ANDRe GIDE has always had an equivocal place in the pantheon of 20th-century artists. Was he essentially a novelist? A man of letters? The brave champion of homosexuality? He was, of course, all of these, and the challenge for the biographer is to make his protean achievements comprehensible.
The main obstacle, paradoxically, lies in the fact that all his works are, in a sense, autobiographical. In addition to the Journal he kept from 1889, when he was not yet 20, until 1949 (he died in 1951), we have 40 volumes of letters, many to other writers such as Valery, Proust and Rilke. The accounts of his travels in Africa and the Soviet Union; his polemics on behalf of homosexuality; and even the novels and plays can be seen as a simple extension of the Journals and Letters. Such is the weight of Gide's own writings that most biographers have kept away. Alan Sheridan's is the first full- scale life in any language.
Though Gide's life lacks the romantic bravura of one of his great heroes, Dostoevsky, or the beauty and pathos of Kafka's, it is a fascinating story. Born in 1869 into a wealthy Protestant family, he lost his beloved father at the age of 10 and was brought up by his adoring but Puritanical mother. At 13 he fell in love with his cousin Madeleine and less than a month after his mother's death, in 1895, he married her, despite the doubts she had long entertained on the subject. All the qualities and defects of his mother were reproduced in Madeleine: high moral purpose, deep faith and narrowness of mind. To be fair, it would have required quite exceptional broadness of mind to put up with Gide, for along with his love for Madeleine, the two things he discovered about himself in his adolescence were his desire to write and his love of boys. He pursued both with the dogged diligence of a born Protestant ("a fanatical moralist of immorality", Ilya Ehrenburg called him), but also with a unique flair and insouciance. His pursuit of young men did not stop him needing Madeleine, but by 1917 she had had enough. She could overlook his North African adventures, but when he took up with the 17-year-old Marc Allegret, to whom he had been asked to act in loco parentis, she withdrew completely. Though they never formally separated, and Gide's affair with Marc was to last for 15 years, Gide was heartbroken. When Madeleine died in 1937 his friend Roger Martin du Gard rightly noted that "it is the first great sorrow in his life". …