Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Immoralist as spy novel – a misreading

Others criticized my method; those who complimented me were those who had understood me least. (The Immoralist, tr. R. Howard, 93)

The Immoralist is a tricky novel, easy to misread.  Minds greater than mine have mangled it every which way.  Whatever Sartre and Camus found in Gide’s novel is their business.  Their use of Gide may not tell us so much about the book Gide actually wrote, but they are artists, not critics.  Misreading, like reading, can be done well or badly.

I want to do some misreading myself.  From the first page on, I found hints of a sub-story in The Immoralist that I do not know how to fit into the rest of the book, that seems incidental, at best, to what the novel is really about.  But the theme kept popping up.

On the first page, the “written” narrator, the friend of Michel’s who takes down his story, is writing to his brother, a state official.  He is worried about Michel’s psychological crisis – the first-time reader, of course, knows nothing about the nature of the crisis.  The writer asks “How can a man like Michel serve the state?”  Sort of an odd question to ask about a close friend having a nervous breakdown, odder when we learn that, before and after his illness he was a classical scholar with an independent income.

In Paris, halfway through the book, Michel encounters another old friend, Ménalque, who works for the Colonial Ministry and disappears “for over a year at a time” on foreign expeditions.  He is also, and I will admit that the combination is perplexing, Oscar Wilde, the subject of “an absurd, a shameful, lawsuit with scandalous repercussions,” and a man who speaks only in irritating, “witty” aphorisms.  E.g., “You have to let other people be right.  It consoles them for not being anything else.”

Ménalque appears to understand Michel’s crisis and offers him, if not advice, then an example, although an example of what, I am unsure.  My greatest failure, I fear, reading The Immoralist, is integrating this character into my understanding of the novel.  I am brought up short by passages like this:

“Listen, I’m leaving Paris soon, but I’d like to see you again.  This time my trip will be longer and more dangerous than the others; I don’t know when I’ll be coming back.  I’m planning to start in two weeks; no one knows I’m leaving so soon – I’m telling you in confidence.”


His trip will take him, first, to Budapest, Rome, and Madrid, and then, who knows where; at least one previous trip was to Nepal, and he learned about Michel’s illness by chance while in Tunisia.

Ménalque – now the misreading really begins – Ménalque is a spy, a secret agent in the service of France.  Michel’s other college (or earlier?) friends, the ones who listen to his story, are also spies or foreign agents of some sort (page 4 - “Denis was in Greece, Daniel in Russia”)

The narrator asks his brother if, hearing the story, hearing about Michel’s cruelty, they have to reject his "capacities" as "useless."  Implicitly, one answer is “No,” his “capacities” are still “useful.”  Michel’s friends have actually gathered to survey the extent of the damage, and, if he is capable, to recruit him as a spy. 

What does all of this mean?  Why did Gide put it in his novel?  “How can a man like Michel serve the state?”  What am I supposed to do with that question?

More Gide – someday.  Tomorrow, on to other things, or the same thing, with a different book.


  1. Wasn't sure where to comment on this, but I notice you're reading Tale of Two Cities. I'd enjoy seeing a post on that. I reread it a couple of years ago, and was struck by Dickens' seeming pre-Freudian knowledge of the unconscious, in the sad old man who keeps "flipping back" to his traumatizing experience.

  2. Sure, I take requests!

    Next week will mostly be A Tale of One City, but by the time that's over I will have finished Dickens and will perhaps have thought of something to write about it. I last closed the book right after one of the episodes you describe.

    I can't use the Freudian language, though. I don't speak it. I'm too ignorant; haven't read enough.