Friday, March 25, 2011

they are sweet, harsh; they quench your thirst - the prose of The Immoralist

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.


  1. Ha, how very funny! Anyhow, I'm still intrigued about The immoralist. My next review - which may or may not be my next post - will probably be on it BUT I need to go back and check my notes to work out exactly what I DO think about it.

    Re the language. How much do you put it down to translation? Though I suspect the things you are speaking of are pretty independent of translation issues. Looks like you are reading the Watson translation as I am?

  2. I know what you mean - it's a slippery novel.

    I am actually reading the Richard Howard translation. Howard is a translator whom I have read many times, always with fine results.

    The plain-spoken precision, the often simple vocabulary, the occasional odd bursts of something else - yes, I assume the French is similar. And even if it's not, I'm writing about the book I read.

  3. Yes, I saw your first post after I commented and discovered you were reading the Howard. I haven't checked them word for word but your excerpt's translation looks very similar to mine. (I've actually got a word document with the first para of three translations. The Howard is different there from my Watson.

    True, you are writing about the book you read but I always feel a little self-conscious discussing the actual language of a translated book just because it's mediated. I want to read foreign language books but this mediation always bothers me.

  4. I've made my peace with translation - I embrace it, in fact. The pitfalls and howlers are part of the fun of literature in translation. Plus, I have great respect for skilled translators, and even have a pantheon of favorites, Howard among them. And in the end, what choice do I have?

    When I read poems in translation, I often do some checking against the original language, or I compare different translations. A lot of my posts about French poetry - too many, perhaps - work this theme.

  5. I wonder if reading Gide, in particular The Immoralist, is only enjoyable at a certain stage of life? You know, the wonder years of being a first-year freshman at college. At least that was my experience. Like so much of Nietzsche's writings, too, Gide reads like rock 'n roll to the soul right up to the point where one's character begins to take definitive shape, up to the point where one has to earn $ to meet such prosaic needs as shoving a carrot in your mouth or buying diapers for a squalling, quivering lump of 3-mos old flesh, etc.


  6. Plausible up to a point, Kevin. Likely if you mean reading Gide, or Nietszche, without allowing for irony.

    Once I realized that there was no need to take Michel's ideas seriously, The Immoralist became highly enjoyable.