Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2020

Strait is the Gate, by André Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy

Well, I didn’t think I’d finish another novel before New Year, but the insomnia gremlins have struck again, and here we are…

Strait is the Gate is the debut novel of French novelist, essayist, dramatist and Nobel Laureate Andre Gidé (1869-1951).  At only 128 pages it’s more of a novella than a novel, but it’s a wonderful book to read.

Looking back on events from later in life, it tells the story, much of it in epistolary form, of a doomed love between Jerome and his cousin Alissa.

In the wake of his father’s death, Jerome forms a pre-pubescent close attachment to Alissa, but it is — and remains — delicate and elusive.  Both have unavailable mothers: Jerome’s is subsumed by grief, and Alissa’s has abandoned the family to take pleasure elsewhere.  It seems to both Jerome and Alissa that love is painful and unattainable, but they deal with this in different ways: Jerome is absorbed in intellectual pursuits while Alissa takes on the duty of caring for her devastated father and turns to religion for solace.

Over their years from adolescence to young adulthood, their yearning is expressed in declarations of love within their letters, but when together over long summers of poetry, Bible-reading, books and music, this love is never consummated in anything more than holding hands.  As time goes by, their time together is always marked by further distancing at her behest.  The future is always postponed.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Jerome’s friend and confidante Abel, meanwhile, falls for Alissa’s younger sister Juliette and confidently predicts a double marriage, until he realises that she is in love, hopelessly, with Jerome.  Rejecting love as Jerome and Alissa do, but only because it’s unattainable, Juliette makes a marriage with an older man of a different class, almost as if to punish herself.  She seems contented enough, until the last page, when Jerome tells her that he could only have pretended to love another woman, if he had married.

‘Ah!’ said she, as though indifferently, then turning her face away from me, she bent it towards the ground, as if she were looking for something she had lost. ‘Then you think that one can keep a hopeless love in one’s heart for so long as that?’

‘Yes, Juliette.’

‘And that life can breathe upon it every day, without extinguishing it?’ (p.128)

And as in previous conversations with Juliette, Jerome processes these words through the prism of his own feelings about Alissa, noting only that Juliette might have been in tears.

The novel is often interpreted as a cautionary tale against excessive religious fervour.  This is because when, finally, Jerome has finished his studies and his military service, and Alissa’s father has died so there are no obstacles to fulfilment of what they both desire, she terminates the relationship so that they can give themselves to God.

This is the ultimate fulfilment of a stirring sermon that they heard after Alissa’s mother ran away with her lover.

A passage in the sermon, (from which the title of the book is derived) comes from the Gospel of Luke in the Bible:  Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.  Jerome had pledged himself to be virtuous enough to win Alissa, but Alissa ultimately interprets the strait gate as too narrow for two people in love, blocking the entrance to Paradise to both of them because each should dedicate their lives solely to God.

However, knowing that Gide was gay, makes me wonder if there can be a variation on this interpretation.  Wikipedia tells us that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 “for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight“, and goes on to explain:

Known for his fiction as well as his autobiographical works, Gide exposes to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality, split apart by a straitlaced traducing of education and a narrow social moralism. Gide’s work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints, and centres on his continuous effort to achieve intellectual honesty. His self-exploratory texts reflect his search of how to be fully oneself, even to the point of owning one’s sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one’s values. His political activity is informed by the same ethos, as indicated by his repudiation of communism after his 1936 voyage to the USSR.  (Wikipedia,  Bibliography of André Gide, viewed 31/12/20)

In E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice the lovers are in anguish because the church condemns homosexuals to eternal damnation.  For a devout Catholic to choose such a love is to close the strait gate to Paradise for both of them.  What if Gide was exploring in his novel, a similar anguish, and Alissa symbolises a male lover who refuses to allow his beloved to damn himself — not merely because religion forbids it, but because if that belief is sincerely held, then consummation of that love dooms the beloved to hell for eternity?

Gide was a Symbolist, after all…

I must read The Immoralist soon!

Author: André Gide
Title: Strait is the Gate (La porte étroite)
Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1973, first published 1909
ISBN: 0140008810, pbk., 128 pages
Source: personal library, OpShopFind


Responses

  1. I have a copy of The Vatican Cellars here but whenever I consider reading it it doesn’t appeal to me. Strait is the Gate sounds more my kind of book.

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    • I’ve never heard of that one… it’s an intriguing title! (I mean, I’ve been to the Vatican… given its opulence, I have an image in my mind now of a splendid cellar of aged wines going back to Roman times….)

      Liked by 1 person

      • The blurb makes it sound a bit silly, but then it was probably that silliness that appealed to me when I picked it up. It depends on what mood I’m in. I should read it. I really liked The Immoralist.

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        • I’ll watch out for your review!
          (It’s good to know you liked The Immoralist.)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Skimming this because I’ve just finished and loved an early Gide, “Marshlands”, and want to read more! I’ve owned his books for decades but never read them I think – WHY?????? ;D

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    • I can’t tell you how long I’ve had this Gide on my shelves because I lost my file, but I know I shelved it at Goodreads in 2010. I’m not going to leave The Immoralist so long, I promise!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Lisa, I haven’t read Strait is the Gate but have read The Immoralist. I only read it because Robert Dessaixs book Arabeseques, is about Andre Gide. I loved Arabeseques, I found The Immoralist, an interesting read, but also an annoying read.

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    • Oh! I haven’t read that Dessaix… why not, I wonder?
      Why was The Immoralist annoying?

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      • Hi Lisa, the main character (who I think is Gide), is so indecisive. The imagery and claustrophobic atmosphere was excellent. Well worth the read.

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        • Thanks, it’s on my TBR. But I am going to finish I Claudius first…

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  4. Insightful review, and I found the term ‘strait gate’ intriguing. It got me wondering about the word ‘straight’ being the opposite to ‘gay’ and if that’s how it evolved.

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    • I hadn’t thought of that… I interpreted it as an allusion to a narrow passage. Interesting how words evolve…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. And maybe where the term ‘keeping on the straight and narrow’ evolved :)

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    • Yes, I think so. Somewhere in this book, HVM has included a list (nearly a whole page) of all the sayings we have that derive from Paul’s writings, but I can’t check if this is one of them because (already!) I have lent the book to my neighbour. A lovely example of what books can do: she is religious, and I’m not; and I am bookish, and she’s not. We have nothing in common but she has dinner with us every week and then we watch a film companionably together. During our months of Lockdown when we were not allowed to visit other households, I took her dinner over to her house each week so that she was not so alone. It was a great day when we went back to business as usual! Anyway, this week, when she saw the cover of the book on the coffee table, of course I told her all about it, and she wanted to borrow it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Lisa, it was wonderful to read your detailed response. Also, I think the bond you have with your neighbour is very special and made more so by your differences :) A happy and healthy New Year to both of you – Gretchen.

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    • Thank you Gretchen, I know how lucky I am.
      All the best to you and yours for 2021!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have read and reviewed The immoralist (and read La symphonie pastorale back in school). I’d like to read more Gide, and this one sounds like a good companion to The immoralist.

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    • Apparently they’re often recommended to read together: I’m actually reading The Immoralist now. I’ll check your review when I’ve finished it.

      Liked by 1 person


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