Despite being published in 1902 I find that this novel reads as though it were fifty years ahead of its time. The tone of Gide’s writing is sparse, conservative and yet at times overwhelmingly beautiful. For a writer with an aversion to the novel in his formative years, Gide has blended meter, imagery, subterfuge and cipher to yield a masterpiece. Michel, the protagonist, is an entrenched, introvert scholar who suffers a severe bout of tuberculosis on honeymoon in North Africa. His survival encourages a revival of enthusiasm for life. One manifestation of Michel’s rebirth takes form in the liberation of his sexual desires, a difficult subject to confront in any era, not least early twentieth century France. Gide, in light of this, uses Michel’s resurgent passions, desires and whims as a central motif to convey subtle (but firmly present) Nietzschean postulations. Michel reneges on his obligations to his wife, to his profession and to social standing, searching for more base passion, for an affinity with nature free from the shackles of culture. As identified by Alan Sheridan of Cambridge University, “Michel…has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a weapon of the weak, a slave mentality.” In the words of the protagonist , “Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.” This theme is embellished by Gide’s implementation of the first person narrative. As his social standing, wealth and obligations recede, the adverse consequences of Michel’s apathy are evident to the reader. Beyond its thematic significance and the context of the zenith of Nietzschean influence the novel contains innumerable emotive images, “The accreted layers of acquired learning flaked away like greasepaint, offering glimpses of bare flesh, the real person hidden underneath.” Gide’s utilisation of simile and allusion blend well with Michel’s actions. At times his relationship with his wife is superseded and obfuscated by his preoccupation with nature. This is captured by Gide’s use of seasonal imagery and (more than once) classical allusion, “the banks of the Cyane, still as blue as it flows through the papyrus as on the day it wept for Persephone.” In sum, the novel’s progression is seamless and fluid. In my opinion it is informative and enlightening without one being aware of it at the time of reading.
This article was imported from an earlier version of Felix Online - see the original article here.