Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Counterfeit Tale within a Tale

The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters 
by André Gide

The most decisive actions of our life... are most often unconsidered actions.
  ~André Gide, The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is a book about writing a book, also called "The Counterfeiters". That is the primary theme of the novel which comes from the title of the book by the writer Edouard. Thus The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) writing a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. However, there is also the story of a group of boys who are passing counterfeit coins throughout Paris. Thus we have entered a world where we cannot trust our senses -- what is counterfeit and what is real?

The story of Edouard writing his novel demonstrates his search for knowledge, yet as he associates with a group of his own adolescent relatives it appears as an artificial arrangement; one that displays the effects upon society of youth's corruption of traditional standards and values. The collapse of morality is illustrated with Eduoard's nephew Vincent, who deserts his lover Laura, a married woman, and runs away with Lillian, the mistress of Count Robert de Passavant. His life goes downhill as he murders her and goes insane.
There is also the coming of age story of Bernard and Olivier as they prepare to leave school -- but does this extend beyond their education and emanate from all who are learning about the world? This learning which is required by the changing nature of the everyday, the quotidian reality that is, perhaps, counterfeit.

I found the details of Edouard's struggles with his career, his family, his friendships and love provided images that enhanced the main themes, yet also energized the narrative drive. Another subplot of the novel is homosexuality. Some of the characters are overtly homosexual, like the adolescent Olivier, and the adult writers Count de Passavant and Eduoard. The Count seems to be an evil and corrupting force while the latter is benevolent. Even when the treatment is not overt, there is a homoerotic subtext that runs throughout, which encompasses Olivier's friend, Bernard, and their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe. The main theme of The Counterfeiters encompasses the issue of sexuality, morality, and social order and lineage in a unique way for his era.

Gide's novel was not received well on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition. It is this unusual composition that I thought made it an interesting read; along with which the way Gide demonstrates ideas through his characters and their actions much like Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. The Counterfeiters has seen its reputation improve in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the great novels of the twentieth century.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

Great review as usual James.

I often find stories of books within books to be intriguing.

It is also interesting how certain recurring themes keep coming up in literature. The idea of you changing, sometimes disastrously, conventions and morality, seems to repeat itself down the centuries.