The Excellent Memoir Of An Unpleasant Boy

Essay, Research Paper

The excellent memoir of an unpleasant boyThe Other Sleep by Julian Green, trs Euan Cameron (Pushkin Press)Another rediscovery from one of my favourite publishers. At a tenner for a scant 124 pages, without even the excuse of Arts Council funding to account for such an exorbitant price, I will understand if many readers save their pennies. But for what? Sometimes you just have to pay up for quality, and anyway, the price of wisdom is beyond petty reckoning.Another obstacle to mass acceptance of The Other Sleep is the disagreeableness of its narrator. It is one of the most idiotic complaints of the modern reader to say “I didn’t like the characters” – how, you wonder, do they get through a normal day? – but Green challenges us with the thorough unpleasantness of Denis, an adolescent who seethes beneath a mask of frigid, contemptuous indifference.The cast is minimal: Denis himself, his older, rebellious cousin Claude and Denis’s mother, who was “good in the way that other people are handsome, but in a loud and aggressive way”. Naturally, he “felt nothing but coldness towards her”. His father is a gloomy, shadowy figure, a doctor whose only passion, it appears, is history. Then there is Uncle Emile, a more human, humorous presence – but he gets sucked down into the melancholy atmosphere soon enough. Finally, we have Remy and Andrée, a boy and a girl who between them provide Denis’s rather weird sexual awakening.And that, apart from one or two mute parts, is everyone in the book. Denis may live in Paris, but for him it is hardly a teeming city. The story straddles the first world war, from Denis’s eighth to his 18th year.It is, in a way, A la Recherche in shorthand; but here the solipsism is pitiless rather than generous. You soon realise that this is rather more than a fictional exercise, a twisted version of the coming-of-age story: as you read the author’s afterword, written in 1971 (40 years after The Other Sleep was published), you find your suspicion confirmed that it is a brave and extraordinarily honest account of the adolescence of Julian Green himself.Green, born in Paris in 1900 to American parents, wrote most of his 60-odd books in French, and was the first foreign Academician. Most of his works are massive; his journal runs to 16 volumes. So this is a superb, concentrated introduction to his work – and his suffering, for Green was both a devout if troubled Catholic, and homosexual.This is one of the remarkable things about The Other Sleep: it is about the awakening of this awareness, but during a long phase of unbelief, when the world for him was “an antechamber of hell”. There is a moment when it looks as though he could go either way, but it is his cousin Claude he realises he loves, not the beautiful Andrée. You can gather how he felt about this from the way he tells a chilling anecdote about a mystical priest he knew who said he had seen the devil: “Without even turning his head towards me, Father Lamy made it quite clear that the devil was a good-looking boy.”Green had already had his epiphany by this time, during a lecture on a passage of Virgil dealing with what the lecturer called “the shame of the Ancients” – when Green recognised that this was his shame too. What makes The Other Sleep more than interesting, a true work of art, is that he didn’t even realise how autobiographical he was being. The Other Sleep was, said Green, an act of self-deception; but in deceiving himself he produced something visionary and timeless.


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