André Gide – Lecture 4

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Summary of this lecture:

  • La Symphonie pastorale (1919)
  • Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925)
    • Historical perspective
    • ‘Faits divers’ and the use of reality in the novel
    • Engagement with the genre of the roman
    • Le Journal des faux-monnayeurs, mise en abyme
    • The ‘epic’
  • Later works:
    • Voyage au Congo (1927)
    • L’École des femmes trilogy (starting 1929)
    • Communist engagement and Retour de l’URSS (1936)
    • Diaries
  • Commentary: Les Faux-monnayeurs

La Symphonie pastorale (1919)

While Gide was still working on what was to become Si le grain ne meurt, he continued his meditation on the apparent conflict between Christ and St Paul – the former representing liberation, authenticity, and being true to one’s nature, the latter representing restrictive morality – and wrote about this in the book Numquid et tu…?, which is largely presented as a diary. But this reflection on the Gospels was made startlingly relevant by Gide’s sudden passion for a seventeen-year-old boy, Marc Allégret. This relationship precipitated a crisis in Gide’s relationship with his wife, and while Gide was away she burnt the many letters that he had sent her over the years. This was probably the worst thing that she could do to Gide, and he allegedly spent days literally weeping over the loss. He considered all of his writing, including private forms of writing such as letters and diaries, to be an essential part of the whole œuvre. In any case, after an idyllic trip to Switzerland with Marc, he felt inspired to write the book that had existed in his mind for twenty years under the provisional title L’Aveugle, and which he now called La Symphonie pastorale. All his protagonists had been to some extent blind, because of their various delusions, but now he makes blindness the central metaphor. A Protestant pastor and his family adopt a poor, blind, orphaned girl named Gertrude. The pastor educates her, but also slowly, almost imperceptibly, falls in love with her. Gertrude is physically blind, but is also kept in a state of moral blindness by the pastor who shields her from the truth about the world, and when she recovers her sight through an operation she finds the reality too much to bear. The pastor meanwhile shuts himself up in hypocritical blindness, deceiving himself and his wife about the reality of his feelings for Gertrude. In writing this work, Gide is both celebrating his love for Marc and exploring the moral dilemma in the same terms as those he had used in Numquid et tu…?. Although this is a first-person récit, and thus in a sense anachronistic in terms of Gide’s evolution, he uses it in new ways to help move towards the novel that he still aspired to write. In particular, he develops a complex chronology based on the use of the diary form, which will help him in writing Les Faux-Monnayeurs. In the first part the pastor is recording events that had taken place in the previous two and a half years. In the second part he is dealing with the present. This allows for all kinds of interactions, reinterpretations, ironic foreshadowings and echoes, and so on.

Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925)

In the early 1920s, with the writing of Si le grain ne meurt completed, and with all his experimental steps towards the novel behind him, Gide finally felt ready to undertake the ambitious project for a novel that would become Les Faux-monnayeurs. Although it would be difficult to say which is Gide’s most influential work, Les Faux-monnayeurs can certainly be considered his magnum opus: it’s his longest work of fiction, it combines a great many themes from his whole writing career, and it’s the culmination of his reflection on the roman as a genre – in fact, he declared that this work was his only roman, and he retrospectively recategorised his other works as récits, soties etc. I won’t be able to discuss all its many themes here, but I’ll suggest some different ways of approaching the work as a whole.

