Thursday, March 24, 2011

When it was night, Michel said - puzzling over The Immoralist

Now here’s something unusual for this Appreciationist, a novel I disliked from the first page and grew to despise as I read on.  It’s The Immoralist (1902), by André Gide, a great classic of something or another.  I could bury my hatchet in the book’s head, which would be good fun, but I want to spend more time with it, this week, and maybe part of next week – my vacation has kerfuddled the Wuthering Expectations schedule.

After giving the book some of that ol’ whaddayacallit – time, reflection, some simulation of thought – I discovered that Gide had bamboozled me.  I fell into every trap, into one copper-wire rabbit snare after another (that’s an actual detail from the novel, right there).  Well, I’m out now, I hope.

The novel begins with a letter to a “Président du Conseil” from his brother.  He is describing an encounter he and two friends had with the immmoralist of the title, Michel, an old school chum who has been ill and gone through a damaging philosophical transformation.  Michel has called his friends to Tunisia to make his confession, which makes up the rest of the short novel, a first person account that is, oddly, not written but spoken.  “When it was night, Michel said:” followed by 165 pages of uninterrupted story.  No digressions, no chronological missteps, no corrections.  Virtually no reference to the three auditors, his best friends.  Preposterous.

The narrator is a classics scholar of genius, we are told, the author, at the age of twenty, of a book titled Essay on Phrygian Religious Customs.  So perhaps I can just barely swallow his unlikely control over his own material, over the course of the hours of his monologue, told “without an inflection or a gesture to reveal that any emotion whatever disturbed him” (169).  But what, then, of the recounting of conversations, typically novelistic stuff like:

“But we’ll see each other again before that,” I said, rather surprised. (106)

or, for that matter, the chapter breaks?

I was reading a written text that sounded like one, not like speech, however rarefied.  But in the world of the novel, it is, in fact, also a piece of writing, written by the author of the letter that begins the novel.

I send you this account, then, as Denis, Daniel and I heard it.  Michel delivered it on his terrace, where we were stretched out near him in darkness, under the bright stars.  By the time he had finished, day had broken over the plain.

This is on page 5, and contains a lot of information for the reader alert enough to notice it.  The text of The Immoralist is not the spoken confession of a disturbed genius, but a later transcription by someone else entirely, written to be sent to a Président du Conseil.

This is all awfully complicated, isn’t it?  Changing almost nothing, Gide could have simply made the novel a fictional memoir, written by Michel, to be published or perhaps written for private purposes, to justify his actions to himself.  What is all of this clumsy framing for?  One possibility is that Gide is incompetent, technically inept.  If not, we have a puzzle to solve.  (Preview:  not incompetent).

One might argue that, resistant to Novels of Ideas, I respond by turning them into aestheticized puzzle books, regardless of what they actually are.  One might be right.  But The Immoralist is a tricky puzzle book, a parody of a Novel of Ideas, a snare.

Page numbers refer to the admirable Modern Library edition, which contains the admirable Richard Howard translation.


  1. I read Les faux-monnayeurs in college, which is a novel within a novel (one of the characters is writing a book of the same title.) Gide likes this kind of framing, and this kind of play with what is true and false and real and serious (or not.) I remember writing a paper about the idea of the frame story as a point of reference for the entire idea of counterfeiting. I got a C on it, I think because my French was inadequate to the task at the time.

  2. The Counterfeiters, then, fits right in with The Immoralist.

    So, another puzzle is why so many readers of Gide just swallow the whole Novel of Ideas business whole. Maybe they don't - I only vaguely remember whatever I might have read about Gide. But I think they do - it's all veiled autobiography, the narrator is a veiled Gide, etc. Nonsense.

    I do not even want to think about what horrors one might find in my undergraduate papers.

  3. Happy kerfuddlement. I'm eager to see your hatchet work on full passionate display. K

  4. Well, Gide has converted me. We are both throwing hatchets at the same target, it turns out.

    I thought you'd like this - there are analogies with the Ethan Frome narrator. Similar Who? Why? How? questions. Totally different purpose in the end, though.

  5. Now here’s something unusual for this Appreciationist, a novel I disliked from the first page and grew to despise as I read on.

    Having read your posts on Gide in reverse chronological order, I was rather shocked by this, since in your other two entries you do such a nice job with the de-puzzlement.

    I know nothing about Gide except that, as you note, he is supposed to have done these "novels of ideas," autobiographical, etc. De-puzzling these, though, even if you have to turn them into a puzzle first, seems key. Otherwise, aren't they a little empty, boring? If someone wants me to take their ideas seriously, and they've decided to write them into a novel, the package had better be there as well.

  6. I don't want to make too much out of one novel, but I'm warming to the idea that a number of people, including some who should know better, have read the book quite badly.

    Interested in sexual liberation, or Gide's life, or proto-Existentialism, or Nietszchean whatnoterry, they turn the novel into an explication du quelque and abandon the fiction, the novel itself, when the fiction is at the heart of the argument.

    As a tract, I have severe doubts about the quality of The Immoralist. As a novel, it is not at all boring or empty.

    Tomorrow I will identify the episode that converted me - no, the episode where I wised up, and began to see what was actually going on.