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Julian Green

By Ned Rorem

Artists are always being questioned about their influences. They know the answer, of course, since nothing comes from nothing. But they hesitate. After all, they’ve made a career covering their tracks: indeed, the act of covering tracks is the very act of creation. What I shall now reveal, therefore, is something of an admission. 

The news of Julian Green’s death at 98 reached me last July, just prior to a performance in Nantucket of a song by me on words by him. Fifty years earlier, when living in Morocco, I had read my first work of Green, a novel called Moira, and was stunned—like meeting my double in a trance. Narrated in compact Gallic language, the story treated of American disorder: sexual guilt of, and murder by, a horny inarticulate red-haired youth in a Southern university. New world puritan frustration via the mother tongue of Mallarmé. Green spoke American in French, the reverse of, say, Janet Flanner who spoke French in American. We had an exchange of letters, and when I returned to Paris that fall we met. The meeting quickly veered toward a violent intimacy which lasted about ten months, during which I saw Paris through his eyes and the world through his pages. 

Green’s first novel, Mont-Cinère, came out in 1926 and changed the tone of French literature. The subject was family greed in our southern United States, the language was lean and somber. Similar juxtapositions occurred in this American’s twenty-odd fictions over a period of sixty years, all but one composed in French. By 1951, when we met, he had also become, along with Gide, Europe’s principal master of the diary, a format which, if no more “true” or “confessional” than novels or autobiography, is by its nature more immediate. So I took up my own diary again, influenced, in manner if not in matter, by his. By extension the influence must have touched my music too, though no one can explain quite how, at least not in words (for if the arts could express each other, we’d only need one art). In this same year was republished a brief memoir called L’Autre Sommeil. Green was still in his twenties when it first appeared, but it speaks of his own death with a sadness that seemed… well… musical. I translated and made songs from three paragraphs. This is the music sung again last summer.

Green eventually wrote several modestly successful plays, one of which, Sud, was turned into an opera by Kenton Coe. In 1971 he was the first person of American parentage to be elected to the Académie Française. 

Julian Green was not a Thinker, much less a philosopher. If he had a riveting gift for plot, even in such an open-ended structure as the diary, the gift came as a stream of consciousness. “If I have anything to say,” he wrote, “I’m hardly aware of it. If I do bring a message, then I’m like a messenger who is unable to read and whose message is in comprehensible to himself; or rather, like a stenographer who cannot reread his work because he only knows how to write.”

But he was, in a sense, a messenger. Like many a holy convert he was more Catholic than the pope, and his prose is permeated with a sort of hopeless hope that the world will be saved. Those perpetual obsessions with sin and the true way, with prayer and dream, with shop talk (Jesus talk) among clerical friends! If in his Journal Julian Green continues, through his specific belief in God, to miss more general points at every corner, in his fiction this very “miss” provides the Julianesque tonality, the singular Greenery. Surely if one-track-mindedness empties the spirit of humor, it does fill the mind with an explosive physicality which remains the sine qua non of all large souls. (Humor is not physical but intellectual, and multiple-track-minded.)

Such skepticism was apparent to Julian who deplored my atheism, promiscuity, and what he termed “dangerous frequentations,” not to mention an age difference of 25 years. He gave me his books, photographs, insight into a rarefied milieu, a plaster cast of Chopin’s hand (which, to his horror, I used as a bookend), and, above all, confidences about his closeted yearning required by his tactile love for a statue of Apollo. His stifled emotions, the very grist of his early novels, grew less repressed in the later years. “I don’t care what anyone writes about me when I’m gone,” he often said. And he often said too—quoting Pascal quoting God—”You wouldn’t seek me if you hadn’t already found me.”

Which brings us back to influence. Is it cause or effect? Are we drawn to a work because of what we glimpse of ourselves already there, or do we discover only what we bring? Was my personal feeling—which was less than love and more than love—for Julian the man impelled by the unbearably wistful expertise of Julian the artist? Or was the unbearable wistfulness already in me, minus the expertise?

Today the expanse of time since first we met seems slight, yet surely I have at least a musical voice that has nothing to do with Julian Green. Though by another turn of the screw, I wouldn’t be me if it weren’t for him.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 13, 1999.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters