I adored Strait is the Gate, the first work of Gide’s which I read, and was eager to carry on with his books. When I spotted a neat copy of The Immoralist in Books for Amnesty whilst on a shopping trip in Cambridge then, I simply could not resist picking it up. Seamlessly translated from its original French by David Watson in 2000, and introduced by Alan Sheridan, the novella was first published in France in 1902.
The Immoralist takes as its focal point a newly married couple, Michel and Marceline, and is set during the 1890s. They travel to Tunisia for their honeymoon, where Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, and learns something fundamental about himself: ‘During his recovery, he meets a young Arab boy, whose radiant health and beauty captivate him. This is an awakening for him both sexually and morally and, in seeking to live according to his own desires, Michel discovers a new freedom. But, as he also finds, freedom can be a burden.’ In this ‘awakening’, The Immoralist feels rather ahead of its time; it is never entirely explicit, but the passion and adoration – almost hero-worship – which Michel feels for the young boy has been tenderly presented. One can find indications throughout about Michel’s homosexual tendencies; for instance, whilst in Naples, he went ‘prowling’. Of Marceline, Sheridan writes that Michel sees her ‘as no more than a companion’, although at times one comes to believe that he loves her in his own, albeit platonic, manner; he describes her at the end of the second chapter, for instance, as ‘my wife, my life…’.
The novella – for it runs to just 124 pages – begins with a letter written by an unnamed friend of Michel’s; he and two other friends, who have all been close since their schooldays, travel to Michel after receiving a cry for help: ‘we dropped everything and set off together’. The story which follows is as it was told to the group of friends, using Michel’s own voice. This monologue is a simple yet effective plot device, and an awful lot is learnt about our protagonist and his decisions in consequence. His voice is both engaging and believable, and his character fully-formed. He is touchingly, and occasionally brutally, honest: ‘I may not love my fiancee, I told myself, but at least I have never loved another woman. In my view that was enough to ensure our happiness.’ As far as Marceline is concerned, she is rather an exemplary figure; kind and patient, her main priority throughout is Michel, even at those times in which he does not treat her very well, or consider her feelings.
Life and mortality, as well as the overriding issue of morality, are major themes within The Immoralist. In the first period of his recovery, Michel realises quite how astonishing life is: ‘I am still very weak, my breathing is laboured, everything tires me out, even reading. But what would I read? Simply existing is enough for me.’
The Immoralist has been both beautifully written and translated. Indeed, Watson’s translation has such a fluidity to it that it seems almost a surprise that English was not simply its original language. I was utterly absorbed throughout my reading of The Immoralist; it is a sensual novel, and it certainly holds something which feels fresh, even to the modern eye. Gide’s descriptions are decadent, both striking and vivid, and they often have a quiet power to them: ‘The regularly spaced palm trees, drained of their colour and life, looked as if they would never stir again… But in sleep there is still the beat of life. Here nothing seemed to be sleeping, everything seemed dead’.
There is rather an enlightening quote which we can take from Sheridan’s introduction: ‘If Michel is an “immoralist” it is not because he finally succumbs to “immorality”: his sexual activities are incidental to the novel’s main concerns. Michel is an “immoralist” because he has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a weapon of the weak, of a slave mentality’. Indeed, there are many rather profound ideas which are woven into the text, or which spring up whilst reading and can be considered afterwards. In his own preface, Gide writes: ‘If I had intended to set my hero up as an exemplary figure, I admit that I would have failed. Those few people who bothered to take an interest in Michel’s story did so only to revile him with the force of their rectitude. Giving Marceline so many virtues was not a waste of time: Michel was not forgiven for putting himself before her.’ To see Michel’s end, of course, one needs to read this fantastic and startling novella for themselves; this reviewer shall give nothing further away. Suffice it to say that perceptive and startling, with a powerful denouement, and a fascinating portrayal of rather an unconventional relationship, I enjoyed The Immoralist just as much as Strait as the Gate.