in France while retaining his American citizenship. His works reflect his metaphysical struggle with the questions of evil, alienation, and mortality which confront contemporary man. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Wallace Fowlie

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[Julien Green's Sud represents] one of the few really successful attempts in recent years at creating the pure tone of tragedy: all the ambiguities of the characters; the richness of their inner life which is communicated; the vigor, simplicity, and directness of the writing. (pp. 191-92)

The play is a tragedy on the theme of homosexuality, but it is also on a far more universal subject, and the public might well fail to recognize the immediate subject. Ian suddenly and hopelessly falls in love with Eric on meeting him, but he never confesses his love. The beauty and power of the play are precisely in this silence of Ian. It is quite possible that Ian had not been aware, or fully aware, of his nature. His meeting with Eric is a moment of illumination. (p. 192)

In his dramaturgy, as in his novels, [Julien Green] passes easily from the real world to the surreal world. A supernaturally evil atmosphere surrounds many of the scenes, and yet there is intense drama in the effort of the characters to resist their fate. Especially in Sud, Julien Green calls attention to one of the most tragic aspects of physical love in the modern world. The human problem is never described or analyzed, and yet it is seen in its religious context. For Ian, love is forbidden in that irremediable way that the French associate with the tragedies of Racine. (p. 194)

Wallace Fowlie, "Green," in his Dionysus in Paris: A Guide to Contemporary French Theater (copyright © 1960 by Wallace Fowlie; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc.), Meridian Books, 1960, pp. 191-94.

Nicholas Kostis

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Julien Green's novels aim and unfold towards sign, which becomes identifiable as symbol. I do not wish to imply that Green is a Symbolist novelist in the same formal or historical sense as the nineteenth-century Symbolists. I do maintain that his particular style, his manner of creating a world, his process of characterization, and his own relationship to his books lead to the creation of an extremely private, perhaps hermetic work of art, which, while it has the conventional form and characteristics of a novel, is nonetheless a system of signs which represent forces and states of mind that one feels are directly affecting, even torturing the author.

On the surface, the reader meets in Green's novels what one might reasonably call characters. They are recognizable as human beings. There is a strong evocation of the three-dimensional material world; there is conventional dialogue; intensely visual descriptive passages; and the elements of psychology in characterization. On the formal level there is also a highly refined and conscious structure and style. But all this representative and recognizable reality, all these conventions, all this ordinary experience are given, through repetition and juxtaposition, 'meta-meaning', that is, meaning behind and beyond the definition and value of their phenomenal presence, a secret sense in which human figures, gestures, shadows, objects, emotions, and characteristics, in which rooms and atmosphere, all translate, like hieroglyphs, the unspecified pressures at work within the author. More simply, the symbolism I speak of is that quality of suggestiveness found in all serious novels but here carried much farther. Green evokes certain experiences and works them into a highly personal system of associations, which grow more and...

(This entire section contains 1568 words.)

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more rigidly defined, specific, and predictable as they recur obsessively and relentlessly. At a certain point, the phenomenon—whether it be a human being or a stream of light—becomes so strongly sign that it loses its autonomy as phenomenon. It is because this suggestiveness is so formal and dominant that I call it by a different term:symbolism. Thus all of Green's work becomes uncommonly symbolic. This is the most remarkable aspect, I think, of Green's novels taken as a whole, and consequently it lies at the heart of his vision. (p. 11)

One observes no attempt [in Green's work], stylistically or otherwise, to crystalize a past or independent reality (except in the grossest sense that all artistic creation springs partly from the sum total of a novelist's experience). Rather, each situation, image, description, stylistic fact is assigned a specific value or role as the novel progresses, until the novel becomes a highly complex and self-contained system of signs which have little value or meaning in themselves but which, as they are repeated over and over in innumerable combinations, become the author's private set of hieroglyphs and ritual symbols….

