André Gide – Lecture 1

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Summary of this lecture:

  • Introduction
  • A brief overview, with periodisation of Gide’s career by Alain Goulet
  • Gide’s childhood
  • Les Cahiers d’André Walter (1891)
  • Gide’s travels, homosexuality, and recovery from tuberculosis
  • Paludes (1895)
  • Commentary: preface to Paludes


These lectures are specifically aimed at those studying André Gide for Paper XI (the modern authors paper). This Paper involves a deep study of the work of a particular author, and Gide lends himself wonderfully to this type of study, as he left behind a large corpus of work in which he pursued a sustained experimentation with various questions of literary form, as well as psychology and ethical issues. These lectures are also relevant to those studying for Paper VIII (the modern period paper), since Gide’s work is intimately connected to the time in which he lived. He’s a very important figure in the transition in literary life from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and his work is absolutely central to the renewal of the novel and literary ideas in general in the first half of the twentieth century. He exerted a great dominance over literary life for several decades, and was connected in some way to most of the literary and intellectual figures of several generations.

For Paper XI, there are four prescribed texts: the two shortish récits (L’Immoraliste and La Porte étroite), the autobiography Si le grain ne meurt, and the novel Les Faux-monnayeurs. All this means is that, in the exam, the passage for commentary will be taken from one of these four texts. It’s essential to read much more widely than this, and in fact it’s part of Gide’s appeal that there is such a rich web of connections between his works (and you might be pleased to know that many of these works are very short). Some of the same themes, or literary, theoretical or ethical problems, crop up in texts written years apart, in prose fiction, diaries, autobiography, essays, or plays. Different parts of his work contradict or dialogue with one another, and Gide’s distinctive brand of irony hangs over a lot of his works, which makes it difficult to conclude that any one idea, expressed in one text, has any authority over the rest.

For these same reasons, approaching Gide’s work can be overwhelming. There have been various attempts to publish his complete works classified according to genre, but a lot of Gide’s works don’t fit clearly into any established genre at all. Again, this inventiveness with regard to genre is a part of Gide’s appeal, and his influence. Gide’s own solution to this problem, in the 1930s, was to publish his Œuvres complètes across 15 volumes in a single chronological stream, without making any distinction between genres.

Fifteen photos of Gide, serving as frontispieces to the fifteen volumes of his Œuvres complètes (1932–1939) respectively. Each photograph is contemporary with the works in the volume.

My aim in these lectures is to provide a way into this œuvre, a sort of guided tour, following a roughly chronological path through his life and works. I’ll be offering breadth rather than depth. Fortunately, when you need depth (for example, when writing an essay), you’ll find that there’s a lot of excellent critical writing on Gide, and I’ve provided a few recommendations. In addition to this overview, I’ll discuss some extracts in more detail towards the end of each lecture. These passages are provided on the handout [they are included in the text below]. My intention here is to give some guidance for how to approach the commentary in Paper XI, and more generally, what to look out for when reading texts by Gide. I’ll only be discussing a very short passage at the end of this first lecture.

A brief overview

To give a little structure to everything that follows, I’ll start by recalling a system for dividing Gide’s work into periods, which is presented in a book by a leading Gide scholar, Alain Goulet.

Adapted from Alain Goulet, Fiction et vie sociale dans l’œuvre d’André Gide (Paris: Association des amis d’André Gide, 1986), pp. 20–23.

As for any author, this sort of simplification should be taken with a pinch of salt, but can be useful. In the first period Gide was heavily under the influence of Symbolism, and attended the weekly meetings of Stéphane Mallarmé’s salon. Symbolism was largely hostile to the novel, and to any sort of realism in fiction, and so Gide’s traités (treatises) are a series of highly lyrical, artificial and allegorical short stories addressing some literary and ethical problem. Although the traités are not very widely read any more, they’re a very important part of his development as a writer, and also a rather unusual, idiosyncratic sort of fictional writing. This period roughly comes to an end with Gide’s parody of the Symbolist milieu in a short fictional work entitled Paludes.

The second period is dominated by the series of récits, fairly short fictional works in which some particular experience is taken to an extreme. This includes two of the prescribed texts, L’Immoraliste and La Porte étroite, and also La Symphonie pastorale, which is one of Gide’s most widely read works. All the récits are made up of first-person narratives, and a lot of the interest in the récits is, not in the story itself, but in the way it’s told, or the way in which the act of telling the story affects the narrator.

