Friday, October 16, 2015

A Fearless Literary Life

Andre Gide: A Life in the PresentAndre Gide: A Life in the Present 
by Alan Sheridan

"Gide was, by general consent, one of the dozen most important writers of the 20th century. Moreover, no writer of such stature had led such an interesting life, a life accessibly interesting to us as readers of his autobiographical writings, his journal, his voluminous correspondence and the testimony of others. It was the life of a man engaging not only in the business of artistic creation, but reflecting on that process in his journal, reading that work to his friends and discussing it with them; a man who knew and corresponded with all the major literary figures of his own country and with many in Germany and England; who found daily nourishment in the Latin, French, English and German classics, and, for much of his life, in the Bible; [who enjoyed playing Chopin and other classic works on the piano;] and who engaged in commenting on the moral, political and sexual questions of the day."

André Paul Guillaume Gide lived from 1869 until 1951. He was a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 "for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight". Gide's career ranged from its beginnings in the symbolist movement, to the advent of anticolonialism between the two World Wars.

Known for his fiction as well as his autobiographical works, Gide exposed to public view the conflict and eventual reconciliation of the two sides of his personality, split apart by a straitlaced education and a narrow social moralism. Gide's work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints, and centers on his continuous effort to achieve intellectual honesty. His self-exploratory texts reflect his search of how to be fully oneself, even to the point of owning one's sexual nature, without at the same time betraying one's values. His political activity is informed by the same ethos, as indicated by his repudiation of communism after his 1936 voyage to the USSR.

Alan Sheridan's biography of Gide narrates his life year-by-year with beautiful style. He distills the significant biographical writings of Gide (Journals, autobiography, etc.) along with his literary work and very event-filled life. The book, at more than seven hundred pages, is nothing if not comprehensive; providing more detail on his subject’s life than you might want to know, unless you love his writing as I do. It is a scholarly work, with all the apparatus that one has come to expect of contemporary biographies – a forest of footnotes, an extensive bibliography and index.

From a relatively early date, Gide discussed his homosexuality in his books and elsewhere with commendable courage. His earlier autobiographical work, If it Die (Si le Grain ne Meurt), describes his African encounters, and in 1925 he published Corydon, an essay on homosexuality and its place in society, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Some of his arguments now seem, inevitably, dated, but to have published such a book at all at that time, even in the relatively more civilised culture of France, was brave. I especially appreciated Sheridan's commentaries on Gide's fiction, most of which I have read and love.  Like all but the most famous European writers he is not well-enough known or appreciated in the United States.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have not read Gide but I would like to.

As you allude to, this sounds like a very bin depth and serious biography. I tend to like books like that.

I would want to read some of Gide's work before I read this.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. The biography is certainly serious, but also readable. As for Gide's work I would recommend starting with The Immoralist. It is a short classic of the early twentieth century. It is also an interesting work to compare and contrast with Thomas Mann's short novel Death in Venice.