Books: The moralist of immorality

Gabriel Josipovici recalls a hedonist who never lost his puritan streak; Andre Gide: a life in the present by Alan Sheridan Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25, 709pp Jersey Press, pounds 10, 231pp
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The Independent Culture
ANDRe GIDE has always had an equivocal place in the pantheon of 20th-century artists. Was he essentially a novelist? A man of letters? The brave champion of homosexuality? He was, of course, all of these, and the challenge for the biographer is to make his protean achievements comprehensible.

The main obstacle, paradoxically, lies in the fact that all his works are, in a sense, autobiographical. In addition to the Journal he kept from 1889, when he was not yet 20, until 1949 (he died in 1951), we have 40 volumes of letters, many to other writers such as Valery, Proust and Rilke. The accounts of his travels in Africa and the Soviet Union; his polemics on behalf of homosexuality; and even the novels and plays can be seen as a simple extension of the Journals and Letters. Such is the weight of Gide's own writings that most biographers have kept away. Alan Sheridan's is the first full-scale life in any language.

Though Gide's life lacks the romantic bravura of one of his great heroes, Dostoevsky, or the beauty and pathos of Kafka's, it is a fascinating story. Born in 1869 into a wealthy Protestant family, he lost his beloved father at the age of 10 and was brought up by his adoring but Puritanical mother. At 13 he fell in love with his cousin Madeleine and less than a month after his mother's death, in 1895, he married her, despite the doubts she had long entertained on the subject.

All the qualities and defects of his mother were reproduced in Madeleine: high moral purpose, deep faith and narrowness of mind. To be fair, it would have required quite exceptional broadness of mind to put up with Gide, for along with his love for Madeleine, the two things he discovered about himself in his adolescence were his desire to write and his love of boys. He pursued both with the dogged diligence of a born Protestant ("a fanatical moralist of immorality", Ilya Ehrenburg called him), but also with a unique flair and insouciance.

His pursuit of young men did not stop him needing Madeleine, but by 1917 she had had enough. She could overlook his North African adventures, but when he took up with the 17-year-old Marc Allegret, to whom he had been asked to act in loco parentis, she withdrew completely. Though they never formally separated, and Gide's affair with Marc was to last for 15 years, Gide was heartbroken. When Madeleine died in 1937 his friend Roger Martin du Gard rightly noted that "it is the first great sorrow in his life". Meanwhile he had found an alternative family with the widow of a Belgian painter, Maria van Rysselberghe, and her daughter Beth, whose child he fathered at her own request.

In the 1930s he was a tireless champion of the left against Fascism, and flirted with Communism until a trip to the Soviet Union disillusioned him and led to the writing of his one immediate bestseller, Retour de l'URSS. He sat out most of the war in North Africa, publishing little between then and his death. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Though, like so many writers, he had had to pay for the publication of his first book himself, all his works have remained in print to this day.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Gide as a result of the gay liberation movement, but one wonders how he would have fared in these less innocent times. Martin du Gard describes him rushing through a full train, opening and shutting carriage doors in his search for "adventure". Into his seventies, he was describing to friends the pleasure he had experienced on recent trips to Egypt and elsewhere. His friends feared for his reputation, yet, as he said, he never pressed his attentions on anyone who was not willing. What comes across is not only the eagerness with which the young fell in with his desires but the happiness and enrichment those who became friends derived from contact with him.

But Gide would only be worthy of a paragraph in a social history were it not for his writing. Sheridan describes him as one of the 10 greatest novelists of the century; reviewers of Les Faux-Monnayeurs compared him to Proust and Joyce. Gide was more modest. He never made large claims for his work, and was fulsome in his praise of the two contemporaries he recognised as giants: Proust and Valery.

Yet both Sartre and Nathalie Sarraute hailed him as a precursor, and France's sharpest critics, Blanchot and Barthes, have devoted thoughtful and laudatory essays to him. His very modesty, his refusal to judge ("Ne jugez pas" is the title of a collection he inaugurated at Gallimard), seem to have served to make him present to every new generation. We have not yet grasped the true nature of his achievement but Alan Sheridan's serious if sometimes plodding biography will certainly help us on our way.