Friday, November 22, 2019

Gide’s self-scrutiny

Today marks the 150th anniversary of André Gide’s birth. 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 History unmasks all secrets) 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, 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 Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia for further biographical information.

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. Some 50 years later, the University of Illinois Press  republished these editions in paperback (translated from the French and with an introduction and notes by Justin O'Brien) - all of which are available to preview at Googlebooks: Journals: 1889-1913; Journals: 1914-1927; Journals: 1928-1939; Journals: 1939-1949.

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 freely available 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 (summary available here); and another, by O’Brien on Gide’s Fictional Technique (summary available here), 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 are several extracts from Gide’s diary.

3 January 1892
‘Shall I always torment myself thus and will my mind never, O Lord, come to rest in any certainty? Like an invalid turning over in his bed in search of sleep, I am restless from morning till night, and at night my anxiety awakens me.

I am anxious to know what I shall be; I do not even know what I want to be, but I do know that I must choose. I should like to progress on safe and sure roads that lead only to the point where I have decided to go. But I don’t know; I don’t know what I ought to want. I am aware of a thousand possibilities in me, but I cannot resign myself to want to be only one of them. And every moment, at every word I write, at each gesture I make, I am terrified at the thought that this is one more ineradicable feature of my physiognomy becoming fixed: a hesitant, impersonal physiognomy, an amorphous physiognomy, since I have not been capable of choosing and tracing its contours confidently.

O Lord, permit me to want only one thing and to want it constantly.

A man’s life is his image. At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past, and, leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are. Our whole life is spent in sketching an ineradicable portrait of ourselves. The terrible thing is that we don’t know this; we do not think of beautifying ourselves. We think of it in speaking of ourselves; we flatter ourselves; but later our terrible portrait will not flatter us. We recount our lives and lie to ourselves, but our life will not lie; it will recount our soul, which will stand before God in its usual posture.

This can therefore be said, which strikes me as a kind of reverse sincerity (on the part of the artist): Rather than recounting his life as he has lived it, he must live his life as he will recount it. In other words, the portrait of him formed by his life must identify itself with the ideal portrait he desires. And, in still simpler terms, he must be as he wishes to be.’

30 July 1928
‘At times it seems to me, alas! that I have passed the best time for writing. I feel painfully in arrears with myself. And if you wish me to say: in arrears with God, I don’t mind doing so, all the same. This simply means that I sometimes fear having waited too long, that I fear not only lacking time, but also fervor and that unsubdued exigence of thought that urges it to manifest itself. You resign yourself to silence, and nothing is more to be feared from old age than a sort of taciturn resignation. Even of those we most admire and know best, who can claim that we know the best and that they were permitted to say what mattered most to them? Just when one would like to speak, voice fails one and, when it returns, one expresses but memories of thoughts. Montaigne’s strength comes from the fact that he always writes on the spur of the moment, and that his great lack of confidence in his memory, which he believes to be bad, dissuades him from putting off anything that comes to mind with a view to a more skillful and better- ordered presentation. I have always counted too much on the future and had recourse to too much rhetoric.’

27 September 1929
‘Reread, before giving them to be typed, some notebooks of my prewar journal. What interests me most in them today is finding, over so long a period of time and so late, moral constraint and effort. How long I had to struggle! What dull steppes I have crossed!

I have rather well (and very happily) noted down certain conversations with Claudel. I send a copy of them to Groethuysen, with whom, just yesterday, I spoke at great length about Claudel. The latter is going to found and edit a review, it appears: a Thoinist and orthodox review, which will print only the purest representatives of Catholic literature of today. There will remain, for the N.R.F., only the free-thinking elements. After which people will be surprised that it seems tendentious! . . .

I felt extraordinarily well yesterday, cheerful, and fit for work. Had forgotten my age. This is just what I had gone to the baths for.
But I let myself slip into smoking too much.

The ugliness, the vulgarity of the people in the metro covers me with gloom. Oh, to go back among the Negroes! . . .

Hardly did a thing all day worth mentioning. Sat dazed before the pile of copies of Un Esprit non prévenu, which I received four days ago already and which I ought to send out. Courage fails me in the face of the dedications to write.’

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.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 22 November 2009.

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