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Review of Personal Record by Julien Green

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Review. Personal Record 1928-1939 by Julian Green, translated by Jocelyn Godefroi
written by George Orwell
Time and Tide, 13 April 1940



Julian Green's diaries, which ten years ago or even five years ago might have seemed comparatively commonplace, are at this moment of the greatest interest. What they really record is the twilight of the aesthetic age, the last gasp of the cultivated second-generation rentier. With his extreme sensitiveness and his almost effeminate manner of writing, Mr Green is a figure particularly representative of the nineteen-twenties, of the period when simply to preserve your aesthetic integrity seemed a sufficient return for living on inherited money. Although the diary records visits to London, to various parts of Europe, and to America (Mr Green is of American origin though he writes in French), one has the feeling of being all the while in Paris, the Paris of old yellow-faced houses and green plane trees, and also of first nights, private views and interminable literary conversations with Gide, Gertrude Stein and Madame de Noailles. Everything is recorded with the restless sensitiveness of the writer, who translates his experience into literature almost as automatically as a cow turns grass into milk:

December 19th. A gas-lamp burning behind the glass door of a concierge's room at the end of a winter's day, with darkness overhead — what a lovely opening for a novel! Today, for a whole hour, I had nothing but this admirable picture in my mind.
February 2nd. At Versailles. . . . As I looked at the ivy-leaves with their dainty pale yellow borders, I had a moment of sadness at the thought that, till my life's end, things as lovely as they will be there for me to see and I shall have no time to describe them.

He writes much of his work, and his difficulties with his work (like the majority of writers he never feels in the mood for writing, and yet his books somehow get finished), of his dreams, which seem to affect his waking life considerably, and of his remembered childhood in the golden age "before the war". Nearly all his thoughts have a nostalgic tinge. But what gives them their special interest is that he is far too intelligent to imagine that his way of life or his scheme of values will last for ever. Totally uninterested in politics, he is nevertheless able to see, even as early as the nineteen-twenties, that the age of liberalism is ending and that wars, revolutions and dictatorships are just round the corner. Everything is cracking and collapsing. The shadow of Hitler flits almost constantly across the pages:

We are going to see life changing under our very eyes. Everything that gives us pleasure will be taken from us. . . . I am growing accustomed to the idea of vanishing from sight, together with all that I love in this world; for it seems reasonable to suppose that we are approaching the end of a long era. How long shall we sleep?. . . Paris is living in a sort of latent panic. . . . In the Europe of 1934 murder inevitably and fatally leads to other murder. How far can this go without the outbreak of war?. . . The war rumours continue as before. Everyone's daily life seems to be saturated with these feelings of apprehension. . . . The Rhineland has been reoccupied. . . . I was asked to say something on the wireless about Minuit. As if that were of the slightest importance with things as they are at the moment! But one has to go on pretending. . .

The feeling of futility and impermanence, of hanging about in a draughty room and waiting for the guns to begin to shoot, which has haunted many of us during the past seven years, is present everywhere, and it grows stronger as the diary moves towards 1939. Perhaps even the possession of this feeling depends upon being of a certain age (Julian Green is not quite forty), young enough to expect something from life and old enough to remember "before the war". It is a fact that the people who are now twenty do not appear to notice that the world is falling into ruins. But what is attractive in this diary is its complete impenitence, its refusal to move with the times. It is the diary of a civilized man who realizes that barbarism is bound to triumph, but who is unable to stop being civilized. A new world is coming to birth, a world in which there will be no room for him. He has too much vision to fight against it; on the other hand, he makes no pretence of liking it. As it is exactly that pretence that has been the stock-in-trade of the younger intelligentsia during the last few years, the ghostly sincerity of this book is deeply appealing. It has the charm of the ineffectual, which is so out-of-date as to wear an air of novelty.

Time and Tide, 13 April 1940

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