In the third period Gide began experimenting with fictional works with more characters, a more complex social world, and multiple points of view. This involves a critical reflection on the heritage of the novel from the nineteenth century. This period culminates in the publication of Les Faux-monnayeurs in 1925. It’s also the period in which Gide published his autobiography Si le grain ne meurt, and this autobiographical writing is inseparable from his public declaration of his homosexuality. Homosexuality had been present in his earlier writing in more or less subtle ways, but it becomes a much more important theme at this time, including in Les Faux-monnayeurs.

From this point on, Gide produced much less in the way of fictional works. This was a period of social engagement on several fronts, first in challenging the injustices of French and Belgian colonialism in Africa, and later becoming a convinced Communist. Gide’s Communist phase came to an end when he made a very high profile visit to the Soviet Union in 1936, saw that it didn’t live up to his ideals, and wrote a highly critical work about it, Retour de l’URSS. This was also the period when Gide published a large part of his diaries, which are considered to be a significant part of his life’s work.

Incidentally, the diary is an important form for Gide. It’s often used in his fictional works (such as the diaries of Alissa in La Porte étroite and Édouard in Les Faux-monnayeurs), and Gide was largely responsible for making the diary into a more prestigious literary genre in the twentieth century. This happens to be an issue that I’ve devoted a lot of my own research to, which is mostly gathered in my book Diaries Real and Fictional in Twentieth-Century French Writing.

The final period, when Gide was in his 70s, does not contain any major works, but one major accolade: in 1947 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, which had undoubtedly been delayed for many years because of his notoriety (and when people speak of his notoriety, this is often a euphemism for his homosexuality). He died in 1951 and one more major event followed this, arguably another accolade: in 1952 he was added to the ‘index librorum prohibitorum’ the Catholic Church’s list of banned books and authors.

In these lectures I’ll mainly be discussing the first three periods, which contain the greatest part of his experimentation with fictional writing. But it’s important to note that the four prescribed texts for Paper XI, published between 1902 and 1926 come from a relatively short period of Gide’s long career, and you’ll need some awareness of what came before and what followed after them.

Early life

Gide was born in 1869 to an affluent land-owning family. Throughout his life he never needed to depend on his writing for income, and in fact the first one of his books to make a profit was La Porte étroite in 1909. As for other writers and artists, it’s important to keep this material context in mind. Like his contemporary, Marcel Proust, Gide didn’t need to follow literary fashions in order to make a living, he didn’t need to chase best-seller lists, please a patron, or write to commission. His writing was directed by personal and intellectual conviction. He also imagined his work being destined for a small group of, high-quality readers, who might only recognise his work sometime in the future. His work places certain demands on the reader, but it isn’t deliberately esoteric.

Several factors from Gide’s childhood had a lasting influence on his work. His father died when he was eleven years old, and he was brought up in Normandy by his mother in an environment of puritanical Protestant morality. Although it was only later, in his twenties, that he became fully conscious of his homosexuality, there was already a sense of sexual difference from his peers, and a vein of sensuality in his childhood and adolescence. This conflict between puritan morality and sensuality is a very important one throughout his work. It’s discussed in the autobiography Si le grain ne meurt, and the two poles of this binary opposition are explored respectively in La Porte étroite and L’Immoraliste (which makes these two works into a sort of complementary pair). Gide commented on this opposition in his diary in 1907, saying: ‘Je ne suis qu’un petit garçon qui s’amuse – doublé d’un pasteur protestant qui l’ennuie.’ For most of his childhood he led a fairly cloistered existence, and was largely educated by private tutors. He was also immersed in literature, and dreamed of being a successful writer.

Les Cahiers d’André Walter (1891)

In 1889, at the age of 20, Gide began work on his first major work, Les Cahiers d’André Walter, which was published in 1891. When Gide looked back on this work later in his life, he was a little embarrassed about it and presented it as a juvenile work, but he also acknowledged that it contains most of the elements that were to develop in his later work. It’s not one of his most widely read works, but it marked an important stage in his development. It’s certainly a strange novel, published as if it were the real diary of a real André Walter, although most readers recognised that this illusion is just a literary convention.