Historical perspective

To begin with, let’s adopt the broad historical perspective of Finals Paper VIII, the modern period paper: this was a period when established authorities and truths were being swept away. Newtonian physics was replaced with Einstein’s theory of relativity, political certainties had been demolished by the First World War, and in economics the gold standard was abandoned as the basis for currency value(we can note in passing that Gide’s uncle, Charles Gide, was one of the foremost economists of the day, and some of Gide’s works have been examined from this perspective). In Gide’s earlier works, the irony generally functioned by pitting the delusions of an unreliable narrator against some truth that the reader could perceive, perhaps by reading between the lines, but in Les Faux-monnayeurs this model is replaced by a complete relativism. Gide commented, ‘je conçois le roman à la manière de Dostoievski: une lutte de points de vue’ (Cahiers de la petite dame, Cahiers d’André Gide 4, pp. 34–35), and this is indeed what we find in Les Faux-monnayeurs. In terms of narrative, the story is related to us by a large number of characters, none of whom is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, not even the third-person narrator, who is a sort of parody of the omniscient and authoritative narrative voice of nineteenth-century Realist fiction. Elsewhere, Gide conceived of his novel as ‘un carrefour – un rendez-vous de problèmes’ (Journal, v. 1, p. 1218, 17 June 1923), and this metaphor of a crossroads corresponds well to the way in which Les Faux-monnayeurs combines elements that had previously been separate in his work. In particular, theoretical and aesthetic questions are superimposed onto moral dilemmas, and onto real-life events taken from faits divers or from Gide’s own life.

‘Faits divers’ and the use of reality in the novel

It’s useful to list the main elements from reality that fed into this work, which are extremely disparate in nature. There are two principal faits divers that caught Gide’s attention. One is the case from 1906 concerning a group of young people spreading counterfeit money in Paris, and the second is a horrific case from 1909 of the suicide of a lycée student, which is of course the model for the awful fate of Boris. One element from Gide’s own life was his sexual jealousy when he felt that Marc Allégret was being seduced by Jean Cocteau, whom he considered to be a malign influence. This is a model for the unhealthy relationship between Olivier and Passavant. And one other major development in Gide’s life probably had a bearing on the novel: in 1923 he fathered a daughter with a young aristocratic woman, who wanted to raise a child without the conventional family unit. Gide only made public his paternity of the child after his wife’s death in 1938. I mentioned earlier how Gide was often hostile to the restricting or stifling effect of families, and that a more balanced view is present in the dialogues of Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue in 1907. The themes of families and illegitimate children are treated in great depth throughout the novel, but we should remember that the plot arc of Bernard is resolved by his return to the family home after he has exercised his freedom, which appears as a positive resolution.

Engagement with the genre of the roman

But most importantly, we should consider Gide’s approach to this work as a critical engagement with the roman as a genre. He was initially intending to write a sequel to Les Caves du Vatican with Lafcadio as the hero, but even this kind of adventure story with alls its conventions was too straightforward for him now. Instead, he undertakes a more fundamental reinvention of the novel, a reflection on what fiction can do, and just as importantly, what it can’t do. The novel has a double focus: the real world, which of itself is chaotic, with no particular coherence, and the attempts of a writer-character (Édouard) and others, to make sense of it. At one point Édouard notes in his diary:

‘Je commence à entrevoir le sujet profond de mon livre. C’est, ce sera sans doute, la rivalité du monde réel et de la représentation que nous nous en faisons.’ (Les Faux-monnayeurs, pp. 326–27)

There is a constant tension between these two terms: a real event may come as a surprise, even an affront, and what is written or thought about the real world may fail to match up to experience or expectations. Everything is constantly being assessed and reinterpreted, and of course all points of view are still to be viewed critically, with irony.

Le Journal des faux-monnayeurs, mise en abyme

This may seem familiar from Gide’s earlier works that examine the process of fictionalisation: we’ve already seen characters who are writers, and devices of mise en abyme, most notably in Les Cahiers d’André Walter, Paludes, Isabelle and Les Caves du Vatican. But this time there is a more complex sort of mise en abyme, which blurs the lines between reality and fiction. He began by keeping a diary of his composition of the novel and his reflections on it, published in 1926 as Le Journal des Faux-monnayeurs. It’s invaluable to read this alongside the finished novel, and in fact, the novel almost seems incomplete without it(this relationship between the two texts is discussed in my own book, Diaries Real and Fictional in Twentieth-Century French Writing, chapter 2). It documents the great labour of producing the novel, and makes it clear that we are dealing with a craft, an artificial process, rather than any romantic notion of artistic inspiration. In the diary, Gide records certain events from real life, and even includes some newspaper articles about real-life stories that he incorporated in the novel. We therefore see him at work in his own engagement with reality and attempts to adapt it to fiction, just as the author-character Édouard does in the novel. Moreover, a number of passages from the diary, in which Gide reflects on the construction of his novel, are repeated almost verbatim in the novel by Édouard, who is writing his own diary about the composition of his own novel, which is also called Les Faux-monnayeurs.

But then what becomes of irony, when a character is adopting the same perspective as the author himself? For one thing, Gide’s own Journal des Faux-monnayeurs can be read critically as a sort of novel in itself, in which the author takes a lot of wrong turns, and takes time to get to know his fictional characters, before he ultimately succeeds in writing his novel. Secondly, when Édouard writes the same things in his diary that Gide had written in his own diary, these same words take on a different significance in a different context: although Édouard is a relatively sympathetic character, he is also fairly ridiculous in some ways, and is mocked by his companions when he tries to set out his theories on the novel. And the biggest difference between Gide and Édouard is that Édouard seems to fail as a novelist: the short excerpt of his novel that we are given to read is heavy-handed and excessively artificial (that is, it’s too detached from reality), and it ultimately never reaches completion.

The ‘epic’

Another concept that Gide uses to try to reinvent the novel is that of the epic (as he discusses in Le Journal des Faux-monnayeurs), although it’s not immediately obvious how the ‘epic’ applies to this work. An epic celebrates heroic deeds: battles, journeys, the founding of a city, and so on. Gide had always believed that greatness, whether in aesthetic or moral terms, was only achieved at the cost of a great struggle to dominate contradictory forces. What he is celebrating now is the epic of literary creation itself, allied with the epic struggle to find oneself. These are represented largely, but not exclusively, by Édouard and Bernard respectively. Bernard is the one who discovers at the beginning of the novel that he is illegitimate, and is launched into a world deprived of patriarchal authority, in which he must make his own way and choose his own values. Édouard must similarly find his own aesthetic values. From this perspective, it’s perhaps not surprising that Gide includes a fantastical element in his novel, the episode in which Bernard struggles all through the night with an angel. The passage from Genesis about the struggle of Jacob and the angel was quoted in full back in Les Cahiers d’André Walter thirty years earlier, and now it has moved to centre stage: it’s the classic representation of a major life-changing decision, which is what Bernard has to make. It also suits the genre of the epic, in which supernatural figures appear side-by-side with humans quite happily, and furthermore it provides an appropriate textual grounding for the complementary themes of angels (connected to the characters Bronja and Boris) and demons (connected to the character Strouvilhou). In a sense it’s the central metaphor that anchors the elements of tension and struggle in the novel.

I shall return to Les Faux-monnayeurs to discuss an individual passage, after mentioning some of the later works and stages of his career.

Later works

A little earlier, I was cautious about saying that Les Faux-monnnayeurs was Gide’s most influential work: in different ways, and at different times, there was particular public interest in Les Nourritures terrestres, or Paludes, or even the Journal, published in 1939. But Les Faux-monnayeurs immediately took on a sort of cult status, and cemented Gide’s reputation as a controversial but also dominant figure in French literary culture. The phrase that is often applied to him is ‘le contemporain capital’, which was first used in a series of articles from 1924. This role as the foremost public intellectual was effectively handed over to Sartre in the late 1930s, and no single writer since Sartre has really occupied the same dominant position. Gide’s role as ‘contemporain capital’ needs to be kept in mind when we survey his writing from the decades after Les Faux-monnayeurs. It can seem as if his great work in the domain of fictional writing was over, and as if he were devoting himself to a series of more minor projects. But in fact these projects constituted major intellectual engagements on Gide’s part, and often involved some of the same struggles and ethical concerns as his fictional works. These works are less commonly read for Finals Papers VIII and XI, so I’ll only give a very brief overview, but you might like to look at these works if they correspond to any of your particular interests.

