The Immoralist by Andre Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960 (Many editions extant)
It's not often a book leaves me completely at a loss. The Immoralist is one of those books. Gide is someone I've obviously heard of, but this is the first work of his that I have read: this review was written the day I've finished this book, but I think my view may change over time and further reflection.
The book in many ways reminds of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, with the protagonist Michel suffering a crisis of health and soul, travelling a physical and metaphysical journey: from physical sickness to health and from spiritual health to a state of limbo. Meanwhile his new wife travels the opposite journey.
The Immoralist is Michel's narration of how his illness changed his outlook on life, how everything that was important to him before his illness lost its lustre. His love of history - which formed the basis of his career - becomes hateful to him, and in fact everything that once sustained him slowly falls apart. When his wife miscarries, he also loses hope in the future.
It is his friend Menalque who sums up Michel's new ideas of living, which can be illustrated in a few quotes -
"Do you know the reason why poetry and philospphy are nothing but dead-letter nowadays? It is because they have severed themselves from life."
"Nowadays beauty no longer acts; action no longer desires to be beautiful; and wisdom is a sphere apart."
"Because I do not want to recollect...I should be afraid of preventing the future and of allowing the past to encroach on me. It is out of the utter forgetfulness of yesterday that I create every new hour's freshness. It is never enough for me to have been happy."
The result of Michel pursuing this path can be guessed at - he eventually becomes caught in the limbo of the here-and-now, with nothing to look forward to and only failure and tragedy to look back on. Along the way he thought he could find truthfulness in the lower classes. All he did find there was deceit and hatred for him and his class. The more he tries to ingratiate himself with them the more they resent his not behaving as he should.
His desire to get back to Tunis, where he recovered from his illness at the beginning of the book, brings only sadness. The young boys he knew there (there is a strong homo-erotic undertone to this book) have almost all developed for the worse, and the journey kills his wife. His care for her, undertaken selfishly, contrasts to her selfless care for him. By the final pages Michel is an aimless tramp, if a wealthy one.
This book was first published in 1902 and I can imagine at the time it may have been quite scandalous. It still is in its own way: a lesson in the result of trying to escape one's responsibilities as a human.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Immoralist will take me some time to digest fully.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell