Julian Green, whose biography of St. Francis of Assisi is reviewed on Page 2, is both a member of the French Academy and an American citizen. Born in Paris in 1900 to American parents, he claims both French and English as mother tongues. Last September, the French publishing house Editions de la Difference published a unique book, a collection of Green translated by Green: essays written either in English or in French over a period of 50 years, translated now into either French or English for publication in a bilingual edition as "Le Langage et son double/The Language and Its Shadow." The fascination of the volume, whose title alone is enough to start an argument, lay--for English-reading Frenchmen--in monitoring what changed besides words as this acknowledged master of two linguistic personalities moved back and forth across an invisible border. In what follows, Nicole Zand, a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Monde, interviews Green about his experience of bilingualism.
Question: Is one the same person in French and in English? Does one say the same things, think in the same way in the two languages with just, so to speak, interchangeable words?
In "Experiment in English," you say: "French sees the world in its way, English in its, but it is the same world seen at different angles." But has it never occurred to you to say: "I could only have written that book in French"? Or "only in English"?
Answer: Yes. There are things that I can only say in French. Take, for example, what is called, loosely, the interior life. I do not know if I could speak of it as freely in English as in French. It isn't that I would ever be other than sincere. The question is one of perspective, not sincerity. One adapts one's language to the person to whom one is speaking. I would not speak to an English lady as I am speaking to you. I would be less forthcoming, less indiscreet (he chuckles), less indiscreet. Bilingualism is a very good thing, an immense advantage, so long as there is no invasion of the one personality by the other.
Q. Have you ever hesitated between your two linguistic homelands?
A. When I was elected to the French Academy, my acknowledgement address bore the title "A Language Is Also a Homeland." Twice, I had the choice: first, at college in 1920 (in the American South)--but I returned to France in 1922; and again in 1944, by which time I had already published a great deal in English and could have remained in America and become an American writer--but again I missed France.
I was born in Paris and grew up with Paris around me. However, I have inherited some of the English irony. It appears all the time in my books, and the French do not always get it. The British call it "dry humor": An evening in the English theatre, the house explodes in laughter; in France, it remains serious because your Frenchman is a serious fellow. He's enormously witty, but that's something else again. Humor is a matter of seeing the comic side of certain situations, while wit is the unexpected, surprising contrast among ideas. I mean by irony what Thomas Hardy put in the novel he entitled "Life's Little Ironies." The English are acutely aware of these little ironies. The French are either unaware of them or do not choose to take them into account.
Q. You lay claim to Thomas Hardy, you call yourself English, but are you not a writer of the American South?
A. My father was from Virginia, my mother from Georgia. But Georgia was the last British colony to be founded, and it remained British even after the 1776 revolution, particularly in the city of Savannah. A good part of it actually remained faithful to King George III for 10 or 15 years. English laws and customs and above all the English language survived. My own mother remained profoundly English, and she raised me to be an Englishman, telling me: "Remember, you must always be true to England. . . ." My sister Anne, who was a novelist (she died in 1979), was totally English; indeed, she was criticized in America for "English" writing. By now, though, English is disappearing in America; we have another language, American, as is our right: We are Americans, I am an American. . . .
For years, I did not want to read "Gone With the Wind," for I had once begun a novel set in America. But just then I heard talk of a gifted woman who was writing a novel on the War of Secession, and I abandoned my project, though you can read it in outline in the Pleiade. "Gone With the Wind" . . . eh bien , I did not read it until recently, but it is so well done. It shows the journalist's way of handling facts. Only its plot struck me as oddly conceived: The character of the traitor, traveling continually from the North to the South, struck me as impossible. Someone would have put a bullet in him. When he says of the Southerners: "You are going to be defeated, you fools without factories," he is completely right. But to say this in front of everybody, no, it wouldn't have been tolerated. As for her, for Scarlett, she is no representative of the South, no "lady" at all.
What is masterful in that book is the destruction of Atlanta. From the military point of view, it was completely pointless. But Sherman detested the South; he even said, "I will make Georgia howl." It was my grandfather who turned Savannah over to Sherman. He told him: "The city capitulates. Don't destroy it."
Q. In "Le Langage et son double/The Language and Its Shadow," the English part, paradoxically, takes up more room than the French, a state of affairs that runs counter to all the rules. How do you explain this?
A. French is an impoverished language, a language ruined in the 17th Century. A sorry affair: The language then was of a prodigal richness, with Rabelais and the poets of that epoch. And then along came the gentlemen of order: Descartes, Boileau, Malherbe. It is sad, if at the same time admirable, to see what modern French can manage with such reduced linguistic resources.
What struck me when I arrived in America and began studying English literature was its superabundance. In English, one is almost irritated by the luxurious choice of words, words by the fistful, while in French you have to hunt for a single one. But this is what makes for the beauty of French: le mot juste. There is always one, and never more than one. The great beauty of Baudelaire is his extraordinary simplicity and his way of turning a banal word to advantage by using it so unexpectedly that it becomes the only possible word.
Bilingualism enriches. English poetry, French poetry--each is beyond price. Villon, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. They alone put France in the first rank. As for English poetry, there is Keats but above all Shakespeare. The first time I read the plays of Shakespeare in English, I got drunk on that diction; Shakespeare brings on a kind of inebriation.
But to return to the French language, I would speak also of a kind of complicity. I understand so well what a Frenchman wants to say! I know what is there in the brain of a man like Baudelaire! It is all part of my self. I chose French. Once in a while someone says to me: "You're foreign." (He laughs.) What greater homage then could I have rendered to France than to have given her my entire oeuvre? Is that not a proof of love?
Translated by Jack Miles.