The International Writers Magazine:
The Immoralist, by Andre Gide
One of the hallmarks of great art is that it not only defines its time, but transcends it, as well. In reading over the Dover Thrift Edition of Andre Gide’s 1902 novella, The Immoralist (L’Immoraliste), this fact came home pointedly.
What was shocking over a century ago simply is not any longer. And a work of art that depends on a gimmick, like shock value, simply cannot be considered great.
Whilst reading the book, it kept gnawing at me that the book was mistitled. Better than being called The Immoralist, the work should have been titled The Boring Dilettante, for very little in the book’s narrative can be called ‘immoral’; save for an act of adultery and several perhaps implied affairs of the heart with young Arab boys. Putting aside titillation factors, then or now, the book is startlingly bereft of any real depth. Now, one might argue that since the book’s lead character, Michel, is a boring dilettante, that this is exactly what Gide intended. But that’s the old silly argument that to convey a character’s state of boredom the writer must write about it boringly. Yes, there is no character growth- not even negatively, with a regression, and this stasis could be an effective tool, but Gide simply does nothing with the idea. Ok, turn of the Twentieth Century French plutocrats were….hedonists. Wow. But where to go from that point?
The actual narrative is rather straightforward: an unnamed narrator relates a tale recently told to him by his friend Michel, of his several years on the road. Within the narrator’s tale, Michel speaks in the first person. He is a young historian who marries a woman named Marceline, at his father’s behest, and gallivants about Europe and North Africa, all under the pretense of ‘scholarly research.’ In Tunis, he contracts tuberculosis. He convalesces, finds he is attracted to young boys. Throughout the book, after Marceline nurses him back to health, he finds he is torn between his latent homosexuality and pedophilic urges, and his devotion to the woman who saved his life. This only intensifies as their stays about the Mediterranean increase, and Marceline contracts TB.
Marceline is frail, devoted, yet, at some points, seems to love him so intensely that she looks the other way at his jaunts off to be with his older male companions (a substitute for his even more base desires). Aside from his perverse sexual desires, Michel is also an atheist, and seems little moved when Marceline gets pregnant and miscarries. But, perhaps the best application of Gide’s title comes from Michel’s neglect of Marceline as she is slowly dying. While the tale has no interior nor psychological depth, Gide does display a good sense of structural skill for the latent desires of Michel are pushed aside much in the same way the tale refuses to focus on them. One wonders, however, since the tale was so manifestly influenced by the then recent Oscar Wilde scandal (as well as Gide’s own life), how a far superior writer like Wilde would have embraced the subject matter.
There are a series of ‘incidents’ throughout the book- all involving Michel’s homoeroticism toward strangers, boys, friends he gives Latinate names, and others, yet after the third one, the reader wants to scream, ‘Ok, I get it. Is there anything else in this dilettante’s life?” Gide tries to toss in a bit of depth to the work with such bon mots as claiming that Michel realizes that sensations were as powerful as thoughts, but all the ideas seem forced and exculpatory, but not as if it is Michel who is tap dancing about his true self, but rather Gide, who seems ambivalent of whether or not to push the novel farther.
In short, he should have, but not in terms of sexuality, and a character’s confronting his own, but in terms of depth. Michel acts as if he is a terminal frat boy, not an engaged professional. And it is this lack of depth and probing that makes the novel not too memorable after a first reading. Part of this may be due to the translation by Stanley Appelbaum, but prose is quite a bit easier to translate than poetry, and given such melodramatic fare as this, from the start of Part Three (page 83): ‘Oh passionate attentions! tender vigils! Just as others reignite their religious faith, by exaggerating its rituals, so I unfurled my love,’ or this fluffy nonsense, from page 91: ‘Man’s poverty is slavish; in order to eat, it accepts unpleasurable work; any work that isn’t happy is lamentable, I thought, and I subsidized the idleness of several people. I would say: ‘So don’t work; it bores you.’ I desired each one of then to enjoy the leisure without which no novelty, no vice, no art can develop,’ it’s rather obvious where the flaw lies.
While one might ascribe it solely to the character, or a bad translation, in looking at the very simplicity (not to mention simplemindedness of the thoughts), one can only truly attribute such failings to Gide, especially when nothing else in the book, even subliminally, suggests that there could be something more going on. The prose is not ornate, nor spare. It is just limp, with affectations- and those affectations are not only within the interior tale (or interior interior tale, since Michel’s tale is being related as it was related by Michel), but in how it is crafted, at all levels.
Gide simply has his character run off at the mouth, and the logorrhea is held up as if there is depth. But, is a planned lack of depth, in and of itself, depth? Does intentionality substitute for execution? No. For taken to its logical end, the narration of a tale by a retard would be very limited, even if that retard kept stumbling into philosophic adventures that were beyond his understanding. Similarly, by portraying Michel as so limited, emotionally, as to not comprehend his- if not immorality, then dullness, the advocates of the novel get to pawn off all real criticism of character development, language usage, and other technical tools.
With that in mind, The Immoralist is by no means a bad book, simply a grossly overrated one. Were it submitted as a first draft to a good editor, its problems could easily be remedied, with a little fleshing out and more attention to character than political outrageousness, and turned into a truly unique book of substance. As it is, however, the novella simply reads like a work in progress that never did.
© Dan Schnieder June 2010
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