André Gide – Lecture 3

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Summary of this lecture:

  • Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue (1907), the theme of family
  • Other developments
  • The creation of the Nouvelle Revue française
  • Isabelle (1911)
  • Les Caves du Vatican (1914)
  • Se le grain ne meurt (1926)
  • Corydon (1924), the theme of homosexuality
  • Commentary: Si le grain ne meurt

Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue (1907)

As I mentioned earlier, Gide found it difficult to devote himself to writing La Porte étroite when his own concerns had moved on so much further. Early in 1907 he had a sudden violent reaction against the mood of growing religious seriousness which he detected in France, and which La Porte étroite might seem to be encouraging, and he dashed off a short, subversive piece called Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue. Gide rewrites the Biblical parable of the prodigal son, in a text made up of a series of dialogues between the returned, prodigal son, and his various family members. Because of this dialogue structure, it was later successfully adapted for theatre. Unlike in the Biblical parable, while the prodigal son is telling his elder brother how he has been unable to sustain his life of freedom away from the family, a third, younger brother overhears his account and decides to go off himself. The freedom that he seeks is largely that of Ménalque in Les Nourritures terrestres, and also the freedom sought by Michel in L’Immoraliste, but the youngest son hopes to succeed where the prodigal son failed, because of the one difference in their approach: whereas the prodigal son took his wealth with him, the youngest son leaves without anything at all, and so embraces this new experience in a state of complete dénuement. The reminiscence of El Hadj is clear, and it provides an ironic echo to Alissa’s failure to liberate herself in La Porte étroite.

One of the major themes of the work is family, which often appears to be a constraining force in Gide’s work (and remember those most extreme words from Les Nourritures terrestres: ‘familles, je vous hais’). Here too the family home is opposed to the liberation and adventure of the outside world, which the prodigal son has experienced in defiance of his family, but the dialogues also give a much more complex and balanced view of family life. This same issue will arise again in Les Faux-monnayeurs, where Bernard’s adventure starts when he discovers that he’s an illegitimate child, but eventually his return to the family home is shown in a very positive light. Once again, I’d strongly recommend that you read these very short fictional works by Gide, as they complement his more substantial works, and they also – in my opinion – contain some of his finest writing.

Other developments

Also during the time when he was writing La Porte étroite, Gide became more seriously interested in Dostoyevksy, and started creating the character of Lafcadio, who would be the unconventional hero of Les Caves du Vatican, and he also made progress with his dialogue on the subject of homosexuality, Corydon. Given his preoccupations at this time, it’s not surprising that he almost lost patience with La Porte étroite, and felt the urge to subvert the ending of it with brutal cynicism. The last chapter before Alissa’s Journal was to begin with an extended account of Jérôme’s debaucheries in North Africa, as a reaction against the enforced sublimation of their feelings for each other. In the event, that section was cut just before publication, leaving only a cryptic reference to ‘Palestine où je voyageais alors’, but its existence indicates the violence of the pressures that were building up in Gide as he imaginatively shared the frustrations of his characters. If you’d like to read this deleted section of La Porte étroite, you’ll find it in the Pléiade edition of Gide’s Romans et récits.

The creation of the Nouvelle Revue française

The completion of La Porte étroite coincided with the launch of a new literary journal, La Nouvelle Revue française, which was the culmination of years of planning by Gide and several others: at last they had the journal which they had dreamed of to replace the various Symbolist journals and provide a showcase for the best modern literature from every school and tendency. The Nouvelle Revue française, or NRF, was an immediate success, partly because of the serialised publication of La Porte étroite in its first few issues. It brought Gide to a much wider audience – I mentioned earlier that La Porte étroite was the first book of Gide’s that made a profit – and it was largely through the influence of the NRF that Gide and his friends came to dominate French literature so much, right up to the time of the Second World War. The journal was open to a wide range of literary approaches, but it was generally associated with an idea of literature as a struggle for some sort of perfection.

Isabelle (1911)

The demands of setting up the NRF took their toll on Gide’s creativity for a while, and when he started writing again he still felt unable to tackle the ambitious project of Les Caves du Vatican. Instead, partly to get himself back into practice, he took a sketch dating from some years before and turned it into a récit called Isabelle. In the periodisation of Gide’s career established by the critic Alain Goulet (see lecture 1), Isabelle is the first work in the period ‘le temps du roman’, and it can certainly be considered a transitional piece moving towards Gide’s major engagement with the novel as a genre. In a sense, the narrative form of Isabelle is the same as that of L’Immoraliste: as in L’Immoraliste, there is a brief first-person narrative (in which the ‘je’ is confusingly Gide himself), followed by a second, much longer first-person narrative, attributed to the character Gérard.

But in other ways this work is closer to the concerns of the roman: firstly, Gérard’s account of his visits to the mysterious Château de la Quartfourche and its eccentric inhabitants, and of his detective-like reconstitution of the story of Isabelle, is interesting not for the ethical choices he himself makes (as was the case for Michel) but rather for the portraits of a whole range of inauthentic characters. Secondly, Gérard approaches this mystery in his role as an aspiring writer, and much of the work’s interest is in his changing perception of reality and fiction. He misreads the situation because of his romantic illusions, and he eventually understands that reality is both darker and more prosaic than he imagined. In the first respect – the portrait of inauthentic characters – Isabelle reads like a preparatory sketch for Les Caves du Vatican or Les Faux-monnayeurs, with their gallery of hypocritical, counterfeit figures. In the second respect – Gérard’s perceptions as a writer – it serves as a bridge between early works such as Les Cahiers d’André Walter and Paludes, where the process of fictionalisation was already important, and the later problematisation of the novelist’s craft in Les Caves du Vatican and Les Faux-monnayeurs.

The preface to Isabelle, which was not published until later, contains a helpful insight into Gide’s understanding of the genres of prose fiction:

Le roman, tel que je le reconnais ou l’imagine, comporte une diversité de points de vue, soumise à la diversité des personnages qu’il met en scène; c’est par essence une œuvre déconcentrée. (preface to Isabelle, p. 992)

Judged by that criterion, Isabelle did not qualify as a roman, and it was at this point that Gide reclassified it, together with L’Immoraliste and La Porte étroite, as a récit: while it shows the way forward towards the novel in certain respects, such as the external perception of an unfamiliar society, Isabelle shares with the récits the predominant single focus of a first-person narrator.

Les Caves du Vatican (1914)

Gide was now at last able to turn his attention to the big novel that had been on the horizon for so long, not Les Faux-monnayeurs, but Les Caves du Vatican. His reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling had convinced him that it was possible to break away from the French tradition of psychological analysis, and look instead towards the model of the adventure novel, the ‘roman d’aventures’. Gide was not the only one whose interest in the novel led him in this direction, and he found himself largely in agreement with a series of articles by Jacques Rivière in the NRF in 1913. Rivière argued that an adventure novel must show events as they happen and heroes whose future is uncertain. It must also abandon authorial analyses and commentaries (which were very common in French Realist and Naturalist novels), and it must not be afraid of Dostoyevskian ‘complication’ or ‘excroissances’. And Les Caves du Vatican is indeed a burlesque adventure, featuring a large cast of highly implausible characters (that is, they don’t conform to the conventions of psychological vraisemblance of the French novelistic tradition). It’s in five parts, each of which seems to have its own independent existence, until the links between them gradually emerge, and some order appears from the chaos. It parodies several types of novel, from the picaresque to the Naturalist, and although the last two parts contain long conversations on the art of the novelist, no clear programme for the authentic novel is presented. It is more to do with authentic and inauthentic behaviour, and to understand this theme we need to investigate a number of key terms that are used: contrefait, crustacé, subtil and acte gratuit.