It traces an emotional crisis, in which the writer’s beloved is married off to someone else, and it draws out what seems to be the inevitable consequence of this crisis, which is the writer’s madness and eventual death. The biographical foundation for this in Gide’s life was his relationship with his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux, whom he wished to marry, against the wishes of some of the family. In crude terms, the book is a sort of emotional blackmail directed at Madeleine, to persuade her to marry him, by showing what would happen to him if they were not united. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t persuaded by this. The two of them did in fact get married in 1895, although the marriage was never consummated. There are quite a few avatars of Madeleine throughout Gide’s work, but probably the most memorable is the character Alissa in La Porte étroite. Incidentally, in Gide’s lifelong diaries, Madeleine is always referred to as Em., short for Emmanuelle, which is the name of her character in Les Cahiers d’André Walter.

The plot doesn’t follow a linear narrative. In the first half, the narrative looks back over the recent crisis, and the diary includes passages copied out from an even earlier period of time. In the second half, the diary relates the writer’s gradual progress in composing a novel called Allain, which we never get to read. But the true subject of Les Cahiers d’André Walter is the process of fictionalisation and literary creation: the novel is in fact largely adapted from Gide’s own diaries, and so André Walter is very close to André Gide, but the experience that is being represented is just one potential outcome, or just one part of his character taken to an extreme as a sort of literary experiment. But it’s more complex than this: André Walter is creating his own novel, and its protagonist Allain is one potential outcome of André Walter’s character. We are then faced with two different ways of producing literature from life experience, André Gide’s, and André Walter’s.

This structure is the first of many examples in Gide’s work of the device known as mise en abyme, which was first formulated by Gide in his diary.

An example of mise en abyme in heraldry.

The term ‘mise en abyme’ is taken from heraldry, where it traditionally described the effect of placing a small crest in the centre of a larger crest. Gide then uses the term to describe any structure where a work of art reproduces a copy of itself on a smaller scale, or depicts the process of its creation. Gide takes another example from Hamlet, which contains a play within the play. Once you’re aware of this device, you may well start to see it everywhere, and fortunately it often provides a useful way into discussing an artistic work. It always invites comparison between the smaller representation and work as a whole, just as in Hamlet, the play that Hamlet puts on to try to elicit a certain response from his uncle, allows us to think about the nature of Shakespeare’s play, or the nature of theatre in general. This structure will recur throughout Gide’s work, and most notably in Les Faux-monnayeurs, in which the character Édouard is himself writing a novel, also entitled Les Faux-monnayeurs.

Among other things, Les Cahiers d’André Walter can be considered a Symbolist novel. It so happened that Gide came of age at the very moment when the novel seemed to have run into a dead end, both the Realist Novel and the Naturalist Novel that had dominated fictional writing in the nineteenth century. The literary avant-garde was now occupied by the Symbolists, and in particular by Stéphane Mallarmé. Symbolism, as a literary movement, turned away from the concrete and the material, and focused instead on sensations and ideals. It was also fairly hostile to the novel as a genre. With Les Cahiers d’André Walter, Gide tried to resolve this problem by writing a novel that was not concerned with society and material things, but with the imagination and inner struggle of a single character. Although Gide would soon move beyond Symbolism, this was the start of a long process of critiquing the legacy of the novel, and trying to renew it. Socially, Gide was welcomed into the prestigious company of the Symbolist circle thanks to this first novel, and this gave him his start in the literary world.

Although Gide was never at the centre of the Symbolist movement, his writing continued under this influence for several years, while he produced a number of works that he described as traités. As I mentioned earlier, these traités are very artificial, allegorical short stories, often taking place in a mythical or other-wordly setting, and they address some specific literary and ethical problem. For example, the first of these works is the Traité du Narcisse, which has as the subtitle ‘Théorie du symbole’ – evidently this is concerned with the aesthetic principles of Symbolism. I’ll comment on a couple of these traités later, but first I need to mention another development in Gide’s life, which had a huge influence on all his subsequent work.

Gide’s travels, homosexuality, and recovery from tuberculosis

Gide was still, at this time, the fairly cloistered young man he had been when he wrote Les Cahiers d’André Walter: inexperienced, not yet widely travelled, and he had not yet come to terms with his own homosexuality. This was all to change in the winter of 1893–1894, when he spent several months in North Africa with a friend. Gide already knew that he had tuberculosis, and had been dispensed from doing military service for this reason, but in North Africa he had a particularly bad bout of tuberculosis, and nearly died. His embracing of the natural world in all its vitality was encouraged both by his illness and by the exoticism that he found in the North African setting. He had his first homosexual experiences, and found them far preferable to the few heterosexual encounters that he’d had previously.

