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Puritan Hedonist

Diary 1928-1957

by Julian Green, selected by Kurt Wolff, translated by Anne Green
Harcourt Brace, 313 pp., $6.50

Although the diary as a literary form is by no means a French monopoly, it has become something of a French speciality. We are naturally inclined to assume that any French diary will be filled with scandalous revelations and savage comments on the writer’s contemporaries, that the rake will regale us with detailed and vainglorious accounts of his sexual conquests. We are not invariably disappointed. Stendhal’s diary contains some useful tips on rape; Amiel records the sensations of a middle-aged professor of aesthetics on the belated loss of his virginity; the Goncourts tell us that the Empress Eugénie suffered from corns in an unlikely part of her anatomy. More recently Montherlant has warmly advocated what he elegantly calls “affectionate copulation” as a substitute for love and Gide has given us scarifying descriptions of the problems of the married pederast.

Gide himself once complained that Mr. Green’s diary was too “reticent.” This was simply blaming Julian Green for not being André Gide. The two men could scarcely have been more different. Mr. Green is happily free from Gide’s overweening vanity. His diary is not sensational or scabrous or malicious, and unlike Gide’s it is never boring. The personality that emerges from it is engaging: modest, serious, responsible, deeply religious. His aim like Stendhal’s is a practical one: the diary is an instrument of self-knowledge and perhaps of personal salvation.

Julian Green was born in France of American parents sixty-four years ago. At the age of sixteen he followed his Presbyterian father into the Catholic Church and at one moment thought of becoming a monk. He went to America for the first time when he was nineteen and took a university course. He tells us in the diary that his outlook is essentially French and that the French language is his natural means of expression. It is evident, however, that his American ancestry and background played a vital part in his formation and development as a writer. They not only provided him with the setting of two of his finest novels—Moira and the still untranslated Chaque homme dans sa nuit—they enabled him to project the conflict between the puritan and the hedonist which is the core of the man and his work.

A number of themes recur constantly in the diary and do much to illuminate the novels. They are nightmares, the novelist’s vision of reality, the writer’s sense of being born out of due time, above all the clash between the religious and the sexual impulses:

Last night, a familiar nightmare roused me from sleep, the nightmare of being pursued. How well I recognized all those steep slopes, those almost vertical paths winding around gigantic stones! I leapt from rock to rock to drop, finally, shrieking at my enemy’s feet. As I woke, it occurred to me that this enemy was my own self and that what my adversary pursued and wished to subdue was my body.

For the last few years, the problem of the window that won’t open has counted for more and more in my life. It is, generally speaking, the problem of every life. To escape…

Disturbed by the problem that I am in the habit of calling the problem of the two realities: the carnal reality and the metaphysical reality. Am I to be their battle-ground to the end of my life?

For the novelist,” he said in another entry, “there is a conventional reality and a reality that might be called the reality of vision.” There is one pronounced difference between the novels written before and after the war. No one would dream of accusing Mr. Green of describing “conventional reality” in any of his novels, but “vision” is not to be had for the asking. The difference might be expressed by saying that the earlier novels deal with hallucination and the later with vision. The characters in The Closed Garden, The Dark Journey, and Midnight—the English titles of the first two books are much more expressive than the French—are prisoners: the prisoners of their own abnormal states of mind. They are prey to nightmares, to nameless fears, and to a claustrophobic urge to escape from themselves. The novels are powerful and exciting to read, but in the last analysis there is no vision, to pattern, no ultimate meaning. The diary tells us the reason. “No one suspects,” Mr. Green said in 1946, “that during the years when I was writing those inexplicably gloomy books, I was so happy that such bliss sometimes kept me from sleeping and I wept for joy.” We may feel that “inexplicably” is not altogether the right word. The books are surely a record of the novelist’s successful attempts to escape from his own inner pressures by transferring his problems to the creatures of his imagination.

The earlier novels belong to a period when the writer’s adherence to the Church was tenuous and he had apparently abandoned the practice of his religion. He returned to the Church in 1939. The effect on his writing was considerable. The later novels are not exactly cheerful reading. The violence and the nightmares are still there, but there is something else besides. The novelist’s strong religious feeling and the insight that goes with it bring characters and events into focus, provide the framework that was lacking. The protagonists of Moira and Chaque homme are fanatics, but they are not monsters like those of the earlier novels. Mr. Green tells us that there is something of himself in all his characters, but there is a great deal of himself in Joseph Day, the Bible Protestant, and Wilfred Ingram the Catholic. They are both profoundly religious and at the same time men who are, as their creator remarks of himself, “subject to ungovernable fleshly appetites.” Joseph Day is seduced by a flighty girl and murders her in revenge. Wilfred Ingram could say with the novelist: “The idea that God might not exist has never so much as grazed me,” but it does not prevent him from pursuing women with a frenzied promiscuity seven nights a week until he meets his death, shot down by another fanatic who is torn between religion and perverse inclinations. Wilfred Ingram suffers from the particular anguish described in an entry in the diary for 1934:

I was suddenly seized with anguish. As I walked down the Rue Garancière, it occurred to me to go to Saint-Sulpice and there, in this church, I went and hid in the darkest spot, in front of the Lady chapel. I thought as I knelt: “I have not come to make promises that I could not keep. There are things that I cannot give up. I simply want to receive strength…”

What we find in the later novels is something that belongs to a great tradition, but today is slightly out of fashion: the conflict between duty and inclination, between spirit and flesh, restated in contemporary terms. The novels are studies in violence, but there is none of the sensationalism, none of the complicity, that we meet in the work of a Francois Mauriac or a Graham Greene. The novelist is no longer looking for alibis or ways of escape; the issues are faced squarely and unflinchingly; the conflict is genuine and the outcome tragic.

It would be wrong to give the impression that the diary is nothing but nightmares, anguish, and sin. There are astute comments on life and literature. The writer expresses his dislike of political parties and adds endearingly:

I am the kind of man who is stood up against a wall and shot in all revolutions.

His observations on his fellow men are not only free from malice, they are informed by a charity which is rare among men of letters. His account of Gide’s efforts to undermine his religious convictions, indeed, goes beyond the demands of charity:

It would be understanding him very badly to say he played the part of Satan. Quite the contrary, his purpose was to save me. He wanted to win me over to his unbelief and exerted all the zeal of a missionary trying to convince an infidel.

But his judgment on Gide as a writer is admirable in its penetration:

He writes beautifully and every page is crammed to overflowing with a wealth of ideas, yet, while he gives all he has to give, he chills the heart, and the more you read, the less you believe, the less you hope, and—I say this regretfully—the less you live.

His judgments on English writers are often acute. He fails, as other Frenchmen have done, to appreciate Macbeth in spite of its religious implications, but shows a remarkable understanding of poets as difficult as Donne and Hopkins. In a couple of sentences he goes straight to the heart of Auden’s weakness:

Read Auden, at first with admiration, then with a certain weariness. His extraordinary felicity of phrase reminds one of a man who always wins in a lottery.

Julian Green’s diary was originally published in seven volumes between 1935 and 1958. A selection from the first two volumes was translated into English in 1940. An omnibus edition, from which ephemeral material had been omitted but which still ran to 1200 pages, appeared in French in 1961. It is from that edition that the present selection, consisting of roughly a quarter of the French text, was made by Kurt Wolff. One could have done with a more generous portion, but the essentials seem to be there. The translation by the novelist’s sister is competent, but her continual use of the historic present, which is ill-suited to the English idiom, is an irritation to the reader.

Letters

Letters November 5, 1964

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