Julien Green


Reviewed: 2020-04-11

       The Closed Garden, now published under its original French title (and the name of its central figure), Adrienne Mesurat, is set in small-town La Tour de l'Evêque, in 1908. Eighteen-year-old Adrienne Mesurat lives in the so-called Villa des Charmes in the blandest of bourgeois comfort with her sixty-year-old retired father, a man of the most basic routines, and her long-ailing sister, Germaine, seventeen years her senior; their mother passed away fifteen years earlier and Germaine had taken on a role closer to mother than sister (though without the energy to make much of an impression in either). The Mesurats have essentially no social circle, close neither to family nor any outsiders, and live the dullest of lives. Sickly Germaine spends all her time listlessly aswoon, while old Mesurat sticks to a simple, satisfying routine; the novel opens with Adrienne with duster in hand, bored silly. 
       This is an almost claustrophobically domestic novel, the Villa des Charmes a hold -- in father Mesurat's controlling hands -- that has tightened around the two women and which Adrienne, in particular, now feels increasingly constricting. It is a functioning household, to all appearances, but the adults are blind to anything beyond their most limited, self-absorbed purviews, and Adrienne, so used to this: "tyranny of custom", barely able to imagine anything beyond. It is a triste locale -- and even before Mesurat really clamps down and isolates them further the description rings true:

Nothing can be imagined more dismal than this garden, half hidden by the dusk, sodden and streaming.

       Adrienne's horizons are extremely limited: no dreams of Paris for her ("She had been there several times and had brought back nothing save a disagreeable sensation of confusion and feverishness"), as instead she can do little more than dream of and scheme for the best window vantage point over the nearby streets, as her horizons extend no further. She has neither much imagination nor ambition, and doesn't even lose herself in books or the like:

Adrienne always waited in the parlor until lunch was served, and passed the time as best she might. Often, as before, she put on an apron above her black serge dress and wiped the furniture, over which she felt quite sure Desirée's duster never passed. Or else she amused herself by taking the books out of their shelves, brushing their backs with a clothes brush, and putting them back in order of size. It never occurred to her to read one.

       For her father, Adrienne remains stuck in time and place: after she reached age fifteen, she: "was never to appear a year older in the imagination of her father" -- and the discrepancy between reality and his picture of her is widening. With little to look forward to beyond the endlessly repetitive day-to-day, Adrienne anticipates the arrival of seasonal neighbor, Madame Legras -- and talks herself into a passion for the local doctor she has glimpsed, the far too old for her (he is forty five) Maurecourt. Stealthily venturing out on her own in the most tentative of explorations of the greater world on a few evenings, Adrienne begins to show the barest signs of independence -- only to be called back in line by her father and sister. 
       The Villa des Charmes then becomes even more of a prison, kept under even tighter lock and key by Mesurat. Surprisingly -- and rather out of character --, it's the otherwise so impassive Germaine that rebels first: 

     "Adrienne," said Germaine, so steadily as to surprise her younger sister, "I have made up my mind to leave this house." 
     "Leave this house ? What an idea !" 
     "I have no intention of discussing it with you," replied Germaine in a harsh and uneven voice. "Yu must see that I can't go on living here at my age, under the control of a man who will not even allow me to stay in bed when I like when it is necessary. Besides, the climate here is execrable. Look how cold it is this morning, after all these roasting days. It is enough to kill anyone. What I need is warmth and sunshine and an even temperature. And I must be free. Papa is growing terribly old. He is a tyrant -- yes, a tyrant ! 

       Germaine needs Adrienne's help -- and some of her saved-up ready cash -- to make good her stealthy escape and Adrienne gladly helps, happy to be free of her sister's burdensome presence. Papa does not take to it so well, when he discovers his daughter gone -- and Adrienne's hand in helping free her -- and he vows to come down even harder now, on both his children. Before he's able to, Adrienne herself lashes out -- and Mesurat comes down harder than he had expected, in quite a different way. And suddenly, practically overnight, Adrienne finds herself freed of both these oppressive family members that had been holding her down and back. 
       Adrienne is, of course, as unequipped to deal with any sort of freedom and independence as with anything else. (The slightly guilty conscience presumably doesn't help either .....) From the first, Madame Legras has been friendly to the young woman, but she's a manipulative spirit with, it turns out, issues of her own to deal with, and their connection remains superficial. (Of course, Adrienne seems incapable of any depth to any relationship, apparently never managing any sort of closer friendship.) Doctor Maurecourt's sister vows to keep Adrienne at a distance from him, when that's the only hold still alive in her imagination -- while the good doctor himself proves surprisingly sensible and understanding (indeed, the only such character in the entire story) and readily diagnoses her:

     "You are highly nervous, mademoiselle. You are falling, little by little, into a state of despondency from which you may never be cured if you do not make an immediate effort. You must see more people; above all, trust in others more than you do. There are many things in you that have no right to be there, and which the sole fact that you brood upon them renders acute. You have certain thoughts shut up within yourself that have ended by acting on you as poison."

       Of course, he's a bit late with the diagnosis -- and apparently doesn't realize just how deep Adrienne's madness has already sunk in. 
       The Closed Garden is all about Adrienne, the narrative following closely in her footsteps and her childish, bored, and confused mind. The marvel of it is in Green's relentless gaze -- and the stultifying atmosphere surrounding her, so beautifully and horribly captured. It is a feverish near-dream, Adrienne either practically sleepwalking through her dull routines -- picking up that duster -- or impulsively acting out (only just as quickly to change her mind, or pretend nothing happened, as she doesn't want to face the consequences of her actions). Her state of denial is acute, almost instinctive; brought up in a world where change is practically not permitted, where all is routine, she can try to escape back into the safety of that even at the most terrible moment:

Everything she was doing now -- these familiar gestures, which she was repeating once again -- afforded her a sort of animal joy, unreasoning enough, but which she could have explained in something like these words: "Things must be going on perfectly well. Nothing can have changed, since I am going to bed as usual, since I open my window -- chafe my shoulders." She blew out the lamp and dived between the sheets.

       Typically then also -- because it removes her from everything familiar -- Adrienne's one greater adventure elsewhere, a short trip she takes, to simply go somewhere in the greater (yet still oh so circumscribed) world, is comic in her indecisive failures. 
       The Closed Garden goes where it must; there was never much hope for Adrienne -- but then given her so limited experience, she wouldn't know a happy ending if she saw it. It's a terrible portrait -- but a horribly-expertly rendered one. The art is in the presentation, and Green's uncompromising approach here works very well indeed. 
       The Closed Garden is not a pleasant novel, but it is a quite remarkable one. 

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 May 2019



Item Posts
No posts