Obituary: Julien Green

James Kirkup
Wednesday 19 August 1998 00:02 BST

JULIEN GREEN was a good man haunted by a dark double. One of the great themes of his writing and of his life was conflict between the opposing forces of spiritual purity and sexual passion. He often referred, in his massive journals, to his doppelganger and indeed right from the start his was a divided personality; in which sexual exaltation fought with almost sinister chasteness.

Julian Hartridge Green was born in Paris in 1900 of American parents who had settled in France in 1893. In French reference works he is generally referred to as an American writer, though practically all his work is in French, and he was the first person of American descent to be elevated to a seat in the Academie Francaise, in 1971, on the death of Francois Mauriac.

His father, who was to exert a strong guiding influence on his youth, was almost 50 when the boy was born. He was a prosperous export-import merchant with an interest in the arts, and numbered Gertrude Stein and her family among his friends. The paternal grandfather of Julian (as he was known at home and later on the covers of his books in English translation) was from Halesowen in Shropshire and is buried at Greenwich, in Prince William County, Virginia, where he had emigrated at an early age. Green claimed there were family connections with famous southern names like Lee and Beauregard.

His mother, Mary Hartridge, was the first great spiritual and literary influence upon Julien/Julian. It was she who revealed to her son the wonders of the Bible, which the writer was to read and love until the end of his life. But she was also an admirer of French literature and of American and English authors, and in one of his best books of essays, Suite anglaise (1972), he pays sensitive tribute to figures as different as Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Lamb, Charlotte Bronte and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Green was always proud of the fact that he was a French writer with English, Scots and Irish blood. Moreover, his father and mother remained faithful to memories of the Deep South, and transmitted to Julien a loyalty to and a cult of what they called "the true America" - the one beaten by the North in 1865 at the end of the war of secession.

At the Lycee Janson de Sully, Julien led the life of an ordinary French schoolboy. When he returned home, he became Julian, inheritor of a phantasmal native land - "I am a native of a country that no longer exists" he was to say when he grew up.

Even more extreme was his veneration of the writers of the Deep South: "Real American literature is of the South - Poe, Twain, Faulk- ner, Penn Warren, Eudora Welty" - and not forgetting Margaret Mitchell, an unexpectedly significant name. The only exception is the Northerner Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was to have a profound influence upon the themes and characters of his novels. James is not mentioned.

Green recognised in himself the divisive nature of his genetic heritage, finding that his impulsive, dreamy, richly carnal being derived from his Irish blood, while from his Scots genes came his crises of religious faith and that profound, unchanging devotion to the Bible. He took part in two world wars, at his father's urging joining up while he was still under age in 1916 and seeing service in the trenches of the Ardennes. His passionate Protestant religious faith stood him in good stead, because he firmly believed that God would protect him, and indeed he came through unscathed before it was discovered that he was only 17 years of age, and sent back home from the American division in which he had been serving.

It was then that Green experienced his first great religious crisis, and converted to Roman Catholicism. In the second of five autobiographical works, Mille chemins ouverts, he gives a very graphic description of his experiences in the trenches, and of his relationships with his American soldier comrades who were puzzled by this American who was French and who was totally ignorant of the cafes and brothels of Paris, and indeed of all aspects of physical love.

One gets the impression that Green walked through this period in a sort of religious trance. He writes of the fairytale beauty of the shell-shattered countryside, the uprooted trees, the devastated churches, the ominous thunder of approaching cannonfire. Yet these pages are not without a touching humour, as when he complains about his ambulance being blown up into a tree just after he had washed it.

As he drove his ambulances and trucks through shellfire, he was surprised to find his companions in the grip of very reasonable fear, because he himself believed he was untouchable. At the same time, he felt a repugnance for the dirty talk and the over-friendly advances of his fellow soldiers. He had a kind of puritan dislike of physical contact which he admits must have seemed to the Americans morbidly bizarre: he even would go so far as to refuse to sit on a chair that another man had been sitting on, as the lingering warmth of a human body filled him with revulsion.

He went on to ambulance service in Italy, where, in a wretched hotel room in Milan, he confesses to the sin of masturbation - one of the few explicitly sexual passages in his work. He was often to admit that the gap between a beautiful face and the body's sexual animality was one he had difficulty in crossing. In his youth, it was a conflict that both shocked and fascinated him.

This ambivalence towards the body can be found in certain of Green's fictional characters - in Joseph Day in Moira (1950), Wiczewski in his play Sud (1953), Elizabeth in his later novels Les Pays Lointains (1985) and Les Etoiles du Sud (1989). It is interesting to note that these last two novels are very much in the tradition of the romantic novel of the Deep South. Indeed the former was begun in the 1930s but abandoned in despair when Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind appeared.

Green always declared that he was first and foremost a writer who happened to be a Catholic, and detested being called "a Catholic writer". Yet the sincerity of his religious beliefs transforms much of his work into eloquent affirmations of his deep faith in God and the Church. He realised he must make a choice between God and the World, for he knew that brute strength of his own sexual impulses towards members of his own sex and at the same time the profoundly religious tenor of his spiritual life. He says he was a happy man, but often tormented by the flesh.