The idea of ‘fausse monnaie’, counterfeit coinage, as a metaphor for inauthentic existence, had been familiar to Gide for some time. Isabelle herself can be seen as a ‘faux-monnayeur’. In Les Caves du Vatican, Gide attributes to the society novelist Julius de Baraglioul the realisation that ‘nous vivons contrefaits’. Social pressures and expectations prevent us from being natural. We hide our potential selves under a thick conformist shell: the image of crustaceans, crabs and so on, is an obvious one. A very few individuals manage to escape from these pressures and live a free, undetermined existence. These are the subtils, as Lafcadio and Protos called themselves when they were at school: proteiform, assuming different guises and acting freely. Lafcadio has the advantage of being an illegitimate child, brought up by a succession of so-called uncles and so free from the conventional constraints of the family, and so he is well-qualified to be the Gidean hero. It’s Lafcadio who carries out the famous acte gratuit, the free and unmotivated act, in his case pushing the innocent buffoon Amédée Fleurissoire out of a railway carriage to his death.

Gide had already floated the idea of the acte gratuit in earlier works. First in Paludes, where it was a question of shaking people out of their boring normality, likened to a state of sickness, by showing them a strong, healthy individuality. In Le Prométhée mal enchaîné in 1899, a work subsequently classified as a sotie along with Paludes and Les Caves du Vatican, the concept of the acte gratuit is present almost from the outset. A café waiter muses aloud on the possibility of… :

un acte qui n’est motivé par rien… intérêt, passion, rien. L’acte désintéressé; né de soi; l’acte aussi sans but; donc sans maître; l’acte libre; l’Acte autochtone. (Le Prométhée mal enchaîné, p. 472)

The gratuitous act in Le Prométhée mal enchaîné is a double one, and notably absurd: handing over an envelope containing 500 francs to a stranger to pass on to an unknown third party, and slapping the stranger on the cheek. In Les Caves du Vatican it’s potentially much more serious, in that it amounts to murder (although Lafcadio’s rescue of two children from a burning house much earlier in the book can equally be seen as an acte gratuit, of no more or less consequence than the other). But the world of Les Caves du Vatican is hardly to be taken seriously, and Lafcadio’s crime is really only a pretext for the novelist-within-the-novel, Julius, to speculate about the creation of character. Gide never really thought that a totally motiveless act was possible or desirable, although the Surrealists latched on to the idea and claimed that the Surrealist act par excellence was to take a loaded revolver into the street and fire at random. Gide himself was much more interested in the idea of possibility: at any given moment, there is more than one course of action open, and it’s a pity to shut off the interesting ones by following a straight line. If the patriarchal authority of God, the Pope, or the father is removed, then anything goes: that was the conclusion to be drawn from Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky.

Les Caves du Vatican is still an ironic or critical work, like the récits and the other soties. It raises questions, both about personal behaviour and about the genre of the novel, without indicating any very serious solutions. While the narrative is in the third person, and a wide range of inauthentic characters are portrayed, after Part 1 the figure of Lafcadio becomes dominant, and at the end of the book we are left wondering how successful he really is as a subtil. It was time for Gide to build something more positive. Although Alain Goulet reserves the title ‘le temps des témoignages’ for the period 1926-1937 when Gide was involved with social and political questions, it could equally apply to the period from 1914 when he was preparing to make major public statements about his own views, both moral and aesthetic. These were also turbulent years in Gide’s private life, which had a strong influence on the particular works that he undertook.

Si le grain ne meurt (1926)

He had long had the intention of writing his memoirs, not least to put on record the liberating homosexual experiences of his North African trips. He refused to be ashamed of his homosexuality, as Proust seemed to be in disguising boys in his fiction as ‘jeunes filles en fleurs’ and in portraying homosexuality voyeuristically, as a series of perversions. The only honourable course of action was to write a frank autobiography, to sign his own name on the text rather than transposing his experience into fiction. But the genre of autobiography was not nearly as well established at this time as it is now – in fact Gide contributed significantly to its development as a genre – and in a diary entry from January 1917 he addresses the question of the title to give to this work, as follows:

Je cherche depuis quelques jours le titre que je devrai donner à ces Mémoires; car je ne voudrais précisément ni de Mémoires, ni de Souvenirs, ni de Confessions. Et l’inconvénient de tout autre titre, c’est qu’il comporte une signification. J’hésite entre: Et ego…, mais qui rétrécit le sens; et Si le grain ne meurt…, mais qui l’incline, en l’élargissant. (Journal, v. 1, p. 1017, 11 January 2017)

The terms mémoires and souvenirs suggest a work in which the author writes about the people he has met or the society he has moved in, and this is not what interests Gide. His project is closer to the autobiographical genre established by Rousseau’s Confessions, in that it places an emphasis on the development of the personality through formative experiences, especially in childhood. But the term Confession implies that the book’s major revelation, that of his homosexuality, is a vice to be confessed, which Gide entirely rejects. His chosen title, ‘Si le grain ne meurt’, is a quotation from the Gospel of St John: Jesus is telling a group of Greeks that spiritual life and growth involves dying to the self. It’s also the epigraph to Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, which gives it a wider resonance for Gide. The death he is thinking of is a death to convention and social respectability, rather than the kind of self-abnegation that Jesus was speaking of.

It’s important to keep in mind the Biblical significance of the title, as in this period Gide was deeply involved in meditating on the Gospels. In a short text entitled Numquid et tu…?, composed between 1916 and 1919, he reflects on the idea of being born again, which he interprets as coming to an entirely fresh, pure, spontaneous appreciation of life. That brings him into conflict with the writings of St Paul, which seem to him to be imposing restrictions on this natural life, and in particular, introducing the idea of sin. These reflections on the gospels, as well as certain developments in his private life, fed into the composition of the récit, La Symphonie pastorale, which was published in 1919, and which I’ll discuss later on.

Despite the interruption for writing La Symphonie pastorale, the main project remained the autobiography Si le grain ne meurt. The work was completed in 1920, and extracts published in the Nouvelle Revue française that year. It should be noted that these publications did not include the second part, with the major revelation of his homosexual experiences, and the full publication of the book was delayed until 1926, several months after the publication of Les Faux-monnayeurs. In fact, it’s possible to see a sort of trilogy of Gide’s writing on homosexuality at this time, consisting of Corydon (finally published after many hears of hesitation in 1924), Les Faux-monnayeurs in 1925, and Si le grain ne meurt in 1926.

As a whole, then, the primary purpose was to come out as homosexual, while Corydon and Les Faux-monnayeurs were able to explore the nature of homosexuality more fully in a fictional, and more theoretical vein. Si le grain ne meurt was conceived as a polemical work, taking the initiative in launching open discussion, and not as a defensive one. In his Journal in 1917 Gide wrote:

Je n’écris pas ces Mémoires pour me défendre. Je n’ai point à me défendre, puisque je ne suis pas accusé. Je les écris avant d’être accusé. Je les écris pour qu’on m’accuse. (Journal, v. 1, p. 1019, 19 January 1917)

On the very first page we meet the young André Gide masturbating under the dining-room table with the concierge’s son, and the claim that he has known sexual pleasure as far back as he can remember. Part 2 of the work, which represents only a quarter of the whole, is particularly concerned to narrate his experiences in North Africa. In the previous lecture I mentioned Gide’s relation to Oscar Wilde, and his frustration that the cause of homosexual liberation lacked martyrs, because any prominent homosexuals who found themselves embroiled in public scandal were eventually forced to deny or condemn their own homosexuality. The publication of Si le grain ne meurt allowed Gide to achieve this martyrdom, but on his own terms, and allowing himself some control over the controversy that would follow.

