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 different from one another in tone and theme that they cannot be easily comprehensible to readers unfamiliar with the complex strands of Green’s Franco-American, Protestant-cum-Catholic, Catholic-cum-homosexual makeup. In fact, they might seem, at first sight, to be from the hands of two, or perhaps three, different writers.
Paris is a collection of nostalgic prose poems, devoted to various topographical aspects of the French capital, where Green was born, and where he has lived most of his life. It is illustrated with a score of photographs taken by the author himself. The tone is mainly elegiac, contrasting the charm of the old Paris of his childhood with the brashness of the new, and the style is exquisitely literary in a traditional French manner. The book is good of its kind; it will please lovers of “fine writing,” but it is more of a pious tribute to the evanescent genius loci than a vital part of Green’s output. The author sounds so completely French that he might have no connection with America at all, witness the highly rhetorical hymn to the river Seine, of which I quote a few sentences:
“I am the road running through Paris,” says the Seine. “I have carried off many images since you were a child and reflected many clouds. I am changeable, but as people are: I have my moments of happiness in the June dawn and my sinister times some December evenings. Above all, I am inquisitive—you call it being in flood. We have something in common, you everlasting passers-by and I, the fleeing water, which is that we never go back: your time is my space.
“The lights my surface has reflected! My memory is a great kaleidoscope in which you will find all that has gone to make up the history of your century….”
The Distant Lands exploits a totally different local color. It is set in the American South on the eve of the Civil War, and it could be described as a romantic blockbuster in the style of Gone with the Wind. The heroine is a spirited, aristocratic English girl who, after being impoverished by her father’s death, is taken to live with her rich American relations. The theme is her education in southern ways, and her gradual awakening to love. There is an abundance of white-colonnaded houses, tree-lined avenues, Spanish moss, magnolias, full moons, picturesque slaves, southern beauties, and dashing young men.
Green says he began the book in the Thirties, but put it aside after the appearance of Margaret Mitchell’s best seller, to which it was too close in subject matter. However, I think we can assume that, had he completed it then, it would have been very different from the book it now is. He must have written the bulk of the present text in his eighties. The typical novels of his early and middle periods are all extremely somber psychological dramas, set in grim claustrophobic households either in France or America, and full of dark passions, murders, suicides, and madness. The Distant Lands is, by comparison, quite sunny, as if, in old age, Green had sloughed off most of his previous pessimism and had entered a more indulgent, and perhaps self-indulgent, phase.
True, the tragedy of the Civil War is about to happen; two of the young men kill each other in a duel; there are unhappy love affairs and various frustrations, but the tone is overwhelmingly romantic in the more facile, sentimental sense, with ghosts, premonitions, fortunetellers, coincidences, and so on. The book is pleasant enough to read, but I cannot see it as part of Green’s serious contribution to literature; it is rather an entertainment with which he has filled his later years and, if it is already a best seller on the European continent, this may well be because it appeals to a middlebrow audience, for whom he never wrote in his somber prime. However, I may mention that it did not make much of an impression when it appeared in England a year ago.
Of the four works under review, only two are fully characteristic of what I take to be the essential Green—the novel Adrienne Mesurat (1927) and the play South (1953)—but they too may seem very remote from each other. The first is set in an unnamed French provincial town in the days of horse-drawn carriages, that is, presumably before the First World War, and tells the bleak story of a frustrated girl who kills her father and goes mad. South, on the other hand, is almost a companion piece to The Distant Lands, in the sense that it too is set in the American South on the eve of the Civil War, but it is as remorselessly grim as The Distant Lands is romantically superficial. It may also seem puzzling, because the motivation of the characters cannot be entirely clear to uninstructed readers.
To understand what the play is really about, one has to be familiar with the central sexual-cum-religious obsession in Green’s life, and its connections with his Franco-American background. These complexities also have a bearing on the unadulterated pessimism of Adrienne Mesurat. In fact, I don’t think any of Green’s readers could have guessed what his fundamental concern was until he began publishing his confessional writings in middle life. Since it has to be explained, I will try to summarize the issue as briefly as possible, drawing not only on the diary, but also on the three-volume autobiography (Partir avant le jour, 1963; Mille chemins ouverts, 1964; Terre Lointaine, 1966), only the first volume of which appears to have been translated.
Green has a dramatically divided personality, but he is probably more French than American. Although English was spoken in the Green household in Paris, all Julian’s schooling was in French up to the preuniversity stage, so that French is his dominant language, and the only literary medium in which he feels completely at home. It will be generally agreed, I think, that he is a considerable stylist in the traditional French classical manner. He has, incidentally, made some very interesting comments, in the diary and elsewhere, on the problem of double identity, which may afflict individuals brought up simultaneously in two languages.
However, in his case, the linguistic dichotomy is only one of several. On the American side, while he admits to having been enormously influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an author who might seem far removed from the atmosphere of the American South, Green is first and foremost a southerner with an old-fashioned, antebellum sensibility. This is a result of his family connections and, more especially, of the influence of his adored mother, who instilled southern patriotism into him in childhood. His parents came of rich southern stock, but after his father lost his fortune through misguided speculation, a wealthy uncle volunteered to finance Julian’s studies at the University of Virginia from 1919 to 1922. These three years were tremendously important for his career, and we might say that he has lived on them ever since. He absorbed the southern local color, which he has used several times, usually showing it through the eyes of an ambiguous insider/outsider like himself. But above all, in the company of his fellow students at the University of Virginia, he suffered the homosexual temptations and the pangs of unrequited love on which he was to ring the changes—at first in a disguised form, then later more or less openly—in so many structurally similar plots.
Like the tension between his French and American loyalties, the tug-of-war between religion and sex also began in childhood, but with much more serious consequences. His strong-minded and anxiously puritanical mother brought him up as a pious Anglican, with daily Bible readings in English and prayers at her knee. She had remained faithful to the religion of her English ancestors, but there was also perhaps some Evangelical influence present, since she kept assuring him from an early age that he was “saved.” He grew up with an intense respect for the Bible as a guide in all circumstances, and an unshakeable belief in a personal God and a personal Devil.
However, his mother also took him to museums and, as he explains, from the age of six he was obsessed by the nude male figures everywhere on show, and in particular by the prostrate, naked, and callipygous corpse in the foreground of The Bearers of Bad Tidings, a historical picture by the academic painter, Lecomte de Nouy, which he saw in the Musée du Luxembourg. Soon he had fixations on beautiful boys at school, without understanding the nature of his feelings. His mother died when he was fourteen, so that her loss coincided traumatically with the onset of puberty. After that, for a while, he was inveigled into masturbation by a school friend, but soon experienced a complete revulsion against sex in general. This may have been a factor in his conversion to Catholicism at the age of sixteen, since it enabled him to reinforce his original puritanism with the Catholic ideal of celibacy. At any rate, from then on until his return from America in 1922, it was his declared intention to enter a monastery.
By 1923 he had changed his mind again, and decided that he was not suited to be a monk. And in 1924 he underwent an extraordinary crisis, which seems almost to have amounted to an attack of schizophrenia. On the one hand, his Catholic fervor led him to publish a Pamphlet contre les catholiques de France, a violent attack on the tepid faith of average French believers, in which he goes so far as to maintain that the Spanish Inquisition, in its severity, had been a necessary and virtuous organ of the Church. On the other hand, it was now that he had his first, fully realized homosexual encounter—with a stranger, as it happened, and on the banks of the Seine. This initiated an apparently long period of homosexual cruising, at first mainly after dark, hence perhaps the exceptional predominance of night-time wanderings on the part of the anguished heroes and heroines of his novels. During these years, he seems to have stopped being a regular churchgoer, while still retaining his faith in God.
It is perhaps useful, at this point, to emphasize the difference between his and André Gide’s view of homosexuality. Gide, to his own rather dubious satisfaction, argued himself into a state of pagan innocence or amorality with regard to his seduction of boys. Green could not “come out” in this way about his relations with young men, because he saw his irresistible need to “sin” as recurrent submission to the Devil, who, for him, is as personal a being as God. His sexuality was something for which he might eventually burn in Hell since—regrettably—there was no modern Inquisition to send him to the stake for it immediately.
He himself recognizes that the creative pressure which drove him to produce his main series of novels probably arose from this conflict between his fierce piety and his uncontrollable sex drive. He repeatedly explains that, during this long period of turmoil, he wrote his fictions under an obscure compulsion, as if he were transcribing a waking dream, without knowing where the characters and the plots were taking him. This no doubt means that they were a form, if not of autotherapy (in Green’s system of thought, there can be no cure for the Devil), at least a kind of defense mechanism, warding off a general breakdown through a symbolic displacement of tensions. It is significant that neither the homosexual obsession nor its counterweight, religious faith, is overt in any of the works published before 1950. Instead, there is an overwhelming sense of doom: the main character, male or female, is in the grip of an unappeasable monomania—it may be the all-consuming desire to get possession of a house, as in Mont-Cinère, or the impossible love of a woman for a man she hardly knows, as in Adrienne Mesurat, or of a man for a woman he hardly knows, as in Léviathan—and the outcome is suicide by an act of arson, or a murder followed by madness, or two murders leading to arrest. It is also notable that the idée fixe of the protagonist, i.e., the transposition of the author’s dilemma as an unjustified sinner, is intensified by the machinations of secondary figures (usually—for some reason one can only guess at—Machiavellian females), who have almost the status of agents of the Devil.
All these novels, with their inspissated gloom, have in parts a hallucinatory power which suggests that some hysterical sense of damnation is finding an oblique outlet. They can almost be defined as superior horror stories, and it is understandable that they should have their admirers, especially among those readers who can appreciate the author’s poetic effects in the original French. The plots may be rather uncertain and repetitive, as in Adrienne Mesurat, but there are many brilliantly realized scenes in the imaginative-realist style.
I repeat that the central sexual/religious tension in Green’s life is not directly expressed in these characteristic novels; the sexuality is always presented as heterosexual and usually cerebral, and the author’s Catholicism is not prominent. Indeed, in Le Visionnaire, there is a satirical description of life in a Catholic school which might have been written by a non-believer, as if Green had moments of revolt when he saw Catholicism more from the Devil’s point of view than God’s. Certainly, to appreciate the literary quality of these novels, one does not need to share, or even sympathize with, the sexual/religious dilemma which fueled them.
With the approach of old age, and perhaps also because of the general change in the cultural atmosphere during the last twenty-five years, this central tension in Green’s life seems to have slackened a great deal. Now that the Devil has ceased to torment him so acutely, he may feel more secure in the house of God. Here again, however, there is something of a contradiction. Green has long lived openly with a younger man, now his adopted son, and some recent diary entries imply discreet reservations about the sexual conservatism of the Pope. But at the same time, in the later novels, where the homosexual theme becomes explicit, there is no example of happy, or even tolerated, homosexuality. In Moïra (1950), the hero’s passion is still disguised as heterosexuality, and it leads him to murder the desired but hated object of his lust. In Le Malfaiteur (1956) and Chaque homme dans sa nuit (1960), the overtly homosexual men are all doomed; one compounds the curse with the additional sin of suicide, and another commits a murder.
Incidentally, what helps to make The Distant Lands so untypically bland is the almost complete absence of any reference, indirect or direct, to homosexuality; I have noticed only one tiny episode in which a rather hysterical young man makes a pass at a friend, and is immediately repulsed with contempt. We must suppose, then, that although Green appears serenely content with his lot when he appears on television, he maintains his fundamental disapproval of deviance. Perhaps the fourth volume of his autobiography, which has apparently been completed but remains unpublished, will shed some light on this puzzle.
But if the reader will bear with me, there is a still further complexity to be mentioned if the meaning of the play South is to be made clear. Within Green’s homosexuality, as he describes it in the autobiography, there is also a split. On the one hand, he falls deeply in love with beautiful young men—“Greek gods,” as he calls them, fusing pagan imagery with his Christian sensibility—for whom his feelings remain platonic, or at least cannot easily be transposed onto the crude physical level, because of a paralyzing inhibition. On the other hand, he can have sex with any number of people who, far from being Greek gods, may even be, like his very first partner, “powerfully ugly,” as befits incarnations of the Devil. In other words, with a strangely naive simplicity, he seems to see male beauty as a bewitching yet forbidding sign of angelic innocence, whereas sexual seductiveness, unaccompanied by formal beauty, is essentially diabolical. In either case, the emotions aroused may be so intense that, in the fictions at least, the lover usually kills the beautiful or alluring object of his love to rid himself of his intolerable obsession. Or, reversing the process, he kills himself, directly or indirectly, to escape from his guilty longing. This pattern repeats itself, sometimes in quite remotely transposed forms in the earlier writings, but more clearly and indiscreetly in the later.
To go back now at last to South—in that play, the violent, sinful, but liberating act takes the form of an indirect suicide. The hero, Jan Wicziewski, a Yankee officer of aristocratic Polish origin, is on leave in a well-to-do southern household on the eve of the Civil War. He is a handsome, enigmatically brooding figure, admired by all. He is present as a friend of the family, because his grandfather once did a great service to Edward Broderick, the head of the household. Also present is Regina, an orphaned niece of Broderick, secretly in love with Wicziewski, who knows her feelings and plays a sadistic cat-and-mouse game with her. Broderick has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Angelina, who is in love with a young neighbor, Eric MacClure, and he with her; he is only talked about in the first act, and appears in the second. Meanwhile, Wicziewski, on a sudden impulse, asks for Angelina’s hand, but is gently turned down by Broderick père, who, being himself ambiguously attracted to Wicziewski, has guessed his secret and hints that marriage would not be a solution. Then, suddenly, MacClure appears, and Wicziewski is thunder-struck by his beauty. The dénouement follows rapidly. Hopelessly drawn to MacClure, whom he has known only for a few hours, Wicziewski deliberately provokes the young man to a duel with sabers and, in the unseen combat offstage, allows himself to be killed. The play ends with Regina weeping over Wicziewski’s body, center stage, just as the Civil War begins.