Voyage au Congo (1927)

Immediately after the completion of Les Faux-monnayeurs, Gide left with Marc Allégret on a long trip to French Equatorial Africa, which covered the area of several modern countries, including DR Congo and the Republic of Congo. This was initially undertaken in a similar spirit to his earlier travels in North Africa, which were certainly guilty of an ‘orientalising’ attitude, that is, an attitude that uses a certain representation of an exotic, ‘other’, non-Western culture for its own ends (see Edward Saïd, Orientalism, 1978). But on his travels Gide took on a very different attitude, documenting and investigating the awful abuses committed in the French colonial system. A diary of his travels was published in 1927, as Voyage au Congo, and this can be seen as the first stage of Gide’s more directly political engagement. His work resulted in a major public scandal, and debate at the highest political level, although its not clear that the political will resulted in much real action. Incidentally, Marc Allégret made a documentary film from this same trip, and this was the start of his successful film-making career.

L’École des femmes trilogy (starting 1929)

In 1929 Gide published L’École des femmes, a récit in the form of a diary, which relates the experience of a woman, Éveline, trapped in an unhappy marriage with an extremely conventional and conservative husband. This work is certainly worth reading to see another fine example of the genre of the récit. It consists of two parts: the first part is Éveline’s diary covering the period leading up to her marriage to Robert, when she is besotted with him, and fails to see his abundant character flaws. Of course, this narrative is highly ironic, much like the other récits, and especially like the diary of the pastor in La Symphonie pastorale. The second part is set 20 years later, when the marriage has turned sour, and Éveline takes up writing her diary again in order to make sense of her situation. Now we see that other aspect of the récit, the act of speaking or writing as a way to gain understanding. This work was followed in 1930 by Robert, in which the husband speaks in his defence. Clearly this narrative is to be read with a high degree of irony, and this hypocritical, contemptible character is almost a perfect specimen of Gide’s many counterfeiters. The trilogy is completed in 1936 with Geneviève, in which their daughter Geneviève pursues the sort of liberation that her mother had not been capable of. This liberation is also attached to homosexual desire, which both her mother and father disapprove of. These works can be seen as a feminist vein to Gide’s social engagement, although we should remember that this is not yet the era of second-wave feminism, which was heralded by Simone de Beauvoir’s essay Le Deuxième sexe in 1947.

Communist engagement and Retour de l’URSS (1936)

The pinnacle of Gide’s social engagement over this period was his gradual commitment to the Communist cause over the 1930s, culminating in a very high profile trip to the Soviet Union in 1936. It might seem strange that an author who is so concerned with personal freedom and authenticity would ally himself with such a rigid political party system, and indeed Gide kept himself at arms length from the Communist Party itself. But his political position was motivated by his opposition to fascism, and a belief that the Soviet Union could create the conditions for a new, truly free sort of citizen. He also thought, very naïvely, that this new society could become a place of utopian freedom for homosexuals. When Gide travelled to the Soviet Union in 1936 he was taken on a long tour for nine weeks, met with the foremost Russian writers, and also delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Maxim Gorky, alongside Stalin himself.

Gide delivering a eulogy at the funeral of Maxim Gorky, Red Square, Moscow, 20 June 1936. From left, Gide, Nikolaï Boulganine, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Stalin.

But despite the best efforts of his handlers, Gide became all too aware of the repression and cruelty of the Soviet system. The Soviet authorities expected him to be an organ of propaganda in Western Europe, but once he was safely back in France Gide set about publishing his work Retour de l’URSS, in which he describes his impressions from the trip, and condemns the reality of a totalitarian state that he had witnessed. This work sold in large numbers and met with a huge response: virulent criticism by those who still supported the Soviet Union, and generally a warm reception from those on the moderate left.