But there are also some strange shortcomings to this work, or at least ambiguities, particularly with regard to its treatment of the issue of homosexuality. There’s a particularly good analysis of these ambiguities in Michael Sheringham’s book French Autobiography. Sheringham presents the structure of the book as follows: sexuality is present sporadically throughout the longer first part of the book, generally as rather awkward or murky parts of the young Gide’s character, which are repressed by his puritan upbringing. It’s never directly stated that these are the signs of his latent homosexuality. In the second part, the narrator relates his hugely important trips to North Africa, and his various sexual experiences in this situation of new-found freedom. Crucially, this is not presented as liberation from hetero-normativity, but just as a liberation from sexual repression in general, and only then can Gide explore his sexuality and come to a realisation of his homosexuality. Overall, the presentation of his homosexuality is consistent with the general thesis of Corydon, which argues that homosexuality is entirely natural, that one is born gay rather than becoming gay under the influence of one’s environment. But this theory (which has of course now become far more established) is never set out directly. It’s also unclear what the narrator’s attitude is towards his homosexuality, especially in light of the abrupt conclusion of the book, which finishes with his marriage to Madeleine. Is he still labouring under the misapprehension that he can keep his spiritual feelings of love for Madeleine separate from his physical desire for men? Is he inclined still to struggle against his homosexuality even though he recognises it as his natural state? This ambiguity makes the end of the book particularly inconclusive and unsettling, even by comparison with the inconclusive endings of Gide’s other books. In short, Si le grain ne meurt is the book in which Gide makes a public avowal of his homosexuality, but for an understanding of his homosexuality we have to look elsewhere.

Corydon (1924), the theme of homosexuality

This is an appropriate point to discuss Corydon, which I’ve now mentioned in passing several times. This Socratic dialogue, setting out Gide’s arguments about homosexuality, was the book that he worked on over the longest period. He considered it to be his most important work, in the sense that it was his most socially useful work, even if it’s not one of his finest achievements aesthetically. It seems to have been inspired first of all by Gide’s sense of responsibility for the suicide of a male childhood friend in 1891, apparently after Gide rejected his advances. This episode is related in Si le grain ne meurt, and it’s also the basis for the character of Armand Vedel in Les Faux-monnayeurs. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was condemned to hard labour for gross indecency, Gide resolved to speak out before finding himself embroiled in a public scandal or trial. In 1907 there was another spate of high profile scandals around homosexuality, and in the midst of writing La Porte étroite Gide finally started working extensively on Corydon. He took up this work again in 1917, but was still reluctant to publish it, thinking that it could land him in prison. Finally, in 1924, and in conjunction with the revelations of Si le grain ne meurt, he felt ready to publish it. The work consists of four dialogues, between a sceptical but open-minded character, and Corydon himself, who is largely an avatar for Gide. The first dialogue sets out the debate in very broad terms, the second dialogue draws extensively on natural history to establish that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon rather than a social construct, and the third and fourth dialogues draw out the positive social dimension of homosexuality. For example, he connects homosexuality to historic moments of great cultural achievement, such as Athens in the fifth century BC, or the Italian Renaissance, and he particularly dwells on the ethics of a loving relationship between men. There is almost no mention of female homosexuality, although this issue appears later in Gide’s work, in 1936, in the récit entitled Geneviève. When Corydon was finally published in 1924, very close to the publication of Les Faux-monnayeurs and Si le grain ne meurt, it didn’t immediately produce much of the controversy that he’d anticipated. Gide was disappointed with the lack of progress that took place over his lifetime, but it’s worth commenting on his attitude towards this work near the end of his life. In 1950, the first English translation of Corydon was published in the US, shortly after the publication of the first part of the Kinsey Report in 1948. In Gide’s preface to this 1950 edition, he expressed a hope that the big breakthrough in homosexual liberation – which had failed to transpire anywhere in Europe – might finally take place in the US.

