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Remembering Julian Green.

Julian Green (and he expressly favored the American spelling of his given name rather than the French "Julien"), a unique figure in the Franco-American literary community, died in Paris on 13 August 1998, one month before his ninety-eighth birthday. Born in France, he resided there most of his life; but he never gave up his American citizenship, and many of his works deal with the South before and during the Civil War. The only American ever chosen as a member of the French Academy (he was elected in 1971), he caused a scandal when he resigned three years ago, stating in a letter to the secretary, M. Druon, that he considered himself "americain, exclusivement" and that honors, whatever they might be, no longer interested him. However, in spite of such unorthodox opinions, the French president, Jacques Chirac, rendered official homage to Green: "His death is an immense loss to French and to world literature." Green was buried in Carinthia, in Saint Mary's Chapel in Klagenfurt, "a haven of happiness and peace for me," and on his tomb was inscribed, according to his wishes, "Julian" rather than "Julien" Green. His traditional Southern family-his father was a cotton broker from Georgia, his mother was from Virginia-had left the United States after the humiliating defeat of the Confederacy and took up residence in Paris.

Green recounts his childhood and youth in detail in the three volumes of his autobiography, beginning with Partir avant le jour (1963) and continuing with Mille chemins ouverts (1964) and Terre lointaine (1966). His father was rarely at home, and his severe, domineering, Protestant mother (who died in 1914) took charge of the household. Every evening, she read passages from the Bible to Julian and his older sisters and imposed her strict moral principles on them. One day, she caught her six-year-old son masturbating in his room. She rushed out and returned, furious, brandishing a butcher knife: "I'm going to cut it off!" Her influence certainly played a major role in the agonizing struggle between sensuality and spirituality which haunted Green's life and work, as well as in his decision as a teenager to convert to Catholicism, which seemed to him more humane, more tolerant of the weakness of the flesh than his family's Puritanism. He was drawn to Rome by his reading of the works of Cardinal Gibbons and, even more important, of Pascal, for whom he had a lifelong devotion. He even considered (but very briefly) joining a monastic order! His conversion brought him into contact with figures who had a decisive impact on him, especially the philosopher Jacques Maritain and the Dominican monk, Father Couturier.

In Paris, he completed his bachot at the Lycee Janson de Sailly, where he "always felt like a foreigner," and beginning in July 1917, profoundly troubled by the war, he served in the American Field Service and as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and finally as an officer-cadet in the French Army in the Ecole d'Artillerie in Fontainebleau. He speaks of his military period in one volume of his autobiography, in a section titled "The War at Sixteen." After his return to Paris, he left for America in September, at the invitation of his uncle (his father's brother), and enrolled in the University of Virginia, where he remained for three years. In Charlottesville he felt that he was in "un monde d'autrefois" where he could take refuge from "les temps modernes que j'abominais." There he met "Mark," a handsome fellow student, and in their relation the flesh easily prevailed over the spirit. He made his literary debut in May 1920 with a short story titled "The Apprentice Psychiatrist," published in the university's literary magazine. He visited family estates in Virginia and in Georgia and rejoiced in at last coming to know "Le Sud, ma patrie."

In July 1922 Green returned to Paris (without having taken a university degree) and began his literary career in 1924 with the controversial "Pamphlet contre les Catholiques de France," in which he castigated the religious indifference of his fellow Catholics. This broadside's "savage fervor" attracted a good deal of attention and enabled the young Green to make the acquaintance of several prominent writers, notably Andre Gide and Jacques Maritain, whose religious sensibility appealed to him deeply and who became a lifelong friend, as their collected correspondence testifies. It was also at this time that Green encountered Robert de Saint-Jean, who for the rest of his life remained Green's devoted companion.

The years after Green's return to France were marked by the old, unending struggle between sensuality and spirituality, in which sensuality often prevails. In his journals he recalls roaming at night through the dark streets of Paris in pursuit of the tender prey. He describes a handsome workman encountered in the gardens of the Trocadero: "He was superb, bare-armed, his broad chest swelling his striped shirt." During a trip to Germany in 1929 he apparently left the Catholic Church, feeling unable to curb "his sinful instincts," and sought spiritual comfort in Hinduism (as reflected in the novel Varouna [1940]). However, supported by Maritain and Fr. Couturier and agonized by the tragedy of World War II, he apparently "returned to Rome" in 1940 and remained an ardent Catholic for the rest of his life.

In April of that year, when the Nazi troops invaded France, Green feared that as an American citizen he would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and so he fled to the United States. The five years (1940-45) he spent in "my native land" were gratifying and productive. They confirmed his reputation as an "American writer," with works in English such as Memories of Happy Days, as well as numerous articles and an English translation of Charles Peguy's Basic Verities. He lectured widely and taught at several American universities. He served briefly (in 1942) in the American army, where he gave courses about France. In subsequent years he was employed as a speaker on the Voice of America in the Office of War Information, where he made a number of new French acquaintances, refugees like himself, including Andre Breton, who, as a militant surrealist, felt "compromised" as an employee of the American government! Green was especially happy to renew close contact with Maritain, who spent the war in the U.S. as a professor at Princeton. These years in America apparently convinced Green that, in spite of his long residence in France, he still remained, essentially, an American. And in spite of the honors showered on him upon his return to Paris, this conviction only deepened with the advancing years, as we have seen in his letter of resignation from the French Academy. And as his adopted son declared in an interview in La Stampa: "Mon pere est americain et le revendique souvent."

On Green's return to Paris from the U.S., his position as a major literary

figure, comparable to that of a Mauriac or a Gide, was widely recognized. Indeed, his sheer productivity never ceased to astonish: some twenty novels, the eighteen published volumes of his journals, the three volumes of his autobiography, several plays (including the very successful Sud), a screenplay based on the life of Ignatius of Loyola, and a moving biography of Francis of Assisi, a saint for whom Green had a special attachment. During the final years of his life, he published his trilogy of novels on the South before and during the Civil War-Les pays lointains (1957), Les etoiles du Sud (1989), Dixie (1995)-and never ceased working on his journals. In the volume L'avenir n'est a personne (1990-92) he states modestly: "I think I may have published some 65 books." For Green, writing had become a form of religious vocation, which enabled him to ignore the intrigues and manipulations of the literary cliques of Saint-Germain and the temptation of official honors. But in the midst of his felicity, he suffered a deep sorrow: the death of his longtime companion, Robert de Saint-Jean. However, a young ex-seminarian, Eric Jourdan, who aspired to be a writer, often came to visit Green, and they soon became close friends. Jourdan moved into Green's apartment and was of precious assistance to his aging host, in managing domestic details, arranging appointments, consulting with publishers, and accompanying him on his numerous trips abroad; even in his nineties, Green never stopped traveling, never lost his curiosity or his appetite for life. He came to love Jourdan as a son and soon legally adopted him. In his advanced age, Green had few surviving family members, and many of his dearest old friends had departed as well. His son brought him the warmth and companionship he needed. Eric's youthful acquaintances frequented the rue Vaneau and gave the nonagenarian author the agreeable impression of "being in touch with young people." Green never became a "sedentary senior." He never experienced boredom, was always writing, traveling, receiving visitors, and visiting others, to the very end. One critic aptly characterized Julian Green as having "jeunesse eternelle" and living a blessed "golden autumn."

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Title Annotation:Franco-American writer
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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