Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2021

The Immoralist, by André Gide, translated by Dorothy Bussy

1001 Books begins its summary of The Immoralist like this:

A thought-provoking book that still has the power to challenge complacent attitudes and unfounded cultural assumptions, The Immoralist recounts a young Parisian man’s attempt to overcome social and sexual conformity. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books 2006, p.241)

The novella is prefaced by an attempt to explain that the ‘problem’ of the book existed before it was written.  It is then book-ended at the beginning by a pseudo-letter to the Prime Minister that asks what role in society a young man like the hero might have… and completed by that same friend’s awkward conclusion after the hero’s story has been told.  That story is narrated by Michel, who starts out as an austere young scholar and ends up as a defiant hedonist.

The translation, by Dorothy Bussy, uses the term ‘hero’ in the preface.  But it does not seem to me that there is anything heroic about Michel.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Michel’s mother died when he was fifteen, and he was only twenty-four when he married Marceline to please his dying father.  He says at the outset that he does not love her.  Marceline is a devout Catholic—whose role in the novel is to be a devoted and uncomplaining wife—and she saves Michel’s life on their honeymoon in Tunisia when he has his first haemorrhage from undiagnosed TB. This experience makes him re-evaluate his life, and sets him on a path towards pleasure.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence. (p.29)

Through Marceline’s attentive care, and his own determination to recover, he begins to recuperate and finds himself enjoying the company of Arab children.  Though nothing is explicit, frequent references to bare skin makes it clear that a sensual attraction to these boys is emerging.  There is a curious incident with Moktir, who he sees stealing Marceline’s scissors.  Michel says and does nothing to reprove him, and in a sign that his moral compass is beginning to shift, Moktir becomes his favourite.

(We do not judge novels from 1902 by the moral standards of today, but we note that these are boys not of the same age as Michel, and his money and status in a French colonial society makes for unequal power relations between them.)

At the same time Michel begins to notice how pretty Marceline is, and he pays more attention to her.  They have, however, still not consummated their marriage.

Michel’s rejection of bourgeois life and the trappings of society becomes clearer when he returns to Europe. They travel through Italy, where Michel realises that he has lost interest in his field of expertise, classical history.  By abandoning austerity to indulge only his sensual appetites, he has alienated himself from his education, his family values, and European culture.

While his father was alive, he had lived a simple life and did not even realise that they were wealthy.  But his inheritance comes with certain obligations including attention to the family estate, La Morinière in Normandy.  This estate is managed by an ageing man called Bocage whose loyalty and honesty have been unquestioned.  Michel, however, becomes attracted to his son, Charles, who persuades him that his father’s ways are old-fashioned.  Michel’s behaviour becomes bizarre when he moves on from allowing Charles to make some changes, to indulging his desire to be closer to the earth and the people who work it, to the detriment of the farm and its income.  He allows the sloppy team that does the annual tree-lopping to leave the job unfinished so that new growth is sabotaged; he joins Bocage’s son Alcide in poaching from his own land while at the same time requiring Bocage to catch the poachers; and he interferes with the management of the tenant farmers so that they end up leaving and the untended farm becomes worthless.

The couple return to Paris and though the inheritance is diminishing, they take very expensive rooms and live in luxury.

Marceline, meanwhile, has been neglected, but when Michel belatedly notices that she has become ill, he rushes her off the alps where the clear air brings some improvement.  Alas for Marceline, his boredom resurfaces, and they embark on travels in Europe and North Africa which bring her nothing but bad food, poor hotels, exhaustion and exacerbation of her condition.  Reading this section reminds the reader that Michel has recovered from his TB due to attentive care and good management of his condition.  His selfish hedonism and distaste for her symptoms means that when she contracts the same disease, her prognosis is entirely different.

Reading the concluding pages also reminded me of the selfish behaviour of John Middleton Murry, that I read about in Kathleen Jones’ bio Katherine Mansfield, Storyteller. Murry’s insistence on living in England forced Katherine Mansfield to return to its perilous weather when really, she needed to be nurtured in a more benign climate on the continent.  The descriptions of Mansfield’s struggle for breath and her constant haemorrhages towards the end of her tragic life were in my mind as I read about Marceline.

The reason for Gide’s semi-apologetic preface becomes clearer as the narrative deteriorates into self-pity.  Michel’s freedom from bourgeois constraints and conventional morality has trapped him in a spiral of loss, and with Marceline’s death he has nothing to live for and no one to care about him except for these friends to whom in extremis he has turned.