[These] symbols do not exist to evoke a world or a concrete vision of ordinary experience of reality. Rather, the concrete world exists to provide symbols which will evoke less concrete but nonetheless terrifying, unseen, and undefined forces. (p. 12)

Green's novels are not primarily psychological, and the sense of crise in them can hardly be explained in psychological terms. Rather, the author uses psychology stylistically to evoke an atmosphere suggestive of a darker metaphysical reality, and to translate the force of that reality. Similarly, dreams do not represent a psychological aspect of Green's characterization, nor do they signify the subconscious explanation of a conscious, situation. For Green, dreaming is a process of selection: of including and excluding elements and placing them in relationship to each other in order to arrive at a symbolic reality more real than life…. There is no illumination in the dream state, for it is merely a more abstract configuration of concrete reality, both reality and dreams being configurations of the same inscrutable and indefinable forces. Green's constant use of the dream within a dream reinforces the sense that 'objective' reality is only one more dream within the series of concentric circles, a dream world dominated by enigma. The memory of what has gone on in the subconscious mind while one has been asleep is frequently vague after one has awakened, even if it remains at all, and Green's characters rarely remember their dreams.

This is characteristically the Green vision and the Green manner. The human condition is, above all, presented as enigma. There are no possible formulas or truths, no conclusions or wisdom, pragmatic or moral. There is only the enigma and its implications, which are intuitively grasped from the rite of the novel. It is thus that one must talk in terms of symbols rather than simply in terms of plot, imagery, description, style, psychology, and characterization. Green borrows figures from nature and builds up his own special world which conjures up and signifies the demoniacal forces and the dilemmas which underlie, he feels, both nature or being. His novels are less representations of reality, mirrors of nature, mimesis, or visions of fantasy than they are exorcisms. (pp. 13-14)

The force which defines reality in Green's world is death. The only certainty, it constitutes the foundation of being and reality. It makes his world a disquieting one of unresolved tensions, conflicts, and contradictions. A precarious metaphysical truce rarely endures. The ultimate source of every antithesis is the life-death antithesis. Instead of cogito ergo sum Green implies morior ergo sum…. Not only must any symbolic interpretation of the novels written before Le Visionnaire take into account this obsession with death, but this very fascination and fear of death is the key which unlocks the mystery of the symbols.

The novels written up through Minuit (composed when Green was beginning to return to Christianity) all deal with death, and in each there builds up a haunting obsession with death. Each of the characters in these novels is to be understood by his reactions to this total threat, whether it be the elderly M. Mesurat or the young hero of L'Autre Sommeil…. Many of Green's characters seek release in their obsessions, and in manias, and sadism. Others construct an artificial bourgeois world of order, symmetry, and material comfort, with their concomitant tyranny of habit. Some turn to eroticism. Still others seek release in the act of dreaming. Finally, there are those who wage a more successful metaphysical battle in which the individual overcomes this terror-ridden finite existence and its finite end, death. This precarious equilibrium between anguish and forgetfulness is full of potential disturbance, and invariably some crisis is precipitated.

Death is the force that dominates each character's consciousness. It can be called a 'force', because it is felt as power and because it translates itself into intense fear, terror, and longing to escape. It cannot be analyzed or localized. Concrete forms such as a dead man or even a dying man are inadequate to translate and express its nature, which penetrates to the very heart of an individual's being, dominating all that he sees and dictating his actions. It is more like a demi-urge or universal demon that holds the strings of being. In this sense, an entire gamut of phenomena—the art or science of psychology, the material and visual world, and the familiarity of gestures and acts—is necessary to communicate the force. Green's novel limits itself to such a communication; it goes no farther. Thus one must talk of incantation. He does not—cannot—analyze the force or draw 'wisdom' from it. The force remains the 'raison d'être' of the novel. The novel is neither salvation nor insight, and all characters and situations are subservient to the incantation…. [Death's] terror drives the human forms to passion as an escape, but the very passion drives its victims back to death. This is the structure of Green's world.

Death has never ceased to plague Green, and it pervades his entire work with varying intensity…. After his reconversion, however, death harasses him primarily as the threat of damnation…. If Green's reconversion freed him somewhat from being terrorized by death, it did not free him from anguish…. After Le Visionnaire pervasive fear of death is transposed into fear of life. The character's consciousness ceases to struggle with unknown, undefined forces and struggles instead with consciousness. This struggle takes on general metaphysical guises of sin versus Christianity, damnation versus salvation, flesh versus spirit. The body as an obstacle to the salvation of the soul now becomes the theme around which the symbols of his novels are organized. (pp. 14-16)

Two visual images in particular are indispensable to the symbolic structure of Green's novels: the room and chiaroscuro. The author integrates these two images into the structure of each novel, expanding them to meet the demands of an expanding vision. The first of these, the room, may be found in all his novels…. Closely related to the image of the room as a prison is that of the window, which stands for liberation…. It may be said, nevertheless, that the early novels, centered around Green's obsession with death, are structurally dependent on the image of the room as a prison. Chiaroscuro, on the other hand, is vital to the aesthetic structure and moral implications of Green's later novels, which are affected by his preoccupation with dualism, the conflict pitting the soul against the flesh. (pp. 16-17)

Nicholas Kostis, in his introduction to his The Exorcism of Sex and Death in Julien Green's Novels (© copyright 1973 Mouton & Co. N.V., Publishers), Mouton, 1973, pp. 11-17.