This was not just a series of formative experiences, even though they might each be important by themselves. But together, they make up a nexus of themes, which are very often closely related in Gide’s work: travel, new experiences, sexual freedom and especially homosexuality, and liberation from habit, family, religion, and conventional morality. And all of this is mapped geographically onto North Africa, and generally regions to the South of France, as opposed to the cold, stagnation, and moral restriction that are associated with Gide’s Northern home in Normandy. It’s also important to stress that this new experience did not simply win out over the earlier asceticism, and some sort of balance, or dialogue between these different elements, continues to animate Gide’s work throughout his whole career. He always remains the ‘petit garçon qui s’amuse – doublé d’un pasteur protestant qui l’ennuie.’

From the point of view of his writing, Gide now faced a dilemma. He had already mapped out his future œuvre, but he had now discovered the reality of a whole dimension, that of sensuality, which had been only theoretical up to that point. From now on he was in constant danger of falling behind, as the new burning issues could not be addressed until he had given literary form to the previous ones. It’s easy to see the connections between Gide’s North African experiences and the themes of L’Immoraliste, but he didn’t start writing that straight away. According to the periodisation of Gide’s career that I presented earlier, the first period of Gide’s career lasted from 1890 right up until 1897. So in 1894, Gide was still imbued with the Symbolist idea that the writer, or the poet, is one whose vocation is to reveal the truth that lies behind the material world, and Gide was not yet ready to engage with that material world in the writing of fiction.

Paludes (1895)

The first work that shows the trace of Gide’s new experience was Paludes, written in 1894 and published in 1895. On a personal note, I would recommend this work even to someone who will read only one work by Gide. It’s really an extraordinary work, and provides a great insight into Gide’s distinctive irony, his sense of humour, and his interest in writing itself. It’s also only about sixty pages long. Rather than setting out his new ideas about liberation, Gide first wrote this highly ironic fiction in which he satirises the Symbolist milieu, which he now found limiting and stagnant (hence the title Paludes, or ‘swamps’). In a sense, writing Paludes had the same function for Gide now as writing Les Cahiers d’André Walter had earlier. In Les Cahiers d’André Walter he’d been reflecting on the conditions of writing when under the strain of emotional separation, and now he was reflecting on the conditions of writing when under the strain of a mismatch between his aspirations and those of his literary milieu. In his autobiography he claims that he might have been driven to suicide, had it not been for the safety-valve of describing that milieu satirically in Paludes.

Just as in Les Cahiers d’André Walter, there is a structure of mise en abyme, which places the focus on the process of fictionalisation and literary creation itself. The first-person narrator is himself writing a book, also called Paludes, and this time we get to read some of the book within the book, unlike in Les Cahiers d’André Walter. Obviously, it can be confusing that the narrator’s book has the same title as Gide’s book, and it’s common for critics to use the terms ‘Paludes 1’ and ‘Paludes 2’ when discussing Gide’s book and the narrator’s book respectively. But in fact this confusion is one of many effects creating a general atmosphere of unsettling doubt, or absurdity. For example, every time someone asks the narrator what he’s doing, and he replies ‘j’écris Paludes’, we are left wondering whether this is really the narrator writing ‘Paludes 2’, or Gide writing ‘Paludes 1’.

The narrator is also treated much more ironically than André Walter was, and this forms a part of the book’s satire. The narrator is struggling, rather pathetically, for some sort of liberation, or just a change from his stagnation, both in his life and in his literary work. There is a failed attempt to go on some sort of adventure, and he also seems to be sexually impotent. His work and literary ideas are effectively a pastiche of Symbolism. The whole work is very characteristic of Gide’s very particular brand of irony, and also a certain sense of humour characterised by the ridiculous or the absurd, which Gide termed the ‘saugrenu’.

I’ve avoided defining Paludes as belonging to any particular genre, precisely because this is one of Gide’s works that defies definition. It has some similarity to the traités that Gide was writing in this period of his career, especially since the narrator’s book, ‘Paludes 2’, contains a narrator with the Vergilian name of ‘Tityre’ (from Vergil’s bucolic poetry, the Eclogues) and is set in an other-worldly domain of swamps. But ‘Paludes 1’ does not occupy this same world, and it’s arguably a satire of the sort of Symbolist writer who produces traités; in other words, a satire of what Gide himself used to be, or the sort of literature that he is preparing to leave behind. The book’s title is followed by this dedication: ‘Pour mon ami Eugène Rouart / j’écrivis cette satire de quoi?’. Even the faulty grammar of this dedication is characteristic of the general uncertainty of this work, and it suggests rather tentatively that the book’s genre is ‘satire’. But much later in Gide’s career, when he published Les Caves du Vatican in 1914 and declared it to be a ‘sotie’, he retrospectively categorised Paludes as a ‘sotie’ as well. The term ‘sotie’ is taken from a genre of satirical and farcical drama from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but I’ll discuss this when I come to talk about Les Caves du Vatican.

