If we ignore the early satirical parables and symbolist fiction, the lyrical pieces, pamphlets, travel diaries, political and social tracts, and the major works of fiction, we are left chiefly with the lengthy major insertions in the diaries as André Gide’s personal contribution to the essay genre. The distinction between what can be accounted a true essay and what cannot is blurred, but it seems reasonable to regard Voyage au Congo, Le Retour du Tchad, and Carnets de route (1927–28; all translated in Travels in the Congo) as belonging to Gide’s Journal proper, leaving Si le grain ne meurt (1920–21; If It Die…), Souvenirs de la cour d’assises (1914; Recollections of the Assize Court], Feuillets d’automne (1949; Autumn Leaves), Et nunc manet in te (1947; The Secret Drama of My Life), and Ainsi soit-il; ou, Les Jeux sont faits (1952; So Be It; or, The Chips Are Down), as extended personal reflections which belong to the essay genre rather than forming part
of the diary itself. There are other less personal essays, like those devoted to individuals—Wilde, Dostoevskii, Conrad, Montaigne, Émile Verhaeren, Jacques Rivière, Henri Michaux, and Paul Valéry—and those contained in Prétextes (1903; Pretexts), Nouveaux prétextes (1911; New pretexts), Incidences (1924), Préfaces (1948), and Rencontres (1948; Encounters), but their literary interest, although great, does not consist chiefly in the contribution they make to Gide’s development of the essay form. At times, they slide off into polished pieces of journalism.
Gide was an uneven writer, intensely self-conscious and obsessed by a need for selfanalysis, but he never wrote without a cultivated sophistication drawing on an unusually wide culture and, at least after about 1900, a generally fastidious taste. He was not only well read, but might easily have become a professional musician. His high level of mental awareness made it difficult for him to resist the temptation to write multilayered prose with disparate but distinct levels of meaning, bristling with allusions to people and events not all of which any single reader was expected to understand, and exhibiting masterly control of innuendo. The Journal itself (kept between 1889 and 1949) contains exquisitely subtle insights, although the cleverness is sometimes too forced for the genre and the literary judgments are not always assured. The Journal may not as a whole be Gide’s final masterpiece, a status sometimes claimed for it.
That accolade should probably be reserved for the fastidiously precise work of selfanalysis, If It Die…, written as the result of a spiritual crisis. Gide had published his imaginative exploration of homosexual and hedonist values in L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist) and of rigid spiritual asceticism in La Porte étroite (1909; Strait Is the Gate), implicitly rejecting both sets of values, and completing the triptych with the multipleironied and vastly amusing send-up of almost everything, but especially devout Catholicism and militant atheism, in Les Caves du Vatican (1914; The Vatican Cellars).
When World War I broke out in 1914, Gide, already in his mid-forties, worked for the Red Cross, from which he retired in 1916 to garden at his small estate at Cuverville. It was there that he underwent his spiritual crisis, which he writes about specifically in Numquid et tu…? (1922,), kept in diary form between 1916 and 1919. It is a reflective meditation born of remorse and despair, and contains a further rejection of the confident Catholicism to which Claudel had been trying to convert him for almost a score of years.
It includes an interpretation of the Christian ideal subsuming Gide’s individualism into an ethic of abnegation, itself seen as the supreme happiness.
The Cuverville crisis was partly caused by the discovery by Gide’s wife of a letter to him from Henri Ghéon, recently converted to Catholicism, alluding to the interest in adolescent Arab males which Gide and Ghéon had once shared. It was at this time also that Gide began the spiritual autobiography, If It Die…, also partly the product of the serious attraction felt for him by Elisabeth Van Rysselberghe, who was to bear him a daughter in 1923. The essay is much longer than the earlier works of fiction, but its form is not immediately clear. Most of the details Gide gives about his early childhood, and the places and events it involved, must have been discoverable from family sources, but not the exact verbal exchanges that Gide records. The difficulty lies in assessing the degree of fictionalization in what appears to be, but cannot be, straightforward recall. Such recall must involve some re-creation of the past, with conscious or unconscious falsification.
Gide himself writes at the beginning of the work, “I know the injustice I am doing myself in recounting this [early recollection] and what is going to follow, I foresee the use that will be made of it against me. But my account has no raison d’être other than truthfulness. Let us suppose that I am writing in penitence.” The French admits of two renderings, depending on whether raison d’être is used as a single phrase. Gide might be saying that there is no reason to be other than truthful (which might not itself be the case), or, if raison d’être is taken as a phrase, that telling the truth was his whole motive. Again “let us suppose” is only an invitation to the reader to share an assumption, while “penitence” can be taken as indicating anything from a desire to make amends for a social impropriety to performing formally ecclesiastical penance for sin. Gide is extremely skillful at creating his ambiguities.
It is left to the reader to guess whether Gide has revealed, or even knows, his true motive in writing, and how far his account may have been colored by his motive. The hedonist principles adopted by Michel in The Immoralist are taken to the point at which they are clearly unacceptable, as is the selfdeluding asceticism of Alissa in Strait Is the Gate. To what degree is If It Die…, which ends with the death of Gide’s mother and his own engagement to his cousin Madeleine, affected by a desire to shock, or by exaggerated or even insincere depths of self-abasement? From time to time, to reinforce the impression that he is striving after absolute, and therefore impartial accuracy, Gide reminds the reader how his memory must have been playing tricks, for instance in a passage recounting a dance, marked off from the surrounding narrative by its sudden switch into the present tense, which cannot have taken place as he remembered it, when his grandmother was still alive, because he was not yet four when she died. Occasionally Gide breaks off to address the reader directly, or as if musing to himself. He learned his art from Flaubert, and was always the supreme stylist, in perfect control of every nuance of irony.
