Julien Green Analysis

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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Julien Green first drew critical attention in the late 1920’s as a writer of short fiction (Le Voyageur sur la terre, 1930; and Les Clefs de la mort, 1927) before attempting the longernarratives that became his forte. Green, however, is almost as well known for his autobiographical works as for his novels. His Journal, begun in 1928, has appeared in eighteen volumes published between 1938 and 2006 (partial translations in Personal Record, 1928-1939, 1939, and Diary, 1928-1957, 1964); a second series, begun in 1963, is more personal and frankly confessional in tone: Partir avant le jour (1963; To Leave Before Dawn, 1967), Mille chemins ouverts (1964; The War at Sixteen, 1993), Terre lointaine (1966; Love in America, 1994), and Jeunesse (1974; Restless Youth, 1922-1929, 1996). An additional volume, Memories of Happy Days (1942), was written and published in English during Green’s self-imposed wartime exile in the United States.

Encouraged by Louis Jouvet to try his hand at writing plays, Green achieved moderate success as a playwright with Sud (pr., pb. 1953; South, 1955), L’Ennemi (pr., pb. 1954), and L’Ombre (pr., pb. 1956), but he soon concluded that his true skills were those of a novelist. In any case, Green’s plays are seldom performed and are of interest mainly to readers already familiar with his novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In 1971, shortly after publication of his novel The Other One, Julien Green became, at the age of seventy, the first foreigner ever elected to membership in the French Academy; his election brought sudden and considerable attention to a long, distinguished, but insufficiently appreciated literary career. Green, born in France to American parents, had been writing and publishing novels in French since the age of twenty-five, attracting more critical attention in France than in the United States, despite the availability of his work in English translation. Even in France, however, his novels have not received extensive critical notice, owing in part to his work being difficult to classify.

Encouraged by the success of his earliest writings, Green lost little time in developing a characteristic mode of expression, alternately mystical and sensual, often both at once. Many critics, as if willfully blind to the erotic dimension of Green’s work, sought to classify him as a “Catholic” writer in the tradition of Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. Others, focusing on the oppressive atmosphere pervading many of his novels, sought to place Green closer to the gothic tradition. Neither classification is quite accurate, yet it was not until after Green’s autobiography began to appear in 1963 that reassessment of his novels began in earnest.

Using a clear, ornament-free style that has been described as classical, Green quickly involves his readers in the solitary lives of tortured characters obsessed with the need to escape. Often, the compulsion toward escape leads to violence, madness, or death; when it does not, it produces an implied “leap of faith,” which is not, however, totally satisfying to those who would see Green as a religious writer in the Catholic tradition. Even in those rare cases in which solutions are offered, it is still the problems that dominate the consciousness of author and reader alike. Endowed with keen powers of observation, Green excels in the portrayal of psychological anguish that any thoughtful reader can understand, even if he or she does not share it.

The publication of Green’s autobiography beginning in the 1960’s permitted at last a demystification of the novels—in Green’s case, more help than hindrance. In the light of Green’s frankness, many of the tortures undergone by his characters stood revealed as artistic transpositions of the author’s own private anguish as he sought to reconcile his spiritual aspirations with a growing awareness of his homosexuality. Far from detracting from the power of Green’s novels, such disclosures shed valuable light on his life in art, allowing critics and casual readers alike to appreciate the true nature of Green’s novelistic achievement. Whatever their source, Green’s novels remain powerful portraits of alienation and estrangement unmatched in contemporary French or American literature.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Burne, Glenn S. Julian Green. New York: Twayne, 1972. Provides a comprehensive overview of the first forty-five years of Green’s career, culminating in his induction into the Académie Française in 1971.

Dunaway, John M. “Julian Green.” In French Novelists, 1930-1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman. Vol. 72 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 1988. An overview of Green’s career to 1988.

Dunaway, John M. The Metamorphoses of the Self: The Mystic, the Sensualist, and the Artist in the Works of Julien Green. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978. Dunaway’s study traces the sources and evolution of Green’s narrative art, exploring the biographical genesis of his major fiction.

O’Dwyer, Michael. Julien Green: A Critical Study. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 1997. O’Dwyer provides a biographical introduction and a critical assessment of Green’s short stories, novels, plays, autobiography, journals, and other miscellaneous writings. Highlights the importance of Green’s American background for a full appreciation of his work. Includes a foreword by Green.

Peyre, Henri. French Novelists of Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Provides a good overview of Green’s career, presenting him as standing outside both the French and the American traditions from which his work derives. Includes useful readings of Green’s early and midcareer fiction.

Reck, Rima Drell. Literature and Responsibility: The French Novelist in the Twentieth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. Characterizes Green as an iconoclast whose impact on fiction has been limited but important.

Stokes, Samuel. Julian Green and the Thorn of Puritanism. 1955. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. A study of Green’s novels, concentrating on the various intellectual influences that help explain the spiritual background of his work. Discusses Green’s use of fiction to relate the lives of individuals to the society in which they live.