Spring 1987, Volume 4.1
Julien Green's Frere Francois: A Senescent's Synthesis
Alfred Cismaru (Ph.D., New York U) is a Professor of Romance Languages and Comparative Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of three books, Boris Vian, Marguerite Duras, and Moliere and Marivaux: A Comparison, and has published articles in Renascence, Antioch Review, Cithara, Modern language Journal, and others.
Indefatigable Julien Green, born in 1900, published in the summer of 1985 his Frere Francois, the long-awaited historical novel on which he had been working, on and off, for several years. The possibility of continuing to practice ones art in spite of advancing age is not, for the well versed in French literature, a new phenomenon. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his seventies, dictated when he could no longer see well enough to write; Simone de Beauvoir, in her late seventies, wrote even when hospitalized and continued to publish assiduously; Samuel Beckett, now eighty years old, has had at least one title in print in the last few years; Eugene Ionesco, also a septuagenarian, writes, directs and even acts on several of the world's stages. The examples could be easily multiplied. They prove, if not that senescence is merely a state of mind, at least that some can cope with it in such a way that mental activities remain impressively unimpaired.
Julien Green has always been a hard worker: from his younger days when he had to bear the burden of various psychological ills, to the present period of physical deterioration which parallels the long-standing existential anguish of the Catholic Atlas. For it would be difficult indeed to show that, following his return to Catholicism in 1940, the novelist has been beset any less by his obsession with the supernatural forces of evil and death, by his guilty desires and by his fears of his guilty desires, by his tragic view of the human condition, and by that ubiquitous and devouring worm called remorse, the prime mover of any thinking being. Whether it be in the very early Adrienne Mesurat (1927), in the postconversion Moira (1950), or in the 1985 story of Saint Francis of Assisi, Green's characters remain somewhat pathological and somewhat abnormal. They are visionaries or dreamers full of frustration, lonely and tragic souls incapable of communion with others and barely able to communicate with themselves. All this is to say, of course, that they reflect the metaphysical anxieties of the author, whose characteristics they share, rendering his novels, always, autobiographical in nature.
Writing on the life of a saint is a dangerous enterprise, for it is ever so easy to confuse God with the monuments on Via Dolorosa or to dissolve the supernatural into the daily vogues limiting historians. In addition, for seven centuries so many literary sculptors have worked the marble of Saint Francis of Assisi, have reshaped and in some cases shaped the physical and spiritual makeups of the "Proverells," that adding to the existing library might seem presumptuous, even superfluous. On the contrary, Green did not wish to explore again those aspects in the Saint's life belabored by others in the past. The well-known events are passed over quickly once they are recalled. One gets the impression that many might have been omitted if the author had not thought it advisable to provide a rounded picture, one in which each comer, each shadow would complement and explain the other.
But the brush does not, linger on the obvious. It traces broadly and rapidly those happenings that for Green have less importance: the childhood years when the boy was called "Francesco" by his merchant-father in appreciation of the land in which his business prospered, the plunge into asceticism and mysticism at age twentysix, when he began to devote himself to the care of the poor, the disadvantaged, the leprous, and above all to prayer; the decision, in 1209, to give life to his divine call to imitate Christ's existence and to preach by gathering about him a small group of followers with whom he established a monastic order called the Friars Minor, later known as the Franciscans; the journey to Rome, a year later, in order to receive the verbal confirmation of the Order from Innocent 111; the later perilous pilgrimage to Palestine; finally, his resignation as leader of the Friars Minor, resignation due to the dissension between the members who were traditional Observants and desired strict adherence to the vow of poverty, and the modem Conventuals, who thought that they could and should own the buildings they used and the other necessaries of their existence. summit of Tuscany, is accorded too much attention by Green. This astonishing event is the one in the course of which Saint Francis's body is said to have received the stigmata resembling Christ's wounds after forty days of fasting on Mount Alverno. But, bordering as it does on the miraculous, it interests the author much less than those acts of the hero which have had a mixed reaction because they are less revelatory of the saint than of the man who occasionally behaved in ways other than expected.
A case in point is Saint Francis's preaching to birds. Green marvels at Giovanni Francesco Bemardone's approach to religion, which is characterized by its extreme love of nature. He called both animate and inanimate creations his brothers and sisters, and thus his penchant for airy creatures and his need to cornmunicate with them shows his loftier makeup, not unlike that of Green himself. Actually, if birds could read they would delight in Frere Francois. The text is airy, light. The syntax moves smoothly, the sentences float and are marvelously devoid of pretentiousness. Verbs abound, adjectives and adverbs are rare, and thus there is in paragraph after paragraph a poetic quality of flight, the poesis of Saint Francis himself, and that of Green for whom identification with his hero is at the very core of the book's conception. In the last chapter of the text Green gives specific details of that identification. He reminds us how at age sixteen he had lost his mother, and with her the Anglican religion of his childhood. He continues:
I was then received into the bosom of the Church. When the teacher in charge of my religious instruction asked me what name I had chosen for my baptism, I answered without hesitation: Saint Francis of Assisi .... Once baptised, I felt immediately ready to follow my patron Saint, but life messed up that happy disposition and distance separated me more and more from him.... the years carried me far from my ideal.