Commentary 3: Si le grain ne meurt, p. 267

‘Roger Martin du Gard, à qui je donne à lire ces Mémoires, leur reproche de ne jamais dire assez, et de laisser le lecteur sur sa soif. Mon intention pourtant a toujours été de tout dire. Mais il est un degré dans la confidence que l’on ne peut dépasser sans artifice, sans se forcer ; et je cherche surtout le naturel. Sans doute un besoin de mon esprit m’amène, pour tracer plus purement chaque trait, à simplifier tout à l’excès ; on ne dessine pas sans choisir ; mais le plus gênant c’est de devoir présenter comme successifs des états de simultanéité confuse. Je suis un être de dialogue ; tout en moi combat et se contredit. Les Mémoires ne sont jamais qu’à demi sincères, si grand que soit le souci de vérité: tout est toujours plus compliqué qu’on ne le dit. Peut-être même approche-t-on de plus près la vérité dans le roman.’ (Si le grain ne meurt, end of Part 1, p. 267)

Si le grain ne meurt is clearly an epoch-making book in its calm, unapologetic acknowledgement of sexual difference, but it’s also a very important work with regard to the techniques of autobiography that it uses, and the relationship that it establishes between autobiography and fiction. In lieu of a full-length commentary passage, I’d like to discuss a passage from Si le grain ne meurt which directly addresses the issue of Gide’s autobiographical project.

This is an example of a common feature of autobiographies, which has been termed an ‘autobiographical pact’ by the critic Philippe Lejeune. In an autobiographical pact, the author, who is here the same as the narrator, addresses the particular aims and techniques of their autobiographical project, and negotiates a sort of pact with their readers, undertaking to tell the truth about themselves, however difficult this might be.

In this case, Gide uses his friend Roger Martin du Gard to stand in for the reader. The passage is found at the end of Part 1, and the conclusion at this point is that he has not gone far enough, he has not managed to tell the whole truth. This can be taken in two ways. Firstly, he has not yet arrived at the major revelations about his homosexuality, and he is preparing to take this most difficult step. Secondly, he is addressing the fundamental difficulty of autobiography, which generally aims to reveal the whole self, but always seems to fall short of this ambition. In order to tell the truth about his inner self, he seeks ‘le naturel’, ‘sincérité’, that is, a state of ‘dénuement’ with all artifice of social roles and constraints stripped away. But the contradiction here is that it requires artifice to achieve this sincerity. His self is essentially ‘confuse’, compliqué’, contradictory and in dialogue with itself, whereas a straightforward linear narrative has the effect of presenting his past experiences as a series of distinct and successive states. In conclusion, he suggests that the truth of autobiography and the artifice of the roman are closer than we might think. So what are we to do with this suggestion?

Firstly, it prompts us to look for novelistic devices within the autobiography, ways of writing that are in some way fictional, but are used to reach some other sort of truth. This principle can be applied to a reading of any part of the book, but I’ll give a couple of examples. Gide uses a set of images to contrast the two sides of his family: the father from a hot, dry, bright, fervently Protestant region in the South of France, while the mother comes from the cool, wet , dull, predominantly Catholic region of Normandy. This distinction hardly withstands scrutiny, but it’s used to justify the idealization of the absent father and the demonisation of the stifling mother: a simplification worthy of a récit. Another example is Gide’s introduction of the figure of the ‘Diable’ as a character in his life history. Similar figures of the ‘diable’, or a ‘démon’, or even ‘la part de Dieu’ (from the preface to Paludes) can be traced through a number of Gide’s fictional works, where they generally represent unconscious parts of the self, powerful forces of desire, which often bring disruption and chaos to people’s lives.

But the other implication of this association between autobiography and the novel is that we can seek the autobiographical revelation of Gide’s self elsewhere, in his fictional writing. This is, of course, an unfashionable view in modern literary theory, but there is no doubt that Gide’s literary work was undertaken as a vast project aimed at realising and expressing his self, through fiction, but still sincerely. The critic Philippe Lejeune argues that Si le grain ne meurt is a sort of deliberate failure as an autobiography, which does the important job of signing the autobiographical pact, while also redirecting the reader towards Gide’s fictions, which therefore make up an ‘espace autobiographique’. This should recall Gide’s own image of his fictional works as a series of ‘bourgeons’, individual shoots from his complex personality, which are developed in one book or another.

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

Continue to lecture 4.