Byron R. Libhart

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My own contention is that the works set in America are, in fact, exceptionally significant in revealing the true Julien Green through his fiction. This belief is based in large part upon the author's stressing the age twenty in his life—the age he reached during his first stay in America from 1919 to 1922—as that point at which he attained his definitive character….

There are two general areas in which the frustrations of Green's American characters are primarily a reflection of problems in his own life: the matter of "belonging," particularly in the sense of nationality, and that of personal morality. Each of these has its complexities in Green's life. Not only does he feel somewhat divided between France and America, but as far as the "American" side of him is concerned, there is the additional problem of political loyalties within that country—that is, to the South or the North. And the matter of personal morality is, not too surprisingly, closely allied to the problem of religious commitment and to an understanding of his abnormal sexual nature…. (p. 345)

In a more general and perhaps more important way, America represents an intrusion in Julien Green's life, a threat to his early acceptance of France as his true homeland, so that the very word became almost synonymous with unhappiness for him…. (p. 346)

Green's religious faith in general was severely shaken during that sojourn because of the deep moral crisis he experienced in America, which must have caused him henceforth to consider that country the setting par excellence for frustration. For Julien Green, morality and sexuality are very closely related matters. In fact, moral decency and sexual restraint seem almost synonymous in much of his writing—an attitude resulting largely from an early exposure to his mother's American puritanism…. (p. 347)

Though one may argue that nearly all of Green's characters suffer from some kind of dépaysement in the broadest sense—being out of their element, so to speak—Green sees this problem for the most part as the natural heritage of the American. The North-South dilemma is most clear-cut in the case of Ian Wiczewski in Sud: though his personal problems certainly outweigh all political considerations, his feeling particularly alone and despondent upon the sudden discovery of his sexual abnormality is definitely intensified by his being at the same time a Northern officer among Southern aristocrats on the very eve of the Civil War—truly a stranger in a strange land, in more than one respect. In Le Voyageur sur la terre, there is a definite connection between Daniel O'Donovan's schizophrenia and the conflicting influences of a Southern aunt and a Northern uncle. As for the Civil War itself, certainly Green's exaggerated notion of its lasting effects is responsible for its prominence in Sud, where it serves as more than the historical background, providing really a secondary plot…. What is extraordinary is not the degree of Green's interest in the Civil War, but the character of that interest, a rather archaic rallying to the South's cause, as if to please a long-deceased mother who had deeply impressed upon her little boy the injustice of the North's position. For him, as for her, to be Southern means to have suffered, and to have suffered unjustly.

But there is in Green's America another type of displacement even more profound: that of the characters who suffer, as the author himself had suffered, from feeling trapped in an environment that runs counter to and creates conflicts with their personal values…. (pp. 348-49)

We must not look to Julien Green's American works in the expectation of discovering any significant new insight into the problem of what ails America today; for the setting of these tales is a land that in a sense never existed—a curious place made up partly of the reality he knew there, partly of the distorted concepts bequeathed to him by his mother or created by his own troubled mind; and the character we behold on that bleak landscape is for the most part a tormented individual who does not belong there—an unhappy voyageur sur la terre—Julien Green himself. (pp. 351-52)

Byron R. Libhart, "Julien Green's Troubled American: A Fictionalized Self-Portrait" (copyright © 1974 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), in PMLA, 89 (March, 1974), pp. 341-52.

Trevor Field

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It is a temptation not always easily avoided to discuss the work of Julien Green by way of thematic or atmospheric generalizations, as opposed to an appreciation of precise narrative and artistic qualities. Gloomy, sultry, ominous; the epithets are by now very familiar—too familiar, perhaps, for they tend to deflect critical attention from Green's concern with problems of literary form and style….