South apparently enjoyed some success when it was first put on in France and England. I have not seen it performed, but I wonder if it would stand restaging now, after an interval of some forty years. As I read it, it is little more than a melodrama exploiting Green’s usual theme of homosexual doom in a transparently mechanical way, and without any of the literary virtues to be found in the better parts of the novels. Wicziewski, not the fate of the South, is the center of interest throughout, and so the title is inappropriate; the coming Civil War and the misunderstandings between North and South are not organically related to his plight, but simply used to provide him with an ominous background; that is, the broader social issue is emotionally subordinated to the individual sexual problem, and this creates an unpleasant imbalance. Also, in a superfluous and embarrassing scene, Uncle John, a pious blind old Negro with the gift of prophecy, is brought in to forecast death and disaster.
Then there are two invraisemblances. Is it conceivable that the first glimpse of an unknown young man, however beautiful, would precipitate such an immediate and violent crisis? And is there not a technical difficulty with the duel? It is presumably easy to commit suicide in a pistol fight, simply by refraining from aiming at one’s opponent, but how can this be managed in a duel with sabers? But, on second thought, it occurs to me that Green’s unconscious may have so arranged matters that Wicziewski’s death is not a pure suicide, but a suicide which, through a slip of the foot or a wrong stroke, might have turned into a murder, thus holding in suspense both of the author’s usual solutions to sexual desire—self-obliteration or obliteration of the Other. In either case, I find the episode strangely repugnant and not at all conducive to those feelings of pity and terror that are supposed to be aroused by tragedy.
I have to admit that this feeling of repugnance comes partly from the fact that I cannot sympathize with the way Green turns sex into a cosmic issue. He sees the essential drama in life as the tension between a longing for individual salvation in the bosom of a personal God in competition with the contrary, seductive wiles of a personal Devil, operating mainly through sexual desire. As an agnostic humanist, I cannot myself conceive of God as a Person, even with a capital letter, because, in that case, He or She would be limited to a certain temperament as human beings are (or like the jealous God of the Old Testament) and to limit the limitless is a logical contradiction. Then the idea that the universal, creative Something might prefer to “save” one particular soul and “damn” another, on the basis of an instinct It Itself has implanted, is surely only a distorted effect of human self-importance. Moreover, if God is all-powerful, the Devil can only be that part of Himself that He allows to misbehave so as to give variety to the universe; such a supposition is, to say the least, disrespectful.
To my mind, Green has—with muddled consequences—hitched his sexuality to a relatively simple version of the Christian metaphysical structure, a version which he absorbed in childhood and has never consciously questioned, whatever emotional difficulties he may have had from time to time with the Church. The tension within his makeup produced what I have called the “horror stories” and, to that extent, it can be said to have had a positive literary result within a fairly narrow range. But he is not one of those existentialist Christians, such as Pascal or Simone Weil (or even, in his lesser way, François Mauriac), who see the problem of evil as being coextensive with the whole of creation and who, being aware of the agnostic position, make a deliberate leap into faith in order to transcend it. Green’s is a more archaic, less sophisticated, religion, perhaps as much Old Testament as New Testament in flavor, and with the supposed sinfulness of sex as its main concern, as is transparently obvious in South.
In short, he does not seem to have “come to terms” in any sense with his homosexuality. Instead, he can be said to have oscillated between God and the Devil, with the Devil winning symbolically in most of the fictions, through murder, suicide, and other acts of violence, and through the almost total absence of any concept of human love unrelated to sexual desire. Wicziewski’s ambiguous death in South, whether a successful suicide or a halfhearted murder attempt, is a facile, imaginative canceling out of a problem which remains unsolved—or if a solution is too much to ask for—intellectually unbroached, on the plane of ordinary human reality. All this having been said, it also seems odd to a non-Christian that a Christian author should dispatch his admired hero to the Judgment Seat, burdened with the extra sin of having gratuitously challenged an innocent man to a duel. The Devil wins twice over, as it were.
But, as I have already implied, Green should not be judged on this play, which is a creaking theatrical vehicle. His real quality lies in certain unique and haunting passages of the typical novels, and also, and perhaps mainly, in his curiously honest autobiography, in which he expounds the interlocking contradictions of his “case” in minute detail, yet without, I think, ever seeing them fully in perspective. If the fourth, as yet unpublished, volume is of the same standard as the first three, I should expect the complete text to be his major achievement and to survive as a singular classic of confessional literature.
December 5, 1991