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||André Gide (1869-1951)|
French writer, humanist, and moralist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. As a novelist, and still more as an intellectual in search of a moral way, Gide has appealed to different audiences: a traditional psychological novelist to some, a taboo-breaker to others; he was a major literary critic, social crusader, and spokesman for homosexual rights. Gide's search for self – the underlying theme of his several works – remained essentially religious. Throughout his career Gide used his writings to examine moral questions in a relentless critical spirit.
"It is not so much about events that I'm curious, as about myself. There's many a man thinks he's capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point... What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! And no more right to take back one's move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there'd be no interests in the game!... Between the imagination and a deed and... Hullo! the bank's come to an end. Here we are on a bridge, I think, a river..." (from The Vatican Cellars, 1952)
André Gide was born in Paris. His father, Paul Gide, a professor of law at the University of Paris, was descended from Cévennes Huguenots. He died in 1880. In Si le grain ne meurt... (1924-26, If It Die: An Autobiography), Gide recalled that his father "spent most of the day shut up in a vast and rather dark study, into which I was only allowed when he expressly invited me." In his study he read his son works by Molière, passages from the Odyssey, and after discussing with his wife, also the first part of the Book of Job. "But the reading certainly made the deepest impression on me, not only because of the solemnity of the story, but because of the gravity of my father's voice and my mother's expression, as she sat with her eyes closed, in order alternately to signify or to shield her pious absorption, and opened them only to cast a questioning glance on me, full of love and hope." (from If It Die)
Gide was raised by three women – his Aunt Claire, the English spinster Anna Shackleton, and his Calvinist mother, Juliette Rondeaux, who devoted her life to him. In his childhood Gide was educated mostly at home – he was lonely and ill for long periods. When his mother refused to take him to a Chopin concert given by Anton Rubinstein (labelling it as "unhealthy"), Gide developed a passion for studying his music. (Andre Gide's Politics: Rebellion and Ambivalence, edited by Tom Conner, 2000, pp. 15-16) At the age of 13, Gide fell in love with his cousin Madeleine Rondeaux; they married 12 years later, but in 1923, after twenty-seven years of unconsummated marriage, Gide had a daughter, Catherine, by another woman. Catherine's mother, Maria Van Rysselberghe, wrote about Gide's domestic life in Cahiers de la Petite Dame 1918-1945 (1973-77). Madeleine died in 1938, his unconsummated "marriage of Heaven and Hell" Gide dealt in Et nunc manet in te (1951).
Gide attended several schools. At the École Alsacienne Gide developed an interest in literature. He made friends with other aspiring writers and artists and attended the literary salons of José Maria de Heredia and Stéphane Mallarmé. In 1891 Gide made his debut as a novelist with Les Cahiers d'André Walter. He had started to write it at the age of 18. The book, published anonymously, told the story of an unhappy young man and his pure love for his cousin Emmanuèle. Next year appeared his first collection of poems, Poésies, but by 1900 he had practically abandoned poetry.
In 1893 and 1894 Gide traveled to North Africa, learning different moral and sexual conventions. At Biskra Gide fell ill and narrowly escaped death. These experiences gave basis for his psychological novels The Immoralist (1902), about the destructive force of hedonism and hunger for new experiences, and Strait is the Gate (1909), the counterpoint of the former work, or the "twin", as Gide called it. "The capacity to get free is nothing," says Mchael, the narrator of the Immoralist, "the capacity to be free, that is the task." In Paludes (1895) Gide examined ironically his former life; Africa had made him accept his sexual inclinations. He did not advocate homosexuality, but defended famous homosexuals condemned by the judical system. While in Algiers, he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. They kept contact over the years. Later Gide said, that "it seems to me today that in my first essay I spoke of Oscar Wilde's work, and in particular of his play, with unjust severity. The English as well as the French led me to do this, and Wilde himself at times showed an amusing disdain for his comedies" (in 1951 edition of Oscar Wilde).
"Families, I hate you! Shut-in homes, closed doors, jealous possessions of happiness." (from Fruits of the Earth)
Gide's hymn in prose and poetry to the beauty of all, Fruits of the Earth, appeared in 1897. It became in the 1920s his most popular work, influencing a generation of young writers, including the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, to cast off all that is artificial or merely conventional. In 1909 Gide helped found the influential literary magazine Nouvelle Revue française (The New French Review). For it he wrote a large number of essays and reviews. Gide rejected nationalism in French literature. He stated that "great minds never fear influences; on the contrary, they seek them with a sort of eagerness like the eagerness of being." Gide's defense of homosexuality in Corydon, published first privately in 1911, was violently attacked. With the British writer Dorothy Strachey Bussy (1865-1960) he formed a lifelong friendship. She spent much of her life in France and translated a number of Gide's novels into English. Bussy, whose brother was the biographer Lytton Strachey, was bisexual. She married the painter Simon Bussy and had a daughter, who also became a painter.
