The American Catholic author Julien Green (1900-1998) is admired by generations of readers for his novels, memoirs, plays dealing with his Southern family and especially a published diary in 19 volumes, kept from 1919 to 1998. A new edition of that diary may trouble some of Green’s fans.
A hallmark of Green’s achievement is his intense empathy for the vanquished of the world. He was born in Paris to American parents when France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was still a living memory; Green was taught about his family’s roots in the American South before the Civil War.
Green struggled to meet moral and ethical standards set by his Protestant mother. He wrote in French with a distilled lucidity and formal politeness that charmed Gallic readers, to the point where he became the only American ever to be elected to the Académie française.
Even his unfinished projects could be fascinating, such as a 1947 screenplay for a film about St Ignatius of Loyola, intended to be directed by the Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson.
This legacy may be in question following the publication in September by Éditions Robert Laffont in Paris of a new version of the first volume of Green’s Diary, containing entries from 1926 to 1940. Three further volumes are due to appear in 2021.
Sixty per cent of the first book, which is authoritatively edited and more than 1,400 pages long, represents previously unseen material suppressed by Green before publication. In some passages, he criticised literary contemporaries with catty backbiting hitherto not considered typical of Green; in other passages, he provided a detailed account of his sexual life.
His descriptions of these encounters sometimes echo 18th-century French libertine writing, such as calling a romantic partner a “Ganymede”. But mostly he offers blunt sexual descriptions in a manner entirely devoid of spirituality.
The journalist Frédéric Martel claimed on the radio channel France Culture that “in public, Green spoke like a prelate, but in private, like a porn star”. This overstates the case. Green does confess what he was up to during his sexually active years, including with his life companion Robert de Saint-Jean. In previously published memoirs, Green described Saint-Jean as a platonic friend, but during the years covered by this first volume of the diary, Saint-Jean, it seems, was a not-so-platonic companion.
Debates and struggles over faith, chastity and literature abound. The wages of sin are much discussed, and not just in terms of the venereal diseases contracted during the course of his adventures.
Chastity remains a cherished virtue, even if Green is unable to attain it. He describes François Mauriac as a genuinely celibate gay man, whose example he was unable to match. Green’s friend André Gide tells him that Mauriac and other French Catholic writers take pleasure in “annexing” writers for the Church: “one of these days they will annex Nietzsche. Everything that is tragic becomes Catholic”.
Lest we view Green as a mere tragic case, or worse, a hypocritical one, it is useful to remember that despite his ecclesiastical yearnings, he never had any official role in the Church. His was the position of the aspiring outsider, even as author of God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi (Harper & Row, 1985) about how St Francis evolved from dandy to penitent. In this affectionate book, Green wrote of St Clare of Assisi: “Lovers have no psychology, because they are out of their heads”.
As part of his conflict between irrational self-indulgence and the sacred, Green was inspired to convert to Catholicism as a teenager after reading books by Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921), the ninth Archbishop of Baltimore, who wrote The Faith of Our Fathers (1876) and Our Christian Heritage (1889).
Bolstered by his faith, Green enlisted at 16 in the ambulance corps of the American Field Service in which he served during World War I, followed by a stint with an ambulance unit of the American Red Cross and enlistment in the French army as second lieutenant of artillery.
Trench warfare left him, like many survivors of a massacred generation of Europeans, ready for the licentious exuberance of the Roaring Twenties. Green’s published journals allude to some of the challenges he went on to face.
In 1924, he published a Tract Against the Catholics of France, complaining about a lack of piety at church services. His polemic was admired by the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who became a friend.
Around the same time, Green confided in his published journals that homosexual urges were tormenting him, and in 1929 he temporarily left the Church, before definitively returning a decade later under the guidance of Maritain, after confessing to Fr Alexander Rzewuski, a Catholic clergyman of Polish-Russian roots.
Unlike today’s French journalists, eager to find fault, careful readers of Green’s previous books should not be surprised by the contents of the newly augmented Diary, though they may be by the extent of their candour.
Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus