Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years. I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list. First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.
Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved. In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.
Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’. The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’. All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling. Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’. He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.
After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre. ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’. Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger… I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening. I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy. Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.
Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that. Interesting family politics are at play throughout. Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive. His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.
Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully. Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within. Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last. I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.