It’s also worth mentioning that, of all Gide’s works, this one was particularly appreciated by the literary avant-garde in the decades after the Second World War. It has some surprising similarities with the literature of this later period, including its self-reflexive obsession with writing itself (which particularly resembles the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Nathalie Sarraute), and it seems to anticipate the concept of the absurd, which was of great importance to Albert Camus, and of course to the Theatre of the Absurd, associated with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

Commentary: preface to Paludes

In this first lecture, for practical reasons, I’ll discuss only a short passage, which is taken from the preface to Paludes. But this will at least allow us to start talking about how to approach reading works by Gide.

Avant d’expliquer aux autres mon livre, j’attends que d’autres me l’expliquent. Vouloir l’expliquer d’abord c’est en restreindre aussitôt le sens ; car si nous savons ce que nous voulions dire, nous ne savons pas si nous ne disions que cela. – On dit toujours plus que CELA. – Et ce qui surtout m’y intéresse, c’est ce que j’y ai mis sans le savoir, – cette part d’inconscient, que je voudrais appeler la part de Dieu. – Un livre est toujours une collaboration, et tant plus le livre vaut-il, que plus la part du scribe y est petite, que plus l’accueil de Dieu sera grand. – Attendons de partout la révélation des choses ; du public, la révélation de nos œuvres. (preface to Paludes, p. 259)

First, a quick summary of the argument in this passage: whoever is speaking here, with a strong, even pompous authorial voice (and there are a lot of first-person pronouns making this authorial presence felt – je, me, nous), he is saying that he cannot offer an explanation of this book, and the reader is, in some ways, better placed to interpret it. He doesn’t want to limit the book to just one interpretation, but also he doesn’t know what he might have put in the book unconsciously, and this unconscious content might be the most interesting thing about it.

There are three features that I want to highlight in this text, which are in fact typical of Gide’s writing in general. They are: ambiguity, irony, and reflexivity. But first we need to address the fact that, as a preface, this is a piece of paratext. Paratexts – such as prefaces, footnotes, or back-cover blurbs – form a transitional zone between the reality of the author and the readers, and the imaginary space of the main text itself. In this transitional space, the roles of the author and reader are negotiated, and the reader is given information about the main text. But precisely because it’s a transitional space, we don’t know how far into the fiction we are at this point. Is this still the voice of the author whose name is on the title page, or is this already the narrator of the main text, who is writing his own book, or is this the author adopting a certain pose that he’ll contradict later on?

The passage is of course reflexive in that we are invited to consider what sort of a book we are dealing with – a book of multiple, unstable meanings, which is difficult to interpret, but which offers some hidden, even religious significance (‘la part de Dieu’, ‘révélation’). But it’s also ambiguous, in that we can never be sure who is speaking, and this leads to its irony. The essence of this irony is that we must view any proposition, even one that seems to come from the author, from a critical distance. For example, we might view with scepticism the idea that the author is demoting himself to a mere scribe, inspired by this mysterious ‘part de Dieu’. And the phrase ‘attendons de partout la révélation des choses’, sounds very much like a pastiche of a Symbolist ideology, the same ideology that is held by the character who is the narrator of the main text.

Throughout Gide’s work, it’s very common to see a connection between fictional characters and Gide himself, just as Michel in L’Immoraliste and both Jérôme and Alissa in La Porte étroite seem like outgrowths of a certain part of Gide’s character. It’s almost inevitable, and probably necessary, to apply some degree of biographical interpretation when reading Gide’s works. But this biographical interpretation should never be a simple, or naïve one. We must always approach these voices critically, aware of their delusions, failures, contradictions, and this is even, or perhaps especially true, when Gide the author claims to be writing in his own name.

To buy any of the books by Gide discussed here, please consider using one of these booksellers: Blackwells, Biblio.

Continue to lecture 2.