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me. (p.157)

But the unnamed friend has his doubts:

…we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness.  We felt, alas, that by telling his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate.  Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices.  We felt, as it were, involved.  He finished his story without a quaver in his voice, without an inflection or a gesture to show that he was feeling any emotion whatever; he might have had a cynical pride in not appearing moved or a kind of shyness that made him afraid or arousing emotion in us by his tears, or he might not in fact have been moved.  Even now I cannot guess what proportions pride, strength, reserve and want of feeling were combined in him.  (p.157)

As 1001 Books concludes:

Michel’s attempt to access a deeper truth by repudiating culture, decency and morality results in confusion and loss.  In being true to himself, Michel has harmed others.  Yet the novel remains as much an indictment of the arbitrary constraints of a hypocritical society as it is of Michel’s behaviour. (1001 Books, p.241)

That letter to the Prime Minister makes more sense when we realise that Michel is going to need a job because he’s gone through his entire fortune.

The dilemma, to which 1001 Books refers when suggesting that the book has the power to challenge complacent attitudes and unfounded cultural assumptions, is that most contemporary readers would support Michel’s discovery of a life beyond the confines mapped out by his father, including exploring his own sexuality and making friendships outside his own class.  The problem is that he goes too far: he exploits and then cruelly neglects his wife; he takes advantage of boys too young to exercise any real choice; and he destroys a working farm that provided income to people more vulnerable to poverty than he is.  This is distasteful, but Gide had his reasons for framing it this way.  As it says at Wikipedia:

Gide exposes to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality (characterized by a Protestant austerity and a transgressive sexual adventurousness, respectively), which a strict and moralistic education had helped set at odds. 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, including owning one’s sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one’s values. (André Gide page, Wikipedia, viewed 17/1/21)

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed it, and Melissa at The Bookbinder’s Daughter reviewed it too. 

Author: André Gide
Title: The Immoralist (L’Immoraliste)
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1960, 1986 reprint, first published in 1902
ISBN: 9780140014976, pbk., 159 pages
Source: personal library, OpShopFind

 


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa

    Thanks for this review. I have read a little Gide but not The Immoralist; however you have persuaded me to try it. I have read “Straight is the Gate” and “If I Die”; both books visit the themes that you highlight in The Immoralist, Gide’s tormented life, teetering between casual carnality and conservative intellectualism. I can also highly recommend his biography of Oscar Wilde, a man who he befriended in Paris and admired as a writer and loved as a gay man. I will have to find the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Immoralist that you reference.

    Best wishes
    Chris
    (and I look forward to you reviewing the upcoming biography of KSP)

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  2. Interesting and challenging book, isn’t it Lisa?

    Thanks for the link. (BTW I notice that I read a different and later translation. I compared the quote you and I both used – your “what frightens me” and they are quite different in flow and nuance. The last line of mine is “I find this empty liberty painful to bear.”)

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  3. I read a fair bit of Gide as a student (probably the best time to read him) but not, I think, this one. I recall The Vatican Cellars being pretty bizarre, and The Counterfeiters – thought my memory of these books is now almost vanished. I used to dip into the Journals, too. He was a taboo-breaker at his time, I suppose, and managed to avoid the fate of his chum Oscar.

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    • I definitely want to read more of him:)

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  4. I’m going to have to save this review till I’ve read the book because, like you, I really want to read more Gide!

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    • He’s such an interesting man, like Graham Greene, constantly questioning what the essence of personal morality might be.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful review, Lisa! I was thinking about this book after I saw Kaggsy’s tweet on Gide’s The Counterfeiters. I was wondering which would be the Gide book to read first. I’m still not sure. But The Immoralist looks very interesting. I remember V.S.Naipaul did something similar to what the main character in this book did – his wife took care of him when he was unwell, but she was unwell he ignored her and went and had an affair with someone. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

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    • The personal life (and opinions) of V S Naipaul don’t seem to make him a likeable man. But from what I’ve read of his fiction, I do think he’s a great writer.

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      • Yes, hard to read his opinions, Lisa. I have read only one nonfiction book by him a long time back. I liked it at that time. Hoping to read one of his novels one day. Which is your favourite book of his?

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  6. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    An important book I think raising issues which were of interest at the time. The question of attaining authenticity without hurting others is surely, however, still with us. Certain themes about boredom, ennui in French certainly occupied others at the time from Flaubert, Baudelaire and on to Camus. Thanks for posting!

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    • Ah yes, I’d forgotten about boredom in Madame B and also Stendhal. It’s a theme in C19th Russian Lit too, from what I’ve seen of it… but not in English Lit. I wonder why that might be?

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  7. I think I’ll skip Gide. Stories where the protagonist self destructs don’t attract me at all.

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    • Since I was indignant on Marceline’s behalf, I quite enjoyed the schadenfreude!

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  8. 1902: hunh, what interesting themes, and handled to illuminate the complexity, for more than a hundred years ago. Do you follow the various updates to the 1001 Books series, or are you just working from one of the iterations and gradually aiming to read through them?

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    • Well, I have the first (2006) edition, but for a while I had a spreadsheet that included all the updates. But now I think losing that file was a blessing in disguise because adding in all the others would make it a never-ending task, plus there’s a lot of recent stuff I do not want to read. So I’m back to using just what’s in the book.

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