Throughout the 1930s Gide had also been experimenting with the publication of parts of his diaries in different contexts. He had been publishing large parts of his early diaries in the 15 volumes of his Œuvres complètes, published between 1932 and 1939, and he had been publishing his more recent diaries in the pages of the NRF. But in 1939 he published a single volume of his diaries from the last 50 years of his life. In some ways, this Journal achieves the sort of sincerity that had seemed impossible in Si le grain ne meurt, and some critics see his Journal as the work that makes all the rest of Gide’s œuvre hold together. It has certainly had a major influence on the publication of authors’ diaries, and on other sorts of fragmentary writing throughout the twentieth century.

Commentary 4: Les Faux-monnayeurs, pp. 258–59

‘6 novembre.
« Je n’ai jamais rien pu inventer. Mais je suis devant la réalité comme le peintre avec son modèle, qui lui dit : donnez-moi tel geste, prenez telle expression qui me convient. Les modèles que la société me fournit, si je connais bien leurs ressorts, je peux les faire agir à mon gré ; ou du moin je peux proposer à leur indécision tels problèmes qu’ils résoudront à leur manière, de sorte que leur réaction m’instruira. C’est en romancier que me tourmente le besoin d’intervenir, d’opérer sur leur destinée. Si j’avais plus d’imagination, j’affabulerais des intrigues ; je les provoque, observe les acteurs, puis travail sous leur dictée.

7 novembre.
« De tout ce que j’écrivais hier, rien n’est vrai. Il reste ceci : que la réalité m’intéresse comme une matière plastique ; et j’ai plus de regard pour ce qui pourrait être, infiniment plus que pour ce qui a été. Je me penche vertigineusement sur les possibilités de chaque être et pleure tout ce que le couvercle des mœurs atrophie. »

Bernard dut interrompre sa lecture un instant. Son regard se brouillait. Il perdait souffle, comme s’il avait oublié de respirer tout le temps qu’il lisait, tant son attention était vive. Il ouvrit la fenêtre et s’emplit les poumons, avant une nouvelle plongée.

Son amitié pour Olivier était évidemment des plus vives ; il n’avait pas de meilleur ami et n’aimait personne autant sur la terre, puisqu’il ne pouvait aimer ses parents ; même, son cœur se raccrochait provisoirement à ceci d’une façon presque excessive ; mais Olivier et lui ne comprenait pas tout à fait de même l’amitié. Bernard, à mesure qu’il avançait dans sa lecture, s’étonnait toujours plus, admirait toujours plus, mais un peu douloureusement, de quelle diversité se montrait capable cet ami qu’il croyait connaître si bien. Olivier ne lui avait rien dit de tout ce que racontait ce journal. D’Armand et de Sarah, à peine soupçonnait-il l’existence. Comme Olivier se montrait différent avec eux, de ce qu’il se montrait avec lui!… Dans cette chambre de Sarah, sur ce lit, Bernard aurait-il reconnu son ami ? À l’immense curiosité qui précipitait sa lecture, se mêlait un trouble malaise : dégoût ou dépit. Un peu de ce dépit qu’il avait ressenti tout à l’heure à voir Olivier au bras d’Édouard : un dépit de ne pas en être. Cela peut mener loin ce dépit-là, et faire bien des sottises ; comme tous les dépits, d’ailleurs.

Passons. Tout ce que j’ai dit ci-dessus n’est que pour mettre un peu d’air entre les pages de ce journal. À present que Bernard a bien respiré, retournons-y. Le voici qui se replonge dans sa lecture.’ (Les Faux-monnayeurs, pp. 258–59)

This passage is found in the series of chapters that transcribe Édouard’s journal, as it is being read by Bernard, who took it from Édouard’s suitcase. Much of this journal relates past events concerning Olivier and the Vedel family. The situation of Bernard reading the journal is itself related by the third-person narrator, who here describes Bernard’s reaction to what he has learnt from the journal. The passage therefore brings together these three different perspectives: those of Édouard, Bernard, and the narrator. This passage offers an excellent illustration of two features that I mentioned earlier: First, that multiplicity of perspectives, none of which can be relied upon. Secondly, the attitude of each of the characters towards reality, and how they interpret it or make use of it. It seems to me that the simplest way to approach this as a text for commentary is to examine each of the three perspectives in turn, and see how they contrast with one another.

