- Reading Balzac's Eugénie Grandet (1833) in Julien Green's Adrienne Mesurat (1927)
The first non-French national to be elected to the Académie Française, Julien Green spent most of his life in France and wrote primarily in French, but never took French citizenship, even when Georges Pompidou offered it to him in 1972. Perhaps best remembered for his conversion at age sixteen to Catholicism, his coming out as a homosexual in the '50s, and his nineteen-volume journal, Green attracted the attention of literary critics in 1926 with his first novel, Mont-Cinère, earning acclaim the following year for Adrienne Mesurat, which won not only the prix Paul Flat de l'Académie Française but also the Prix Bookman (Prix Femina Anglais) for the English translation, The Closed Garden. Charles E. Koëlla calls Green "un des romanciers les plus curieux de la littérature française contemporaine" (607) ('one of the most unusual novelists in contemporary French literature')1 and describes the novels and stories he published between 1925 and 1929 as "des œuvres hallucinantes qui frappent par leur profonde originalité, par leur structure solide et par leur puissance" (597) ('hallucinatory works whose profound originality, solid structure, and power are striking'). Originality notwithstanding, Koëlla wonders what writers might have influenced Green, who claimed to know Dickens and Balzac well, but who insisted that "la grande lecture de ma vie fut la Bible. La Bible en anglais" (qtd. Koëlla 606) ('the greatest thing I've read in my life is the Bible. The Bible in English'). In fact, Green strove to be unique: "Je n'ai jamais eu conscience de ressembler à quelqu'un. Je n'ai jamais lu un beau livre sans avoir le désir de faire quelque chose de tout à fait différent" (qtd. Koëlla 606) ('I have never been aware of resembling someone. I have never read a great book without feeling the desire to do something completely different').
Of course Green's disavowal of influences has not prevented critics from comparing him to writers as varied as Dostoyevsky, Poe, Hawthorne, Charlotte Brontë, Tolstoy, and even Racine. Marilyn Gaddis Rose refers to Green's work as "a synthesis of both tradition and revolt. Neither aspect can be emphasized without deforming the finely executed equilibrium which is the key to [his] technique" (164). She sees connections to multiple generations of writers, submitting that Green's prose [End Page 226]
maintains a rapport between the fictional worlds and means of expression used by Mme. [sic] de la Fayette, Balzac, Stendhal, Zola […], enriched by the present elder statesmen of French letters, François Mauriac and Georges Duhamel, as well as the late Roger Martin du Gard and Georges Bernanos; and the unstable universe and its idiom developed by his contemporaries, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, André Malraux, or Albert Camus.(164)
The blurb on the cover of the Livre de poche edition of Adrienne Mesurat links Green's eponymous heroine to two iconic figures from the previous century, stating that Green "installait aux côtés d'Eugénie Grandet et d'Emma Bovary une autre inoubliable figure de femme au destin silencieusement écrasé dans l'étouffante médiocrité de la province" ('installed alongside Eugénie Grandet and Emma Bovary another unforgettable figure of a woman whose destiny is silently crushed in the stifling mediocrity of provincial life'). Although Adrienne resembles Flaubert's heroine to some degree,2 she has far more in common, as this analysis will show, with Eugénie. Moreover, the two novels under scrutiny here both have titles bearing their respective heroines' names, a similar structure, a scathing indictment of provincial life, a tyrannical father figure, and an emphasis on binary oppositions (light/dark, open/closed spaces, dreams/reality). Though the two works may at first seem unlikely bedfellows, Balzac's novel informs that of Green to a surprising degree.
One of Balzac's best-known works, Eugénie Grandet, centers on the dynamic between the heroine and her miserly father, its entire plot hinging on the unexpected arrival of a cousin, Charles, with whom Eugénie instantly falls in love. Conflict naturally ensues...