Until 1914 Gide was firmly convinced that he would be read only after his death, claimed Walter Benjamin, who interviewed the author in the late 1920s. "No European writer living today has given as cold a reception to his own fame as he did, when his finally arrived, toward the end of his forties," Benjamin wrote. Gide began to keep in 1916 a second journal, in which he recorded his search for God. His religious crisis of 1915-16 Gide analyzed in Numquid et tu... ? (1922). On 4 August 1922 he wrote in the journal, "I present my own ethics under the cover of Dostoevsky." Gide's interest in the Russian writer went back to his youth. In 1923 he published a book on Dostoevsky, which consisted mainly on lectures and earlier writings. Gide noted that Dostoevsky's main ideas were expressed through his characters: "He lost himself in each of the characters of his books and for this reason it is in them that he can be found again." Gide also recorded his everyday observations in his journal, examining often vices mirroring the problems of society. "10 May 1927: Many opium smokers and cocaine addicts in Zurich. Some of them, Rychner tells me, began to inject themselves during their last year at the Gymnasium; that is, when aged sixteen or seventeen. He knows one whom the professors caught using a syringe in a final examination. Cornered, he confessed that he had got his habit in class. 'Do you think anyone could endure the dullness of X's teaching without shooting up?' he asked."
After the mid-1920s Gide became a champion of society's victims, who demanded more humane conditions for criminals. He had observed social injustices more closely than many other writers from the 1890s – first as mayor of a commune in Normandy (1896), and later as a juror in Rouen (1912), and then as a special envoy of the Colonial Ministry (1925-26). In July 1925 Gide set out for a journey to the Congo with his friend Marc Allegret, returning in 1927. During this time Gide published If It Die..., which has been compared to Jacques Rousseau's Confessions. In the 1930s Gide announced his conversion to Communism, which shocked his readers, but he also was rejected by his new admirers after his disillusioning trip to the Soviet Union in 1936. Les Nouvelles Nourritures (1935, The New Fruits) was dedicated to the young readers of the Soviet Union.
In the novel The Counterfreiters (1926) Gide exposed the hypocrisy and self-deception with which people try to avoid sincerity. The protagonist, Edouard, keeps a journal of events in order to write a novel about the nature of reality. Another internal author – the 'pseudo-author', an intervening first person voice – comments the action. Edouard falls in love with his nephew Oliver Molinier. Through their story Gide illustrates what he considered a constructive homosexual relationship. Numerous themes are woven into the complex structure, not only the novelist writing a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about forging. The intrigues of a gang of counterfeiters symbolize the counterfeit personalities with which people disguise themselves. The novels ends with the suicide of one of the characters.
The Pastoral Symphony (1919), written in the form of the diary, explored the hypocrisy which masquerades as Christian pity and duty. In the story a Swiss Protestant pastor adopts and educates the blind orphan Gertrude. The pastor is afraid that Gertrude loves him less than his son Jacques, and seduces the girl on the eve of an operation, which may restore her sight. After the successful operation, Gertrude understands the truth about the people around her and she commits suicide. The pastor doesn't realize his own blindness before he starts to re-examine his own thinking and behavior. The film version of the book, directed by Jean Delannoy, gained critical and popular success in 1946, but the author himself was not happy with the result. Delannoy gave Gerture her sight some two-thirds of the way through the film, not at the end. The novella, Gide claimed, "makes sense only in terms of its artistic construction. It is, in sum, a tragedy in five acts which takes on its final value only through the long night of the first four acts. The young blind girl recovers her sight only in the last pages – to her detriment as it turns out. Everything resides in this sudden rupture. They explained to me that the necessities of the screen warranted a new conception of the tale, that it had to be translated into another language." Gide's novella Isabelle exposed illusions of a young student, who falls in love with a woman pictured in a mysterious miniature. It was published in the UK in the same volume as La Symphonie Pastorale.
Gide's trip to the U.S.S.R., where he was given the place of honor at the funeral of Maxim Gorky and seated next to Stalin on various occasions, led to his famous break with Communism. André Malraux advised him not to publish his report on the journey, Retour de l'U.R.S.S. (1936), in which Gide made a decisive break with the Soviets. In the footnote to the oppression of homosexuality by the Stalinist regime he cited a Persian proverb: "women for duty, boys for pleasure, melons for delight." However, in this book Gide was not so open about his sexuality as he was in many others. The appearence of the report at the crucial moments of the Spanish Civil War made Gide the target of Leftist wrath.
From 1942 until the end of WW II, Gide lived in North Africa. After the war Communist writers, Louis Aragon included, tarred him as a Nazi collaborator. In the 1940s Gide began receive honors, which culminated in the Nobel Prize. Gide's correspondence with his friends Francis Jammes (pub. 1948) and Paul Claudel (pub. 1949) reveals their unsuccessful attempt to convert the author to Catholicism, but Gide remained more concerned with self-examination than religion. Among Gide's later works is Thésée (1946), which contributed to the renewed use of Greek myth in the 20th century literature; in this book, it was the tale of the Minotaur's labyrinth. Gide died on February 19, 1951. His friends Martin du Gard and François Mauriac later had a quarrel on Gide's words on his deathbed; Martin du Gard did not accept the religious tone given to Gide's burial. Martin du Gard commissioned an artist to make a death mask of the author's face. The Catholic Church placed in 1952 all his works on the Index librorum prohibitorum, thus forbidding all Catholics, under pain of mortal sin, to read any of his writings. The Index itself was abolished fourteen years later. Gide's wide correspondence with Proust, Paul Claudel, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Martin du Gard, and others started to appear regularly in 1948.