In complete contrast to [the] earlier novels, which were set either in the United States or in an anonymous French province,… Épaves (1932) based on madness and death, is a restrained and muted account of a crisis in the life of a mediocre Parisian bourgeois, Philippe Cléry. (p. 103)

Although the novel is full of obsessions, imaginings and dreams, its structure is noticeably different from that of the preceding ones; and it is this static, in many ways circular plot which underlies much of the argument that follows….

One of the simplest uses to which mirror imagery is put in this novel is a reinforcement of Green's criticism of the lack of frankness that pervades bourgeois life, stifling individual development and human happiness. (p. 104)

Apart from representing an indirect method of watching the actions of other people, the mirror obviously provides the characters with a chance to look at themselves. In fact, they regularly do so, and we can distinguish here between two sets of circumstances: on the one hand, they may find in the mirror a direct way of seeing the truth about themselves; on the other, the mirror is used to check personal appearance, and in this context external features have the effect of hiding a more or less unpleasant inner truth. (p. 105)

[The] mirror is not only a familiar object that reintegrates Philippe into his past life, but also a vital tool in his attempt to spot a physical difference that might correspond to the inner truth so unpleasantly revealed….

[After] capitulating weakly to a demand for money from a worthless sponger, Philippe checks his appearance in a mirror, in a darkened room…. Never has he appeared so handsome, and his childish reaction is to stand to attention like a soldier. But the magic effect is short-lived, for he immediately remembers that his physical strength is a useless illusion, and the imagery which accompanies his turning away in horror from the mirror is significant: "il se fit l'effet d'un personnage de comédie qui eût compris et joué son rôle comme un rôle tragique" [he gave the impression of a character from comedy who had understood and played his role as a tragic role]…. This idea of theatrical characters is another recurring theme in the novel, and parallels the theme of trying to hide the truth from oneself by means of a mirror image: external appearances in both cases represent a deliberate attempt to disguise the nature of an underlying personality. (pp. 107-08)

Just as the desire to hide personal truth, perceived in front of a mirror, is matched by the partial disguise involved in Philippe's seeing himself as an actor, so the unwelcome realisation of this truth is paralleled by an uncomfortably objective viewing of his own situation half-way through the novel…. [Philippe] goes into a cinema to pass another hour or two. The mediocre film that is showing startles Philippe and holds his attention because of the position of the deceived husband, and for a few seconds his own real life and the fictional story on the screen overlap so much that he is left straddling the two worlds, and unsure of his footing. The film goes on, a comedy for the rest of the audience but a tragedy for Philippe, until at last, as if from a position outside himself, he sees the image coinciding with truth, so that he is faced with a picture of himself…. (p. 108)

The use of mirror imagery, as illustrated hitherto, has revealed a more or less subtle, but quite conventional use of a particular device in order to reinforce certain narrative episodes or psychological observations. To emphasize fully the thematic relevance of this basic image, we should note the way in which the creation of an inner world, symbolized by the mirror, is connected with the theme of reading and writing in the novel. (p. 110)

[The] difficulties of both writing and painting have always stopped [Philippe] from settling down to any serious artistic work. The result … is that he tidies some books on his shelves and blows the dust off them…. Green is clearly taking advantage here of the age-old idea that books in general and novels in particular are analogous to mirrors, which in the context of Épaves are often used by people who are searching for or concealing the truth; while a second, more specific point is that Philippe's complacency in tidying his books instead of creating a new one of his own is another refusal to come to terms with himself and an attempt to be satisfied with the tidy appearance of the external and most meaningless aspect of a potential means of self-examination.

Mirror imagery, it is clear, dominates this novel. It symbolizes the indirect and false relationships shared by members of a bourgeois household torn apart by jealousy, suspicion and shame; it represents, both in literal terms and in the device of the cinema film, a direct apprehension of the characters' true positions and natures; equally, it serves to illustrate in a number of ways their desire to conceal either their whole bodies or their true characters from themselves; and it shows how people are tempted to escape from the realities of life and art by withdrawing into a world of personal fantasy. (p. 111)

Art and life coincide in the experience of a fictional character, but—most important of all—of a character who is herself pictured writing a novel, and it is possible to see Épaves as a vital step on the way from Green's early, unreflective tales of horror to this essentially modern fascination with the position of the novelist as a character in his own fiction. (p. 113)

Trevor Field, "Reflections of a Novelist: Mirror Imagery in Julien Green's 'Épaves'," in Symposium (copyright © 1975 by Syracuse University Press), Spring-Summer, 1975, pp. 103-16.




Green, Julien (Vol. 3)