Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gide’s self-scrutiny

Today is the anniversary of André Gide’s birth in 1869. A Nobel Prize winner, and one of France’s great writers, Gide was also an avid diarist. His diaries are promoted as containing notes about his own compositions, ‘aesthetic appreciations, philosophic reflections, sustained literary criticism’, details of his personal life, and comments on the events of the day, from the Dreyfus case (see earlier blog) to the German occupation. Gide’s translator, Justin O’Brien, says he had a habit of ‘spiritual self-scrutiny’, and Gide himself wrote about how his friend Paul Valéry thought him entangled in ‘pietism and sentimentality’.

Gide was born in Paris on 22 November 1869 - 140 years ago today - but was brought up in Normandy, where he was tutored at home, and where he was often ill. His father was a Paris University professor of law who died when André was only 11, and his uncle was a political economist. During 1893-94, he travelled in north Africa, meeting Oscar Wilde in Algiers, and began trying to accept his own homosexuality. He also had a fall and was gravely ill.

In 1895, after his mother’s death, Gide married his cousin Madeleine Rondeaux but the marriage was never consummated. Although homosexual, Gide did have a daughter, Catherine, in 1923, with Maria Van Rysselberghe. In 1896, he became mayor of a commune in Normandy, and later he was also a juror in Rouen.

Gide’s Fruits of the Earth appeared in 1897 and was to become one of his most popular works, influencing later writers, such as Camus and Sartre. In it, he preached a doctrine of active hedonism. In later novels, though, he was more careful to examine the problems of individual freedom and responsibility from different points of view. In 1909, Gide helped found the influential literary magazine The New French Review, which published many of his essays.

From the mid-1920s, Gide began to work for social reforms, demanding more humane conditions for criminals for example. Between 1925 and 1927, he travelled with his friend Marc Allegret, to the Congo; and, from 1942 until the end of the Second World War, he lived in North Africa. His fame grew in the 1940s, and in 1947 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. See the Andre Gide website for biographical information and more, and Wikipedia for a list of his works and a few links.

Gide wrote a diary most of his life, and the famous French publisher Gallimard was already publishing collections of the journals in French by the late 1930s. A four volume set translated into English and annotated by Justin O’Brien was published in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Secker & Warburg, London, and Alfred Knopf, New York. Much more recently, though, the University of Illinois Press has republished these editions in paperback.

Here is the publisher’s promotional blurb: ‘Beginning with a single entry for the year 1889, when he was twenty, and continuing intermittently but indefatigably through his life, the Journals of André Gide constitute an enlightening, moving, and endlessly fascinating chronicle of creative energy and conviction. Astutely and thoroughly annotated by Justin O’Brien in consultation with Gide himself, this translation is the definitive edition of Gide’s complete journals. The complete journals, representing sixty years of a varied life, testify to a disciplined intelligence in a constantly maturing thought. These pages contain aesthetic appreciations, philosophic reflections, sustained literary criticism, notes for the composition of his works, details of his personal life and spiritual conflicts, accounts of his extensive travels, and comments on the political and social events of the day, from the Dreyfus case to the German occupation. Gide records his progress as a writer and a reader as well as his contacts and conversations with the bright lights of contemporary Europe, from Paul Valéry, . . . Auguste Rodin to Marcel Proust . . . Devoid of affectation, alternately overtaken by depression and animated by a sense of urgency and hunger for literature and beauty, Gide read voraciously, corresponded voluminously, and thought profoundly, always questioning and doubting in search of the unadulterated truth. ‘The only drama that really interests me and that I should always be willing to depict anew,’ he wrote, ‘is the debate of the individual with whatever keeps him from being authentic, with whatever is opposed to his integrity, to his integration. Most often the obstacle is within him. And all the rest is merely accidental.’ ’

Otherwise, there is surprisingly little information about Gide’s diaries online, at least that I can find. There’s one interesting article by the esteemed Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk published by Social Research in 2004; and another, by O’Brien on Gide’s Fictional Technique (in The French Literary Horizon to be found on the André Gide website), which suggests a link between Gide’s diary writing and his fiction. Here is the relevant paragraph:

‘The use of direct narration and especially of the diary form has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Its appearance in so many of André Gide’s works - even in [Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters)] he will have a novelist character commenting on events in his own diary - suggests that the journal is Gide’s form par excellence and that his imaginative works might almost be considered to be extracted from his own Journals. It would be more just to say that the habit of spiritual self-scrutiny contracted during his pious childhood and reinforced by the fairly regular keeping of his own diary has caused him to make his characters indulge in the same practice.’

And finally, here is an extract from Gide’s diary, written just over 80 years ago:

28 October 1929
‘In bed since Friday evening. A sort of colonial diarrhea; that is, bleeding. Starvation diet. A few griping pains, but bearable after all. Impression of a crossing (with possible shipwreck), having broken off all connections with the outer world, or at least with society. An excellent excuse for refusing invitations and failing to receive any but a few intimate friends. No worry about going out even to get my meals. A very long and unbroken succession of hours, of undifferentiated hours. I hardly dare confess how delighted I am, for fear of seeming affected. The conventional is the only thing that never looks like ‘pose’. I shall finally be able to finish Der Zauberberg! [The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann].

But before getting back to it; for I am still a bit too weak for that effort (in two days I have lost almost a quart of blood and eaten nothing since Friday morning), I am reading Maxime by Duvernois - much less good than Edgar and a few others - then launch into Le Soulier de Satin [The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel].

Yesterday a visit from [Paul] Valéry. He repeats to me the fact that, for many years now, he has written only on order and urged on by a need for money.

‘That is to say that, for some time, you have written nothing for your own pleasure?’

‘For my own pleasure?’ he continues. ‘But my pleasure consists precisely in writing nothing. I should have done something other than writing, for my own pleasure. No, no; I have never written anything, and I never write anything, save under compulsion, forced to, and cursing against it.’

He tells me with admiration (or at least with an astonishment full of consideration) about Dr de Martel, who has just saved his wife; about the tremendous amount of work that he succeeds in getting through every day and about the sort of pleasure, of intoxication even, that he can get from a successful operation and even from the mere fact of operating.

‘It is also the intoxication of abnegation,’ I say. At this word abnegation Valéry pricks up his ears, leaps very amusingly from his chair to my bedside, runs to the hall doorm, and, leaning out, shouts:

‘Bring some ice! Boy, bring some ice! The patient is raving . . . He is ‘abnegating’!’

At many a point in the conversation I am aware that he thinks me quite entangled in pietism and sentimentality.’

No comments: