Andre Gidé (trans. by Richard Howard)
A shrink, establishing his pop culture credentials, once told me about an episode of Spenser for Hire. Perhaps you remember the show. It starred Robert Urich and his 1969 Mustang, or so it seemed. Each episode had at least one segment in which Urich drove somewhere while advancing the action through an explanatory voiceover.Much the same happens in the books penned by Robert B. Parker who created the character.
There is evidently one show in which Spenser says/thinks, “Carl Jung once said if you track a coincidence back far enough it will seem like an inevitability.” I have no idea if Jung actually said that. But since I don’t believe in coincidence it works for me and if you’ve browsed this space you may have encountered that belief before.
Today, we have a subject devoid of coincidence. Well, almost. The volume in question was acquired, gently used, more than 20 years ago, a discard from the West Nyack Free Library. That’s about 7 miles from where I now sit typing even though I’m pretty sure I acquired the book a river away. That I finally cracked the cover in the wake of the Penn State/Sandusky revelations is pure happenstance.
Gidé, we learn in the translator’s note, first published The Immoralist in a private edition in 1902. That puts it smack dab in the middle of Europe’s great intellectual upheaval and also right between Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. The novel reads like the bastard child of both those works.
Novels that sell in huge quantities–think Dickens or Tom Clancy–are invariably plot-driven. Since literature deals with great ideas plot, in the modern era, has become an option. The Immoralist has the sketchiest of plots: the putative narrator is offering a recounting of a tale told in a single evening by a common friend, Michel. The tale deals with a 2-year period during which the peripatetic Michel marries, fights tuberculosis and deals with the convalescence and death of his wife from the same disease.
Michel seems to have two modes of being: furious motion or languor to the point of somnolence. He also, it seems, has a thing for young boys. This he discovers while convalescing in North Africa and confirms during an extended visit at the family farm. The latter part of the book finds Michel dragging his weakening spouse around Europe on a path that takes them back not only to places he deems special to them both but ultimately back to the desert in search of the youths he had met earlier.
All this is an excuse, really, to confirm or at least demonstrate Michel’s transformation. By the end Michel is both freed and broken: “I may have liberated myself, but what does it matter? This useless freedom tortures me.” Along the way he’s moved from academic bourgeois propriety to someplace else. ” I reached the point of enjoying in others only the wildest behavior, deploring whatever constraint inhibited any excess. I came close to regarding honesty itself as no more than restriction, convention, timidity.,” he tells us. Plus there’s the whole sybaritic acceptance of his emerging attraction to young boys and men.
(And maybe men in general. I confess, I miss a lot in these idea-driven works. But I’m fairly certain that Ménalque is a character disdained by all save Michel because he is gay and doesn’t hide it. )
I kind of get that with all this heady stuff coursing through the cafés and intellectual salons of Belle Époque Paris it would emerge in literature. Having struggled with some of both Freud and Nietzsche though, a novelistic recasting of them didn’t entirely grab my interest.
Still, there were moments of great beauty such as this:
“She preceded me along a strange path, unlike any I have ever seen in other countries. Between two rather high mud walls it meanders almost lazily; the contours of the gardens these walls confine dispose it to leisure; it curves or doubles back altogether, and right at the start a bend bewilders us; there is no knowing where we have come from or where we are heading.”
I’m often more than a bit obtuse but this could be one of the most aesthetically pleasing metaphors I’ve ever encountered. Call me overly traditional but adding to the sum total of beauty in the world is a notable achievement.