Books: What was it with Marc and Madeleine?

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Andre Gide: A Life in the Present

by Alan Sheridan Hamish Hamilton pounds 25

It has long been an article of faith with me that Gide's novel, Les faux-monnayeurs (1926) is one of our century's supreme masterpieces. Neither of its English titles, The Counterfeiters or The Coiners, satisfactorily conveys its theme of the false currency in circulation in our daily lives, of our continual need for authenticity in our dealings with one another and with ourselves. Ingeniously Chinese-box-like in construction, it demands and repays many readings, and - published when the author was in his mid- fifties - can be seen as the summation of what was already an extensive, rich and provocative life's work. Les faux-monnayeurs, praised at the time for its insight into the new post-war world, has been a seminal book for later generations.

All the stranger then that neither in English nor in French has there been a biography relating, in appropriate detail and depth, Gide's life and writings to each other. Perhaps his massive Journals, considered by many, including at times himself, his finest productions, proved, together with his voluminous correspondence, too pre-emptively daunting. Happily this lack is now a thing of the past. Alan Sheridan has given us a biography as scrupulous and critically alert as it is lively and sympathetic.

The only child of well-off Protestant parents - his law-professor father died when Andre was 11 - the young Gide would seem an unlikely candidate for the part of deliverer from restrictive conventions that he was later so amply to play. Introspective, holding himself aloof from the hurly- burly of school or ordinary social traffic, precociously devoted to the arts and philosophy, he was comparatively tardy in sexual experience, let alone in sexual self-knowledge, and though he was later celebratedly to make a fictional alter ego exclaim "Families, I hate you!" was unusually bound up with his family, in particular with cousins on his mother's side.

The story of his deep feeling for Madeleine Rondeaux, introverted like himself, devout in her Christian faith, and devastated by her mother's adultery, is of course one Gide himself told in La porte etroite (Strait is the Gate, 1909). With hindsight the words of its opening sentence seem even more poignantly true than they can have done at the time: " ... the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue."

Convinced of his duty to devote himself to her as a result of what they uniquely had shared, and by no means unable to enter into her religious preoccupations, Gide overcame all Madeleine's misgivings and married her shortly before his 26th birthday. He did so when at last knowing - indeed having proved to his own satisfaction - his own homosexuality; only in encounters with younger males could he know sexual joy.

The marriage to Madeleine was to remain unconsummated; she died in 1938. He loved her - he always professed this, and in his writings after her death was to pay moving tribute to her and to the emotions he entertained for her. But did he love her in any but an interiorised sense? He increasingly didn't care for her company or for the atmosphere of Guerville, the Normandy estate she'd inherited; they found little to talk about. She dissociated herself from his writings, and gradually, against her will, realised not just his true nature but (if limitedly) what his life was like when he was not with her.

Successive works of his preached - it really is the only word - one's obligation to live truthfully in accordance with one's desires, and his desires led him to regular homosexual encounters so vigorous and numerous it makes one breathless to read about them. (They continued on this generous scale until well into his seventies.) But more importantly operating against any satisfying love for Madeleine were two relationships of Gide's maturity.

Alan Sheridan brings both of these to life with a multiplicity of detail and an empathy not only with Gide himself but with the others concerned. The first was with a young family connection, Marc Allegret, to whom Gide acted as a kind of unofficial uncle; Marc was 16 when the relationship became consummated love (1917). The two were lovers for at least 10 years, and, when Marc turned to women and became successful (as film-director) in his own right, their devotion and need for each other's company didn't cease; indeed Marc was with Gide when he died (1951). Against the love for Marc the muted love for Madeleine couldn't really prevail. The second relationship was with the Van Rysselberghe family, with the daughter of whom (Beth) he had a child, Catherine, born in 1923. With them he set up a kind of alternative menage, which included for many years Marc and (after Madeleine's death) a legally recognised Catherine.

Alan Sheridan's exemplary portrait of Gide's love and friendships explains the quality that elevates Les faux-monnayeurs above all Gide's other imaginative writings. For not only is it a challenging novel of ideas, it gives us people about whom the author cares passionately, the caring springing from his emotional involvement and commitments of the time. Of inestimable importance in the history of culture, the majority of Gide's works, however long in gestation and execution, are over-tethered to their times and their particular issues. The exultations of Les nourritures terrestres (1897) which inflamed early generations of readers, the brave questioning of what is important in an individual's life that animates L'immoraliste (1902), the intellectual audacity of his Socratic defence of homosexuality, Corydon (1924) - these do not succeed in altogether raising the works above their genres or their contexts. Even Les caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars)(1914) - after Les faux-monnayeurs Gide's most widely admired work of fiction - doesn't wholly transcend the climate that produced it; the rogue-hero, Lafcadio, and the famous acte gratuit with which it culminates are essentially literary conceptions.

Gide was also well-known in his life-time for his polemical, non-fiction works. His accounts of his journeys to Africa where he deplored the exploitation of indigenous peoples by foreign commercial interests and of his visit, as an acclaimed fellow-traveller, to the Soviet Union of the Show Trials, profoundly affected the thinking of many, not least on an official level. They reveal him as honest and thorough-going in his humanism which never baulked at the practical following up of what he had perceived, annexing personal insight to matters of public concern. Even so Gide's introspective early years surely dictated what is strongest and most durable in his oeuvre: his charting of the movements of the mind and of personal relationships that we find in Les faux-monnayeurs and in the autobiographical writings and Journals.