Book: André Gide, L’Immoraliste

Based as it is on misanthropy, ennui and lewdness, it is tempting to describe The Immoralist as a pamphlet to Modernism

-Kathryn Bromwich

That The Immoralist (1902) was criminally ahead of its time is a given. In a pre-Chatterley, pre-Burroughs, pre-Henry Miller era, André Gide’s candid and unjudgemental depiction of an outwardly immoral and selfish man came as a bolt from the blue. Now the modern world has more or less caught up with it, and Gide’s work reads as freshly as if it were published today.

Brilliant Parisian scholar Michel, married to the delicate Marceline partly out of duty to his father, partly out of boredom, grows sick with tuberculosis. In his slow convalescence, he discovers a joie de vivre he had never known: in his own words, ‘daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance.’ Once found, however, this feeling proves difficult to hang on to, and Michel finds that he can only recapture it in the company of young boys.

Like in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist first experiences the world of the intellect, and is later on in life awakened to the possibilities of bodily pleasures. While the former transcends the mind and body dichotomy to achieve a state of Nirvana, the latter unsuccessfully tries to balance the two, resulting in existential anguish and dissatisfaction. The conversations with his nihilistic acquaintance Ménalque express dialectically the difficulty of finding a balanced stance in relation to society. Yet he is not a figure altogether worthy of hatred: there are elements of Dostoyevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin in Michel’s frank attitude to his feelings, and Gide’s unwillingness to condemn him makes the reader makes the reader question their own standpoint.

Highly innovative and pithily written, it proved to be a milestone for 20th century literature, influencing Camus and Sartre, among others. The novella encapsulates the spirit of the following decades, prefiguring the early 20th century interests in primitivism, sexual instincts, and repression.

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