You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. – Humbert Humbert
HH is, as usual, incorrect. Michel, the narrator of André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), has a disappointingly plain style. Or perhaps it is the style of his amanuensis that is so ordinary. Regardless. At the sentence level, The Immoralist is rarely too interesting. I was hoping for - am always hoping for - something more like Flaubert or Proust. Oh well.
Gide is working in his character’s voice, so he is working under a conceptual constraint. The result is passages like this (which I am not saying is bad writing, not at all, but merely ordinarily good writing):
Numb with cold, I came out almost at once, stretched my body on the grass, in the sunlight. There was a clump of mint growing nearby, the perfume overpowering. I picked a stalk, crushed its leaves and rubbed them all over my body, damp but now incandescent with the sun’s heat. I looked at myself a long time, without any more shame, with joy. I judged myself not yet strong, but capable of strength, harmonious, sensual, almost beautiful. (57)
Michel is recovering from a life-threatening illness, and has discovered his own physicality. He decides to live, to really live! One aspect of really living is to swim and sunbathe in the nude. Not my point. My point – the incident, the sensual mint-crushing, the sun worship, has its own interest, but the prose is nothing special – functional, unsurprising, only barely metaphorical.
It is also clear and light, which are virtues, but common ones. Gide needs these qualities, though, to put some distance between the narrator and his story. As I mentioned yesterday, Michel’s own telling is described as dispassionate. I can imagine an ecstatic reading of the sun worship passage, like something out of D. H. Lawrence, but the straightforward language restrains the reader. Or restrained me, at least.
I would describe some dialogue-heavy sections of the novel as genuinely bad, but I’ll skip to a favorite paragraph, an exception, and one which, weirdly was quoted by Whispering Gums earlier today:
Olive groves, enormous carobs; in their shade, cyclamens; higher still, chestnut groves, cool air, alpine plants; lower down, lemon trees beside the sea. They are set out in tiny, almost identical terraced gardens, shaped so by the slope of the terrain; a narrow path runs through the center from the highest point, all the way down; noiselessly you enter, like a thief. You dream, under this green shade; the foliage is dense, heavy; not a single sunbeam penetrates unfiltered; like drops of thick wax, the lemons hang scented; in the shade they are white and greenish, they are within reach of the hand, of your thirst; they are sweet, harsh; they quench your thirst. (54)
The beginning is dry, an arborial topography, but then metaphors begin to intrude with the thief. That fine last sentence, those drops of wax, is very much not the normal mode of The Immoralist. Michel is in Sicily at this point, so the passage is suddenly loaded with associations, going back to the idyllic shepherds of Theocritus, and continuing through Goethe’s “Mignon” (“Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees?”) and Nerval’s “Delphica” ("Et les citrons amers où s'imprimaient tes dents?"). Gide crams the passage not just with imagery, but with literature. Elsewhere in the novel, I find clear references to St. Augustine and W. G. Sebald. I cannot be sure if the allusions are Michel’s or Gide’s. This murderer’s style has its curlicues.
Next week I will make some attempt to describe what The Immoralist is about. It is about more than one thing.