Green’s Languages.

Another interesting passage from Alien Tongues (see this post), this time on Julien Green:

The choice of a language in which to write obviously depends much less on the constraints of the external context than does the choice of a language for any given utilitarian speech utterance. […] Or consider Julien Green, who wrote novels drawn from his American experience in French, whereas he wrote a book about his French childhood in English. It is true that he had begun what was to become Memories of Happy Days in French and then switched to English after about twenty pages because, living in America during World War II, he despaired of finding a French publisher and felt it would be more “natural” to write in English in an American context, even though the subject was French. But what is curious about Green’s experience with Memories is that when he compared the beginnings written in French and in English, he saw that they were significantly different, not because the subject was different or because his intended audience was not the same, but because the languages were different:

So I laid aside what I had written and decided to begin the book again, this time in English, my intention being to use practically the same words, or, if you wish, to translate my own sentences into English.

At this point something quite unexpected happened. With a very definite idea as to what I wanted to say, I began my book, wrote about a page and a half and, on rereading what I had written, realized that I was writing another book, a book so different in tone from the French that a whole aspect of the subject must of necessity be altered. It was as if, writing in English, I had become another person. I went on. New trains of thought were started in my mind, new associations of ideas were formed. There was so little resemblance between what I wrote in English and what I had already written in French that it might almost be doubted that the same person was the author of these two pieces of work. This puzzled me considerably and still does.

Clearly, it is not so much that Green’s personality changes when he changes languages as that the language he has chosen changes the persona embodied in the work: “In reading the proofs of my book, I was struck by all that I had left unsaid and that I should most certainly have said in that book, had I written it in French. For instance, all that had to do with the development of religious feeling. I was even tempted to suppress the little I had said on that subject in the second half of the book. Why? I cannot say. Probably because I had written the book in English. It was as if the language itself had opposed certain disclosures in a book of that type (MFBIE, 232).

(I find, by the way, that I don’t make as clear a mental distinction as I should between Julien Green and Henry Green, probably because I still haven’t read anything by either. Recommendations will be welcome.)


  1. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of Julien Green, so I’m no help there.

    I learned of Henry Green through David Lodge’s informative little book of essays, The Art of Fiction. This Green is best known for three novels which, though unrelated, were published together by Penguin: Living, Loving, and Party Going. IMHO Living is the best of the three, although perhaps I feel that way because it’s the one with the most plot. Party Going is a satire about class privilege, intended to be savage but now dated, and the truth is that I have no recollection of Loving at all.

    But Living is genuinely a powerful novel, written in a style that is intentionally distancing and difficult to follow – there are almost no articles, definite or indefinite, and there are other grammatical innovations, intended to invoke Northern working class speech without condescending to eye dialect. So the narrative voice has a consciousness that resembles that of the characters and not (as say, in Dickens when he writes about working class people) that of the intended reader. After a few pages you’ll find that it works superbly well.

  2. marie-lucie says

    I thought of Julien Green right away when reading your earlier post, and I expected you to mention him. Nice to see a reference to him again! I seem to recollect that you did mention him much earlier, but I am probably wrong!

    I have his bilingual book, Le langage et son double, which presents his original texts and translations on facing pages (including a fair amount of autobiographical information about his childhood and the role of the two languages in it). Usually the English text sounds to me simpler than the French one (regardless of which one is the original). Otherwise I have only read his novel Adrienne Mesurat – think Eugénie Grandet a century later – but he was a very prolific writer in both languages and in several genres, with what seems to me an original perspective (but I am not very well versed in modern literature in either language). I liked him and would read more of his work if I ran into it.

  3. marie-lucie says

    I too find it very difficult to just translate a text I have written in one language, into the other. Even though I don’t write anything “literary”, I need to rewrite or the new text does not feel right. I currently have a project (not in linguistics) for which I am undecided about whether I would prefer a French or English readership. I have written notes and even paragraphs in each language, but have not come to a conclusion.

  4. A general impression I got is that any French book uses far more vocabulary than books on same subject in English or even Russian.

  5. The perception in the international auxiliary language community is that the French insist on having a separate word for everything and avoiding compounds at all costs.

