Sunday, November 11, 2012
When I was in my late teens I went through an intense phase of devouring every single page of modern French literature I could get my hands on. In a fairly short period I read essentially everything that was available in translation by Camus, all of Sartre's novels and plays (but none of his philosophy), the major works of André Gide, and all 2,000 pages or so of Roger Martin du Gard's The Thibaults and Summer 1914, as well as various bits of Malraux, Cocteau, Artaud, Ionesco, and others I've no doubt forgotten about. (Did I actually read, or just own, a copy of Mauriac's Viper's Tangle?) Eventually I took two years of French in college, but I never got to the point of trying any of the literature in the original, and in any case by then I was moving on to other things, especially Spanish and Latin American writers. I read some Zola, Balzac, and Flaubert in and out of college, but after 1980 or so I pretty much went cold turkey on French lit. Over the years, as I needed to thin out my library to make room, I donated just about everything, only retaining The Counterfeiters, The Plague, and the doorstop-sized Martin du Gards, which had been out-of-print and devilishly hard to find in the first place. I put a lot of effort into reading Spanish and let my French go, convincing myself that I just didn't really like the language. As for the literature, the time when the century-old struggles between Catholics and positivists or gossip about the philosophical debates between Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir could be viewed as crucial cultural concerns seemed to be long past, and later movements in French letters, most of which appeared to be centered more around philosophy or psychoanalysis, didn't appeal to me.
I can't say that it was entirely chance that led me not only to revisit The Counterfeiters but to attempt to read it in French, even though it's true that I would not have done so had I not found an ancient Gallimard edition on a shelf in the foreign-language section of a used bookstore. The truth is, I'd been thinking about the book on and off, and I had also been thinking about testing out my French on something, which is why I had made a point of looking on that particular shelf. The Gide was, in fact, the only book there that would have been likely to appeal to me. It was fated, clearly; I bought the book home and put it on a shelf for a few weeks while I finished some other things. Then, with some trepidation, a paperback dictionary (which turned out to be excellent for my purposes), and a copy of Dorothy Bussy's translation to use as a crib as needed, I dived in.
I'll leave it to a psycholinguist to explain how one can neglect a half-learned second or third language for thirty years or more without losing it altogether; in my case I suspect that my Spanish, which I work at fairly conscientiously, may have supported the underlying grammar. That, and the fact that English is fairly permeated with French loan words, probably made the difference. Gide writes clearly and is not particularly slangy; I suspect I might have more trouble with a contemporary writer. But in any case, making it through the novel's nearly 500 pages was hard work, but it was rewarding hard work. I rediscovered the qualities that had given me a fondness for the book when I first read it in translation, and found nuances (and one or two excised passages) that deepened my appreciation. In short, a successful experiment, which I hope to repeat soon with La peste, which happens to be the only other novel I currently own in both English and French.
As to Gide's novel itself, although it is set no later than 1907 and was written in the 1920s, I found that it held up quite well. Gide's analysis of character is profound and plausible throughout (though perhaps slightly less so in the case of some of the female characters), and except for one conversation about psychoanalysis there is little in the book that now seems glaringly dated. The book's structural innovations, which apparently gave the author no end of trouble, still seem fresh and even daring after several generations of postmodernism. This is, after all, a book in which there is an omniscient narrator but much of the action is depicted through the journal of one of the characters, Édouard, and in which parts of the narrative are presented to us as flashback as the journal is read by someone else; it is a book in which that same Édouard is writing a novel, also called The Counterfeiters, which he is basing on the events that take place around him; it is a book in which Édouard reads aloud a few pages of a draft of that novel (complete with ridiculous personal names — Audibert and Eudolfe) to another character in part to find out how he will react so that he can include that reaction in the book he is writing. It is, in its final pages, a book whose violent climax — horrifying but not really surprising, since Gide has been pointing us towards it — so mystifies Édouard that he decides to omit it from his own novel, since he can make no sense of the motivation that lies behind it. The novel shifts focus radically but seemingly without effort; major characters at the beginning (Vincent, Lady Griffith) are ignored for hundreds of pages and then dispatched summarily, while characters seen at first only obliquely, like Laura, emerge into the spotlight only to recede again. Even Olivier and Bernard, the two schoolfellows with whom the book begins, become less important as the book winds on, while Édouard, whom we barely meet for the first hundred pages, becomes more and more the center of gravity. Somehow Gide manages to keep all these balls in the air and still pull it off without letting the machinery interfere with what is, in many respects, a solidly realistic, almost Dickensian, narrative.
As for Gide's influence, re-reading it now I see the traces of Les faux-monnayeurs where I would not necessarily have expected it. It almost certainly had an effect on Julio Cortázar, who translated L'immoraliste and speaks admiringly of Gide in his letters; Édouard's ruminations on the technique of the novel are echoed by the novelist-philosopher Morelli in Hopscotch. It surely influenced The Empire City, the messy but often brilliant novel by Paul Goodman (another admirer of Gide); and its erotic and family dynamics, as well as Vincent's descent into depravity in Africa, may well have influenced Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. And since then? Is Gide much read in the US today, outside of the academy? I honestly don't know. But I suspect that even after the hyperkinetic experimentation of Pynchon, Barth, and David Foster Wallace, this cagey novel still has lessons to teach.