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Julien Green: Engagement and Exile

Francis-Noël Thomas

Julien Green lived in two worlds almost from birth.  His parents were Americans from established Southern families and had been permanent residents of France for five years by 1900 when he was born in Paris.  He was the only member of his family who learned French before he learned English.  At one point when he was a schoolboy attending the lycée Janson-de-Sailly, his family lived just across the rue de la Pompe from the school.  He described the rue de la Pompe as "my Atlantic Ocean;" at home he heard nothing but English, at school nothing but French.

His two linguistic worlds were mirrored by other separated worlds.  The Civil War was a tragedy that marked his parents' imagination for life, and his mother's stories about the war marked his own imagination.  When Julien Green as a schoolboy attempted to explain his nationality, one of his French friends offered this summary, "So you belong to a nation that no longer exists." ["En somme, tu appartiens à une nation qui n'existe plus," Le Monde, 19 août 1998, page 16]

I don't think Julien Green ever accepted the idea that the ante-bellum South, even the Confederacy, no longer existed.  They existed, but they were not accessible to people around him.  The feeling that he lived in one world, the accessible everyday world, while being anchored deeply in another world, the far country (les pays lointains), as he called it in one of his titles reflected a temperament for exile.  He would live in two worlds all his life, one of those worlds would be accessible to others, one accessible only to the extent that he made it so himself.

The two worlds he lived in were differently marked at different times in his life; by his religious conversion, by his sexual experience, even by his long life, for he died in 1998 less than a month before his ninety-eighth birthday.  He was always conscious of living in two worlds; he was a French writer of American nationality [écrivain français de nationalité américain], as he was described in his radio broadcasts to occupied France during the Second World War, or in a phrase used by Le Monde in announcing his death an "écrivain américain de langue française."

Julien Green is the author of a long and remarkably varied succession of books.  The edition of his complete works in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. has already reached its eighth volume, with several more to come, and presents a vast range of writing covering a period of almost seventy years.  Green enjoyed immediate success as a novelist when he was in his twenties and continued to write novels almost to the end of his life.  He also wrote plays, film scripts, essays, half-a-dozen volumes of autobiography, a great deal of journalism, and several books that defy classification, including one on Francis of Assisi, and one on the nature of translation called Le Language et son double/ Language and its shadow.  After what he describes as several false starts, he began to keep a journal in 1926 and continued-with only one interruption longer than a few weeks-until at least 1996.  The long interruption begins in March 1939 and continues through the fall of France and his departure for the United States where he spent the war years in exile.

In 1991, by his own account, he rediscovered a notebook he thought had been lost years before; it was a narrative of his departure from France and took the place of the journal he hadn't had the heart to keep at the time.  He published it in 1992 as La fin d'un monde without, he says, changing anything.  It is an astonishing and unforgettable view of the fall of France, at once immediate and detached, intensely personal and clinically analytic, as if Dr. Tulp had given his anatomy lesson using his own body.

Green wrote so much that he seems to be several writers, not just one.  His long-time friend Robert de Saint-Jean in introducing the journal as it is reprinted in the Pléiade speaks of the morning Green (who tried to work on his current novel until lunch) and the evening Green (who wrote his journal after dinner). From the first entry in 1926, this journal is manifestly a masterpiece almost without parallel.  Slowly and unobtrusively it creates a rich and complex character, a person with a real intellectual life, a real spiritual life, and a deep attachment to a world that he knows is essentially illusory.

Green, even after hundreds of unplanned pages, is full of surprises.  He is not a scholar, but he has a scholar's approach to art and culture, and a scholar's approach to the sources of faith.  He reads the New Testament in Greek and learns Hebrew so he can read the Old Testament in its original idiom.  He is sophisticated, widely read, well-traveled, respected, celebrated, yet he is always a stranger in the world; he is a modern writer with a deep and vivid appreciation for the middle ages, an astonishing quality of freshness evident in all his encounters with art and literature, and an abiding love of Paris, not just as a sentimental emulsion of memory and imagination, but as a constantly renewed engagement, street by street, step by step.  No one has ever captured the love of place on the page the way Julien Green has.

