Books: What Was It with Marc and Madeleine?

Article excerpt

Andre Gide: A Life in the Present

by Alan Sheridan Hamish Hamilton pounds 25

It has long been an article of faith with me that Gide's novel, Les faux-monnayeurs (1926) is one of our century's supreme masterpieces. Neither of its English titles, The Counterfeiters or The Coiners, satisfactorily conveys its theme of the false currency in circulation in our daily lives, of our continual need for authenticity in our dealings with one another and with ourselves. Ingeniously Chinese-box-like in construction, it demands and repays many readings, and - published when the author was in his mid- fifties - can be seen as the summation of what was already an extensive, rich and provocative life's work. Les faux-monnayeurs, praised at the time for its insight into the new post-war world, has been a seminal book for later generations. All the stranger then that neither in English nor in French has there been a biography relating, in appropriate detail and depth, Gide's life and writings to each other. Perhaps his massive Journals, considered by many, including at times himself, his finest productions, proved, together with his voluminous correspondence, too pre-emptively daunting. Happily this lack is now a thing of the past. Alan Sheridan has given us a biography as scrupulous and critically alert as it is lively and sympathetic. The only child of well-off Protestant parents - his law-professor father died when Andre was 11 - the young Gide would seem an unlikely candidate for the part of deliverer from restrictive conventions that he was later so amply to play. Introspective, holding himself aloof from the hurly- burly of school or ordinary social traffic, precociously devoted to the arts and philosophy, he was comparatively tardy in sexual experience, let alone in sexual self-knowledge, and though he was later celebratedly to make a fictional alter ego exclaim "Families, I hate you!" was unusually bound up with his family, in particular with cousins on his mother's side. The story of his deep feeling for Madeleine Rondeaux, introverted like himself, devout in her Christian faith, and devastated by her mother's adultery, is of course one Gide himself told in La porte etroite (Strait is the Gate, 1909). With hindsight the words of its opening sentence seem even more poignantly true than they can have done at the time: " ... the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue." Convinced of his duty to devote himself to her as a result of what they uniquely had shared, and by no means unable to enter into her religious preoccupations, Gide overcame all Madeleine's misgivings and married her shortly before his 26th birthday. He did so when at last knowing - indeed having proved to his own satisfaction - his own homosexuality; only in encounters with younger males could he know sexual joy. The marriage to Madeleine was to remain unconsummated; she died in 1938. He loved her - he always professed this, and in his writings after her death was to pay moving tribute to her and to the emotions he entertained for her. But did he love her in any but an interiorised sense? He increasingly didn't care for her company or for the atmosphere of Guerville, the Normandy estate she'd inherited; they found little to talk about. She dissociated herself from his writings, and gradually, against her will, realised not just his true nature but (if limitedly) what his life was like when he was not with her. …