In his old age that distance shrank, however, and he was able to gain insight into the deepest fibers of Saint Francis, which is far more important than mere emulation.
Another case in point is Green's handling of the encounters between Saint Francis and Saint Claire, events passed over rather lightly by other biographers, but which managed to inspire many painters, notably those of the Cimabue School. In this context the author notes with sadness that man has only one heart with which to love, and that sole organ must be used both for the love of God and of His creatures: an insufficiency without cure which is at the core of man's spiritual frailty. After elaborate details concerning the background of child and teenager Claire, Green dwells upon the chance and premeditated meetings between Giovanni Francesco Bemardone and his female admirer. He reviews the first chance encounters in the Church of San Rufino where he was preaching, unaware of the seventeen-year-old who imbibed voluptuously his words, without being aware of the meaning or perhaps even the existence of the shocking adverb. He was then twelve years older than she, but that was of no importance because his words were those she would have uttered if she had dared, and they seemed to emerge both from his mouth and from her soul. In his presence she was falling in love with Love, as is proper for a sentimental and idealistic youth. In beautifully lyrical and psychologically-succinct language Green comments:
If someone had told her that she was in love with the Preacher, she would have been horrified and she would not have understood what was meant by that. Yet, once back in her house, his sweetly vibrant and vigorous voice followed her, preaching penitence, scorn for riches, and mortification of the flesh.... She too was very pious, young Claire. In fact, that is an understatement: she was already a saint, practicing the mortification he suggested. Examples are available in abundance. Even as a child she led a quasi-angelic existence. traits was her desire not to be seen by anyone. Under the silky, elegant clothes in which she was dressed she would wear, next to her skin, another article of clothing made of rough and cheap Cilician goat hair. In secret, she always found a way of putting aside and then giving to the poor some of the elaborate dishes served at her table. In secret, too, she spent hours praying, much as a mature and devoted nun.
Green goes on to explain, though, that self-effacement and mortification notwithstanding, the basic carnality of the human being fights back; but it is precisely this combat between flesh and spirit that separates saint from mere mortal.
This takes the author into a minute description of the premeditated meetings, marrying brilliantly historical data with sober authorial imagination. The biographer's own fascination with, and horror of, women are well known, and therefore he is particularly suited for understanding and sympathizing with his hero's attitude. After his conversion not only did Saint Francis generally refuse to find himself in women's company, but he interdicted his fellow monks to speak to them or to practice any other form of intercourse with those luring creatures, so dangerous and so bound to lead even the strongest to perdition. Yet, when asked to grant an interview to Claire, he agreed. She, threatened by her family with an impending marriage for which she had no penchant, wished to ask the advice of someone close to God and apt to indicate to her the right course. But why did he agree to the interview?
Green is marvelously evasive on the question, forcing the reader to walk tremulously on paths barely suggested, mysterious and intriguing, much as those of the heart of Saint Francis himself who must have hesitated, yet surely trembled with the vague attraction that the meeting must have held for him. Avoiding women is prudent, facing them and resisting bewitchment must have appeared to him to be the braver option. That was a rationalization, of course, for Green goes on to mention the possibility of the meeting taking place in the woods, and to indicate the involuntary recollection by posterity of scenes from Romantic novels of the type read secretly by young pubescent pupils of respectable lineage in respectable convent schools. There was the probability of love, then, of mystical love at least. And Green's conclusion is inescapable: the two were tempting the devil in tempting themselves, just as in his own existence the biographer would often dare Satan in testing his own strength. The devil's omnipresence, a recurrent theme in Green's life and work, again sparks the interest of the author even though he toils as an historian, even though data are scarce and paucity of comment might have benefited verisimilitude more. But Green is not the usual reserved biographer, the sedate supplier of facts. He transcends the simple historian devoid of imagination and proceeds to ask pointed and poignant questions: "Francis, in his thirtieth year, facing this young girl of exquisite beauty, how could he not have fallen in love?" And immediately, as if to compensate for its absence in his own existence, he concludes that a miracle must have taken place then:
Their fall would have been an incalculable catastrophe because it would have touched thousands of souls which would have been led away from salvation by their conduct. With Francis, we see the problem better because we are, so to speak, on familiar ground. Grace works visibly on the human in him; he has desires and experiences passion just as we do, but, facing a neophyte who reveals to him so candidly the prodigious appeal of divine love, he cannot help hitting against the wall of the light of grace. As for Claire, she is in love with Christ perhaps also, but without knowing it, with Francis himself, for she cannot really distinguish between the two. She is overjoyed to have the occasion to deliver her soul to this God-given man, and it is very possible that, in the excess of her euphoria, she falls on her knees in front of him her wish to leave the world and its riches and to dedicate her life to Christ.