This profoundly felt and compellingly expressed sense of place gives his forced absence from France between June 1940 and January 1945 an exceptionally vivid and moving quality.  What is no longer visible, no longer accessible is nevertheless real.  He loved to walk in Paris.  With an ocean and a war keeping him from the city he says, "It was a Paris of visions in which I took my walks now, a Paris that, though intensely real, was imperceptibly migrating from flesh to spirit."  His experience of separation from France reflects a sense of spiritual exile that lies at the core of his temperament.  The account of his unplanned departure in La fin d'un monde (Paris: Seuil, 1992;  reprinted Fayard 1996) and the subsequent Journal entries for 1940-1945 constitute one of the great modern literary expressions of exile.  A consciousness of the middle ages runs through them like a literary figured base.

There is hardly any other twentieth-century writer of similar eminence who refers so often and so naturally to medieval culture as Green.  The following passage from his Journal for 3 June 1943 can serve as a beginning:

Took up Chaucer again.  He has that morning freshness that belongs to the Middle Ages.  In a world already old-his world-he was new.  He discovered as if for the first time spring and all its fragrance.  We are    too tired, too blasé to pick a rose and breathe it in with the simplicity of a man of this time.  We are too much bombarded, torpedoed, exiled too I must say.

In July of 1940 at his cousin's house in Baltimore, eight days after landing in New York, he takes up his journal again, writing (in French) in what he notes is an American notebook.  He sums up his situation.  "I am a French writer who can no longer live in France, at least for the moment.  I will have to write in English from now on. . . . I have a strong feeling that I have almost to start all over again."  This dramatic situation is appraised quite typically not just as a crisis in his everyday life and career, but in his spiritual life as well.  He has left practically everything he owned in his apartment in Paris and has no idea if he will ever see any of it again.  Perhaps it is a great favor to be stripped of all one's possessions.   "During the five or six years before the war, I considered passionately everything Christ said on the subject of poverty.  I said to myself that one could be spiritually detached in the midst of great wealth, that everything depended on the attitude of the moral being with respect to the goods of this world, that the rich can be poor in spirit, and the poor consumed by avarice." 

The rest of his period of exile features the daily sense of separation from a country, a culture, and a language that have unexpectedly become distant countries of uncertain prospects.  In the midst of work with the War Information Office in Washington and passionate efforts to contribute to the survival of French civilization, the continual spiritual struggle to liberate himself from the world continues.  The reality of the sacred world, and the conviction that it is the ultimate distant country to which we must return because it is the only reality, the only place in which we will ever find our joy gives Green's thought a deep affinity with the middle ages, an affinity he fully appreciates.

It is a convention of portraiture in the late middle ages to show the subject at the threshold of the sacred world-the point where the human world of time touches eternity.  Sometimes the subject is sponsored by his patron saint and is being presented to the enthroned Virgin holding the Christ child.  Once at least, in Jan van Eyck's portrait of Nicolas Rolin, known as the Vierge d'Autun, the subject keels at at prie-dieu and faces the Virgin who holds the Christ child on her lap.  The human subject in these portraits never makes eye-contact with the figures from the sacred world, and there is almost always a subtle but discernable distinction between the presentation of the human subject and the presentation of the sacred figures.  In one of the greatest such portraits, the so-called Pietà d'Avignon, identified only a few years ago by Charles Sterling as the work of Enguerron Quarton, there is a marvelous iconographic analogue of Julien Green's portrait of himself in his Journal.  A canon keels at the left in prayer.  On another plane behind him the Virgin holds the dead Christ in her lap with John the Apostle at her right and Mary Magdalein at her left against the background of Jerusalem.  The connection between the two worlds separated by the veil of the senses is the subject of the painting, just as the connection between his own experience and the unseen sacred world is the abiding subject of Julien Green's reflections.  We are all, he once said, exiles from paradise [des expatriés du paradis].

Francis-Noël Thomas  

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