  6. marie-lucie says

    When I started to learn English, I did not find it difficult but what I found most strange was that English often needed two words where French needed only one, like sit down, stand up, come in, go out and the like. What was wrong with just sit or stand ? (Of course, the French equivalents can also be complex but not in the same way). Once I got the hang of this English structure it turned out to be very versatile and often simpler than the French versions, but it was disorienting at first.

  7. I’ll second Bloix’s recommendation of Living. I’ve read the same Penguin triptych, and I think I liked Loving even better, actually — it’s set in an Irish country house during World War Two and the various relationships between servants and masters are really superbly observed and characterized. Henry Green is a very distinctive writer, not very like any other I can think of; it’s worth reading one or two of his works just to see if it’s the sort of thing you like.

  8. col. squiffy von bladet (ret.) says

    Is this a milieu where I must
    How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
    Snatch from the bottle in my bag
    An analeptic swig?

    (Every time you get your literary Green(e)s in a muddle you should take a WH Auden Memorial Swig, as analeptically as you know how.)

  9. Many years ago I had an English flatmate fluent in French. He was uptight and unpleasant speaking English, but relaxed, friendly and good company speaking French, so for the duration I decided we should only speak French, and we did.

  10. Julien Green here on Language Hat.

    Aha, marie-lucie had some things to say about him here, and an interesting follow-up comment here.

  11. La Horde Listener says

    Anybody else think of Dorian Green? >;-D

  12. La Horde Listener says

    OF COURSE I’ll tell you all about it! The insufferable, sartorially challenged young man Ignatius Reilly and his mother encountered in “A Confederacy of Dunces”. The character’s name is a wince-worthy play on Dorian Gray. Yoo vill remembare. Hey, I thought bringing it up would work around Halloween time. Back to your pumpkin spice Lattes.

  13. “Clearly, it is not so much that Green’s personality changes when he changes languages as that the language he has chosen changes the persona embodied in the work”

    I don’t find this clear at all. A language is a nurturing environment, and nurture affects personality. And a lot of recent research suggests that we don’t have a single, stable personality, but that our personality is plastic, changing in response to different environments it needs to adapt to.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Because of his origin and his education, Green had different emotional experiences and responses in his two languages, that affected what and how he wrote.

  15. ə de vivre says

    what I found most strange was that English often needed two words where French needed only one, like sit down, stand up, come in, go out and the like. What was wrong with just sit or stand ?

    Ha! I had the exact same experience going the other way. What do you mean I can’t say, “I ran down the stairs across the hall and into the garage”? A lot of light-bulbs went on when I later read Leonard Talmy’s article on event conflation in a linguistics class.

  16. Of course Beckett and Nabokov, both extensively discussed here at the Hat.

    In Sayers’s Whose Body?, we are not told what Wimsey says to a worried mother, merely this: “Lord Peter, escaping from the thraldom of British good form, expressed himself in that language in which sympathy is not condemned to mutism” (namely French).

  17. David Marjanović says

    a lot of recent research suggests that we don’t have a single, stable personality, but that our personality is plastic, changing in response to different environments it needs to adapt to

    …for different values of “we” and “needs”. At one extreme, I’ve known someone who occasionally woke up and had a whole new personality – all memories suddenly felt like they had happened to someone else, and decisions taken earlier became incomprehensible. At the other, there’s me. As I’ve often said, I don’t metamorphose, I’m a direct-developer. Even such things as puberty or university don’t seem to have had any effect in my case. Maybe I don’t express different personality traits in different situations because I’m not extroverted enough to express almost any in the first place.

    I’ve also observed that people’s drunk personalities are exaggerations of one personality trait they already had when sober – with one exception I’ve known, whose drunk personality seemed derived from a trait they completely lacked when sober.

  18. David Marjanović says

    However, the situation isn’t uncommon that what’s commonly said in one language is confined to a register or even wholly absent from another. Can you imagine English without “I love you”? That’s what my German dialect is like. It’s not even like French, where a single word covers “like” and “love”; we have “like”, but “love” is absent.


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