South: A Play
The Distant Lands
Julian, or Julien, Green, an American born and brought up in Paris, is one of the most unusual figures in contemporary French literature. He is probably—after the eighteenth-century philosophe Fontenelle, who lived to be a hundred—the longest surviving French-language author known to history. He was ninety-one on the sixth of September; he made his mark in 1926 with his first novel, Mont-Cinère, and he is still writing. Indeed, he is probably the most prolific French author of the century, since he has produced not only novels, plays, polemical writings, critical essays, and biographies, but also, in addition to a lengthy autobiography, many volumes of an ongoing diary, the published part of which is apparently only a fragment of the full text, much of which is being held in reserve during his life-time. And, more significantly, he is at once Catholic and homosexual; his Catholicism is fervent, and his homosexuality has been open since the early 1950s.
A relatively small portion of his vast output has been published in English, and then only sporadically over the years. It follows that, although Green’s name is known in the English-speaking world, he has not hitherto enjoyed the general fame accorded to François Mauriac, the Catholic novelist to whom he is perhaps nearest in religious sensibility, or the notoriety of André Gide, who preceded him in the prewar years as a declared homosexual. In France, he has always had his faithful readers, who ensured him a solid succès d’estime; he has won many literary prizes and, in 1972, he was elected to the Académie Française, in succession precisely to Mauriac. Recently, however, there has been a change in his status. In extreme old age, and as the sole survivor of the prewar literary generation, he has entered upon a sort of Indian Summer of celebrity in his Parisian setting. He has made some successful television appearances and, according to his publishers, the first two volumes (Pays Lointains and Les Etoiles du Sud) of the trilogy on which he is now working have become best sellers in France and on the European continent.
This no doubt explains why two American publishers, thinking that the time is ripe for a more general recognition of Green’s talent, have simultaneously decided to re-present him to the English-language audience. Marion Boyars has chosen the first volume of the trilogy now in progress, together with Paris, a collection of essays written at intervals since 1945, and South, a play first published in 1953. Holmes and Meier have reissued a revised version of the original English version of the novel Adrienne Mesurat, which dates back to 1927. We are dealing, then, with four texts, written at long intervals over more than half a century, and it is logical to ask how coherent a picture they present of Green, and whether they show him in his most characteristic and interesting light.
I confess that my reaction is rather negative. To begin with, the four books are so …