This conflict in his life and work sometimes take on almost a comically pathetic tone, when he appears somewhat like a rabbit hypnotised by the swaying serpents of sin, guilt and eternal damnation. Yet it is a precious testimony to man's fundamental innocence - in the Buddhist sense - now singularly lacking in the contemporary world. So one is both deeply moved and gently amused by this eternal child at grips with himself and the devil in the flesh, suffering the pains of self-enforced chastity and the honourable happiness of worship from afar, of the Platonic love for a fellow-student while he was at the University of Virginia in his early twenties. One is moved when he seeks reassurance in Pascal, who knew well "the delicious, criminal pleasures of this world" and in Newman, as well as in the enlightened words of the most human of Popes, Paul VI: "It is humanly impossible to resist the sexual instinct." And Green comments: "Everything is in that word `humanly'."

In politics, he stayed apart from all groups and admired those who did the same in their writings: Peguy, Jouhandeau, Leautaud, though he includes among them two - Breton and Genet - not generally considered to be apolitical. In this respect Green resembles very much the great Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato.

There were many literary influences on Green's style, most notably that of Nathaniel Hawthorne's mysteriously disturbing short tale "The Minister's Black Veil", to which Green alludes frequently in his journals. He dismisses the influence of Poe and Ambrose Bierce on his horror-haunted novels of provincial life, and neglects what I would consider to be a major model - the Henry James of The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw.

His first work to be published (in the Virginia Quarterly in 1920) was written under the influence of R.L. Stevenson, and, apart from his translations of Peguy, was the one work he wrote in English. It was translated in 1977 by Jean-Eric Jourdan, the author's protege and adopted son, as L'Apprenti psychiatre, and recalls another James work, The Pupil. There is another author of psychological horror tales whose masterly style resembles that of Green - Algernon Blackwood.

Green's earlier novels - Mont-Cinere (1926), Adrienne Mesurat (1927), Leviathan (1929), L'Autre Sommeil (1931), Epaves (1932), Le Visionnaire (1934), Minuit (1936), Varouna (1940) - with their brooding melancholy and troubling sexual undertones, are masterpieces of psychological subtlety and crystal-clear but evocatively poetic style. His 1992 publication La fin d'un monde: juin 1940 gives a graphic account of the German advance upon Paris and the exodus of many of its citizens to the South of France. Green makes his way to Bordeaux, and then to the United States, where he contributes talks to the radio. He also describes his struggles to finish Varouna, one of his strangest works.

But undoubtedly Green will chiefly be remembered for his extraordinary journals, the longest in French literature; those so far published cover 70 years (1926-96) while Gide's cover 62 (1889-1951). There are more to follow.

In 1993, two of his unpublished works saw the light: substantial and revealing extracts from early journals, On est si serieux quand on a 19 ans ("One is So Serious When One is 19" - a re-writing of Rimbaud's celebrated line "On n'est pas serieux quand on a dix-sept ans") and L'Avenir n'est a personne ("The Future Belongs to No One"), covering the years 1990-92.

Sometimes garrulous, often tedious, his journals are again and again illuminated by shafts of quiet wit, original thoughts, combative ideas (in support of total pacifism and against the death penalty) and meditations upon philosophy, religion and literature that are always forthright and beautifully composed.

He is often critical of the Church for spreading panic rather than peace in the world. He comments on Kafka's journal that this writer had a great longing to tell everything and at the same time to confess nothing. The same might be said of Green.

His prizes and honours are innumerable. But his greatest prize has been his own honest and inimitable self, offered to his readers with exemplary discretion and endearing boyish candour in a vast panoply of magnificently written works of every kind.

I last saw Green in the flesh at the funeral of Emil Cioran outside the Russian Orthodox church, still looking cheerful and sprightly in his immaculately polished shoes; as the French say, "Bon pied, bon oeil." A few weeks ago, he consented to appear for an interview on television, and drank a flute of champagne, opining wisely, "La champagne vous rend heureux!" He certainly needed that mild stimulant to get him through an ordeal on a medium he despised and detested. When asked, tactlessly, how he would like to die, he replied with a curious malicious twinkle in his eyes: "In a state of grace."

He died on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. His death was kept a secret by his adopted son, Jean-Eric, while the body was spirited off to Austria, where he had commissioned a tomb in Klagenfurt, in order to avoid all the vulgar fuss that surrounded the demise of Sartre and de Beauvoir, with thousands of fellow-travellers trudging through the streets of Paris to the Cimetiere Montparnasse.

Green remained an American citizen; he was a literary artist far above the head of existentialist and nouveau roman gasbags. In 1996, he had resigned from the Academie Francaise in what that flustered hen of an institution took to be a fit of pique or the divagation of a gaga nonagenarian. But Green declared that he considered himself to be "exclusively American" and that therefore French honours no longer interested him. Touche.

Julian Hartridge Green (Julien Green), writer: born Paris 6 September 1900; (one adopted son); died Paris 13 August 1998.

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