It is easy to become lost in admiration at Gide’s sheer virtuosity, the subtlety and power of the self-analysis, and the meticulous selectivity exercised in the choice of telling detail. The narrative of If It Die…is held together principally by its meticulous and penetrating implied comment. Gide once turned down the earliest section of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27; Remembrance of Things Past) for the Nouvelle Revue Française (New French review); he seems here to be mimicking Proust’s style.
The most important of the nonpersonal essays are probably those contained in Pretexts of 1903 and Nouveaux Prétextes of 1911, although both these works contain pieces that are primarily conférences, that is, delivered before an audience, often on a topic dictated by the occasion, and of interest as essays chiefly for the way Gide deals with the intractable problem of writing at the same time for oral delivery and for subsequent publication, a feat which, however continually attempted, is seldom successfully brought off. Gide simply published what was designed to be given as an address, with short sentences, pithy paragraphs, and no obvious logical connection between paragraphs, dealing wholesale with imaginary objections to his argument. There are strong indications that the published text served only as a written basis for the partly extemporized address based on it.
The literary form of the conférences is really the causerie, and in Pretexts they merge into the dozen Lettres à Angèle (Letters to Angela), written as letters in a conversational tone—short digressive pieces on books which Gide published in the symbolist Revue Blanche (White review) in 1901, not really formal enough to be called essays. Pretexts ends with three obituary pieces of personal reminiscence, full of anecdotes, snatches of conversation, and Gide’s whole repertoire of semi-colons, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, and dots to indicate incomplete thoughts and conversational style.
Nouveaux Prétextes contains further conferences, diary snatches, letters, book reviews, and reminiscences. These are essentially civilized conversation pieces, bedside books rather than formal essays.
It is perhaps again stretching the meaning of the term essay too far in a different direction to include as part of Gide’s contribution to the form Souvenirs de la cour d’assises (1914; Recollections of the Assize Court), a powerful social comment in the form of an account of Gide’s experience as a member of an assize jury, drawing on notes he took and rendering word for word snatches of exchange between the judge and the accused. “I believed,” he writes, “that a simple account of the cases that we had been called on to judge would be more eloquent than any criticism.” The real importance of this brief work lies in the deftness with which the social comment is made to emerge the more powerfully for being totally implicit in the narration of what happened and what was said.
André Paul Guillaume Gide. Born 22 November 1869 in Paris. Studied at the École Alsacienne, 1887; École Henri IV, baccalauréat, 1889. Traveled at various times to North Africa, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. Married his cousin Madeleine Rondeaux, 1895 (died, 1938). Mayor of La Roque-Baignard, Normandy, 1896–1900. Cofounder, Nouvelle Revue Française, 1908. Liaison with Marc Allégret, from 1916. Had one daughter with Elisabeth Van Rysselberghe, 1923. Traveled to Congo and Chad, 1925–26, and Egypt and Greece, 1939; lived in North Africa, 1942–45. Awards: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1947; honorary degree from Oxford University. Honorary Member, American Academy, 1950. Died (of pulmonary congestion) in Paris, 19 February 1951.
Essays and Related Prose
Prétextes, 1903; enlarged edition, 1913; selection in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, edited by Justin O’Brien, translated by O’Brien, Angelo P.Berbocci, Jeffrey J.Carre, and Blanche A.Price, 1959
Nouveaux prétextes, 1911; selection in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, edited by Justin O’Brien, translated by O’Brien, Angelo P.Berbocci, Jeffrey J.Carre, and Blanche A. Price, 1959
Souvenirs de la cour d’assises, 1914; as Recollections of the Assize Court, translated by Philip A.Wilkins, 1941
Si le grain ne meurt, 2 vols., 1920–21; as If It Die…, translated by Dorothy Bussy, 1935
Incidences, 1924; selection in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, edited by Justin O’Brien, translated by O’Brien, Angelo P.Berbocci, Jeffrey J.Carre, and Blanche A.Price, 1959
Essai sur Montaigne, 1929; as Montaigne: An Essay in Two Parts, translated by Stephen H.Guest and Trevor E.Blewitt, 1929; translated by Dorothy Bussy, in The Living Thoughts of Montaigne, 1939
Et nunc manet in te, 1947; as The Secret Drama of My Life, translated by Keen Wallis, 1951; as Madeleine, translated by Justin O’Brien, 1952
Feuillets d’automne, 1949; as Autumn Leaves, translated by Elsie Pell, 1950
Ainsi soit-il; ou, Les Jeux sont faits, 1952; as So Be It; or, The Chips Are Down, translated by Justin O’Brien, 1960
Other writings: many novels (including L’Immoraliste [The Immoralist], 1902; La Porte étroite [Strait Is the Gate], 1909; Les Caves du Vatican [The Vatican Cellars], 1914; La Symphonie pastorale [The Pastoral Symphony], 1919; Les Faux-Monnayeurs
[The Counterfeiters], 1926), several plays, autobiography, travel writing, journals, and many volumes of correspondence.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, edited by Louis Martin-Chauffier, 15 vols., 1932–39; also separate (Pléiade editions, 1951–58.
Brosman, Catharine Savage, An Annotated Bibliography of Critidsm on André Gide 1973–1988, New York: Garland, 1990
Martin, Claude, Bibliographie chronologique des livres consacrés à André Gide (1918– 1986), Lyon: Centre d’Études Gidiennes, 1987
Naville, Arnold, Bibliographie des écrits de Gide, Paris: Guy Le Prat, 1949; supplement, 1953
Brée, Germaine, André Gide, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1963
Martin, Claude, Gide, Paris: Seuil, 1995
Schnyder, Peter, Pré-textes: André Gide et la tentation de la critique, Paris: Intertextes, 1988
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