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Reading the World: ‘The Immoralist’ by Andre Gide *****

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.

9780141182995The 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.

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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

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’.

9780141185248Strait 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.

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