Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eros and Memories of Love

Strait is the GateStrait is the Gate 
by André Gide


"I advanced slowly;  the sky was like my joy---warm, bright, delicately pure.  No doubt she was expecting me by the other path.  I was close to her, behind her, before she heard me;  I stopped . . . and as if time could have stopped with me, "This is the moment," I thought, "the most delicious moment, perhaps, of all, even though it should precede happiness itself---which happiness itself will not equal." (p 96)


"Enter ye in at the strait gate:  for wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go thereat:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is the text from which Gide drew the title of his short novel, Strait is the Gate. It is a first person narrative that begins forthrightly with the words:
"Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one that it took all my strength to live and over which I have spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away from the last pleasure I hope to get in telling them." (p 3)

The author signals in this short paragraph the importance of virtue (of what sort we shall find out) and that these are personal "recollections", subject to the vicissitudes of memory and desire, but not invented. Finally, the narrator claims to have pleasure, or at least hopes to, in telling them. One may see already the potential for the contradiction of truth presented as fiction and fiction telling the truth.

The setting is the Protestant upper-middle-class world of Normandy in the 1880s. The narrator, Jerome Palissier, originally from Le Havre, is eleven when the story begins. His father having died he is living with his mother and a governess. He is surrounded by family including a creole aunt Lucille who alternately fascinates and terrifies him. She has two young daughters, Alissa and Juliette Bucolin, who are devoted to their father. Alissa and Jerome become childhood sweethearts and this gradually develops into a situation such that it becomes assumed, at least unofficially, that they are engaged. Unfortunately Alissa never truly agrees to any such arrangement. Complicating matters further are the feelings of Juliette for Jerome and the entry of Jerome's good friend Abel Vautier who quickly becomes infatuated with Juliette. The relations among these young people are complicated by the strength of youthful Eros, their own growth, and their search for identity.  It is this search that leads Alissa in the direction of religion, in spite of which she professes to love Jerome. But she is no longer her former self and as Jerome is about to leave the country home of Fonguesemare where they have been together she claims that he has been in love with a ghost. Jerome replies that the ghost is not an illusion on his part: "Alissa, you are the woman I loved . . . What have you made yourself become?" Jerome leaves, "full of a vague hatred for what I still called virtue". Strong stuff for teenagers.

Three years later he returns but their relations are never the same;  the strength of her religious convictions has altered Alissa both spiritually and physically. The affairs narrated here are apparently drawn from Gide's own life, however loosely. Their are also parallels with Gide's own work as Alissa may be seen as corresponding to Michel, the protagonist in Gide's novel, The Immoralist, written about a decade earlier. Strait is the Gate presents itself as a small gem of a literary work. With its focus on the passions and desires of young love I am reminded of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Gide's biographer, Alan Sheridan, suggests that it is also a meditation on Gide's relationship with his own wife, Madeleine. Whether that is the case or not this short novel is has a beautiful clarity of prose and a haunting style that suggests the memories of young love that, while strong enough to leave permanent impressions, in some way become ghosts of one's youth.

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3 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Insightful commentary as always James.

I like the theme of how the memories of the strong emotions of our youth effect us in such complicated ways. I think that there is much truth to be mined there and it sounds as if this book does that. Personally I also find this to be true.

James said...

Brian,
Thanks for your insight which hits an important aspect of the story. The substitution by Alissa of spiritual love for that of this world is the other key ingredient in this short novel.
Gide is one of my favorite authors, but many of his themes are colored by his upbringing in the nineteenth century and the era when he developed his writing style which was primarily before the Great War.

Parrish Lantern said...

I've not read any of this writer's work since my teenage years when I was working my way round the European literary scene