First, Édouard: these two short entries address the issue of his relation to reality, and how he plans to use this reality in composing his novel. We should remember that his intended novel is itself centred around the opposition between reality and what is done with it, and also that, when we finally get to read a fragment of Édouard’s novel, it seems to fail precisely because of its misuse of reality. In light of this, it’s interesting to see Édouard’s troubled relation to reality at this early point in the novel. He acknowledges his inability to invent pure fiction, and therefore his dependency on reality for the raw material for his book. Because of this dependency, he uses the people around him as a painter uses human models, but he also seems arrogantly over-confident about his interpretation of this reality: he assumes that he ‘connai[t] bien leurs ressorts’, and the metaphor of ‘ressorts’ here reduces the real complexity of humans to the simplicity of mechanical automata. In practice, he adopts a strange relationship to the people in his life that is already like the relationship of an author to his or her fictional characters: he ‘op[ère] sur leur destinée’ just as an author plots out the destiny of characters in a novel, or in the way that Gide had previously used fiction as a sort of psychological experiment. But to treat real people in this way is irresponsible, manipulative, or even a sort of inauthenticity or ‘fausse monnaie’. There is also a basic contradiction in his attitude: although his inability to invent makes him dependent on reality, he also seems to lack curiosity about reality, since he has ‘plus de regard pour ce qui pourrait être’, that is, he seems more of an idealist than a realist.

After these diary entries we return to the perspective of Bernard, who had been reading the diary with extreme interest, although the metaphor of reading as drowning also suggests that it’s an overwhelming experience. So why is he so interested? On one level, he’s curious about his friend Olivier, who seems so different in this diary compared with Bernard’s own experience of his shy, sensitive friend. But more fundamentally, he’s starting to realise the uncertainty of our perceptions in general, and the depths of his own ignorance about the reality around him (and of course he’s just been reading Édouard’s own reflections on this same subject). Specifically, he discovers a part of Olivier’s character, and a part of Olivier’s social life, that had been completely unknown to him. Bernard’s reading functions as a sort of mise en abyme representing our own reading of the novel; or to put it another way, we are reading the diary over Bernard’s shoulder and sharing in his experience. Therefore, his feelings of wonder, admiration, and discomfort with regard to the slipperiness of reality, might be shared by us as readers of the novel. His attitude here also offers a sharp contrast with Édouard’s attitude: whereas Édouard assumes that he understands reality but is in fact rather detached from it, Bernard realises just how difficult it is to grasp reality, but this realisation makes him more curious, more attached to reality. This contrast between Bernard’s and Édouard’s respective attitudes towards reality is echoed later in the episode at Saas-Fée, when Bernard finds a genuine counterfeit coin, but Édouard has no interest in it, as he is only interested in the idea of the counterfeit.

Finally, we come to the narrator. When the narrator first interjects to introduce Bernard, he makes himself fairly invisible, by conforming to the conventions of the Realist novel: he uses the passé simple to relate events from the past, as if he has a complete knowledge of the past and how it is going to unfold, and – as if he were truly omniscient – he describes the inner thoughts of Bernard through the device of free indirect discourse. But in the last few lines he becomes far more obtrusive, and becomes more of a parody of the traditional narrator. His comment about ‘les dépits’ leading to ‘bien des sottises’ is presented as a pearl of wisdom, but is actually a fairly hollow and pompous statement. He makes the bizarre claim that the whole narrative describing Bernard’s response is merely there to give some breathing space to the transcribed diary entries, which suggests that he doesn’t really understand the significance of the events he’s relating, or that he just isn’t very interested. The shift from the passé simple towards perfect and present tenses also now makes him seem like just one character among others, without any special privilege, and who doesn’t know what is going to happen. In some ways, his attitude towards the reality of the novel resembles Édouard’s. It should also go without saying that we, as readers, cannot rely on this narrator’s insight or guidance, and that his words should be read as critically as those of the other characters.

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