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 …

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Letters

Letters November 5, 1964