The rest is less important, the rest is history. Francis pretends not to believe her and orders her, so that she might prove her sincerity, to dress in sackcloth and go begging through the streets of the town. Claire accepts, Dame Pauvrete acquires the flesh and bones of a young girl, and Francis helps Claire take her first step on the road to Paradise. Later, during the dark dawn of 18 March 1212, Claire furtively leaves her parents's home for good and takes refuge in the Saint Mary of the Angels church where Francis is waiting for her. With unprecedented gestures (because a much lesser prelate is usually in charge of such chores) it is he who shaves her head, takes custody of her clothes and sees to it that she is clad in Franciscan garb. Later still, with his help and the help of his monks, she will be able to resist the onslaught of her father, Arnaud, and of her uncle, Monaldo, who have enlisted a band of armed mercenaries in their attempt to free her. The description of the flight of Catherine, Claire's sister, a week later, is still less important, as is the second victory of Francis over attackers who place family ties above those with God.
What matters, and what makes for the excellence of this Iong, Orphic passage and the book's overall fascination is Green's inability to come to terms entirely with the dichotomy between love of human being and love of God. His statement that a miracle must have occurred to prevent Francis and Claire from falling into each other's arms notwithstanding, and his countless comments concerning the purity of their relationship notwithstanding, he insists just enough on the carnality of the encounters to give readers a gnawing doubt, a lingering suspicion that perhaps more was involved, perhaps a great deal more. Example: the sentence "the flesh could not play any role in it [their relationship]" is contradicted at least in part by the very next sentence: "It [the flesh] was present, however, though hidden in the abyss of the subconscious, never manifesting itself." But in spite of these last three words, and in the same paragraph, recalling the story of their love as recounted by nuns to whom Claire had made an on-again, off-again confession, Green concludes that Claire had been speaking to them with "the language of desire, because there is no other language with which to express the excesses of extreme passion."
In addition, the biographer attempts, but does not quite manage (voluntarily so?) to explain away the shedding of the worldly clothes and tonsorial episodes. Concerning the first he states: "Francis, like a true Italian, knew how to lend poetry to the first step toward Paradise taken by that fiancee of Christ." This, of course, does not give any precise or valid reason for a major departure from established ecclesiastical procedures used at the time in connection with the entrance of a woman into religious life. With respect to the second episode, Green's editorial leaves little doubt as to his own very real suspicions. He writes: "His elation must have been so strong when he put the scissors to the hair of Dame Pauvrete herself, his Dame whom he was cutting off from the world. It must have been a spiritual conquest of her, a physical seizure too, just as prescribed by ecclesiastical jurisdiction." Further revealing suspicions that perhaps he would have liked not to nurture, Green quotes Francis's first rule: 'let us be careful of everyone and let us keep all our members pure, for God says that whosoever looks at a woman and desires her, has already committed an adultery of the heart." Nor is the well-known question posed by Saint Francis missing from the biographer's text: "It is God who prevents us from marrying, but who knows if it is not the devil who has given us nuns?"
Nevertheless Francis is known to have watched closely over these spiritual daughters, in particular over his beloved Claire. And Green ends his discussion of the Francis-Claire affair with the littleknown and perhaps deliberately ignored event when, one day, having come to preach in the Convent of San Damiano, he failed to do so. Instead, "he began by kneeling and prayed for a long time, then he had some ashes brought to him and he drew a circle around the spot where he was standing, put some over his head, and, kneeling again on the tiles, he continued his prayer, The sisters, astonished, waited in silence. He got up finally, recited a Miserere and left the church. And that was all there was to his sermon." Is Green suggesting here a measure of guilt, a publicly displayed and remorseful mea culpa?
Frere Francois, then, is not a banal Saint's life, as penned by so many well-meaning Catholic writers. It is the biography of a person attempting to maintain his saintliness and the autobiography of a sinner aspiring to sainthood, just as it is, of course, a book of reconciliation between Francis and God and between Green and himself, or rather his other self, the one he had envisioned during the ceremony of his baptism. The aging author painfully looks back, and the multifarious detours loom still enticing, still menacing, but there is a synthesis now: flesh and spirit, Eros and Agape, cohabit in peace and in tolerance of each other, fused by the passing years and by the taste of ashes.