Andre Gide dedicated his first novel, The Counterfeiters, to Roger Martin du Gard. The later repaid this act of kindness by publishing Notes on Andre Gide as an encomium to his friend and mentor. What a book! It’s not just one Nobel Laureate in Literature’s biographical sketch of another Nobel Laureate in Literature, it’s a record of some serious conversations between two of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. The author’s powers of description made me feel like I was in the room listening to his subject’s ruminations. I could visualize Gide telling me, “Whenever I have the chance to enjoy myself, I do it.” (Page 11)
I’m a huge fan of both men’s work. Du Gard’s decision to publish his memoirs on Gide elated me. For those more familiar with music, imagine Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page struck up a friendship. Years later one of them released recordings of their jam sessions. Notes on Andre Gide is in the same category for fans of great writing.
Emulating Ben Franklin, du Gard presented his thoughts on Gide “warts and all.” Literally.
The light falls on Gide’s fine head. His whole face is alive with pleasure. He puts on the tortoiseshell spectacles (which sit now above, now below, the wart on his nose, according to whether it is me or the transcript that he is looking at.) (Page 13)
Du Gard delivered a very balanced view of his subject. I didn’t expect the level of explicitness. Even when critical he still strove for fairness. Here’s an excerpt dated 1928.
Gide is being spoiled by the complaisance of his entourage. He no longer pays the least attention to the preoccupations, the desires, the troubles, or the tastes of anyone but himself. He can hardly conceive that somebody should not, at any given moment, be free. And by ‘free’ he means: ready to give up everything in order to put one’s self entirely at his disposition; ready, not only to visit him, but to share, for the inside of a day, his life, his work, his pleasures, and his meals; ready to enter into the most trifling of his anxieties; ready to speak of the subjects which preoccupy him, to the exclusion of all others; ready to laugh, if he is in the mood to be amused; or wax indignant, if he has some pretext for annoyance or chagrin; ready to sit patiently with a newspaper or a magazine while he has his siesta; ready to read the letters he has just received, and to discuss with him the answers he has prepared; ready to read on with him the book he has already begun; ready to go out, if he takes it into his head to go to an exhibition or a cinema, or to call on a colleague… (Page 59)
That’s a long passage and du Gard had a few other issues to add at the end. I included it to show the author’s eloquence and command of detail. It certainly presented an unfavorable view of Gide. The author followed it up with the very next paragraph.
(How unjust I am! And how shameful of me to give way to that moment of bad temper! Have I ever spent an hour with him, and not been the richer for it? Even on his most tyrannical days he finds an opportunity twenty times over, of giving more than he gets. He gives fresh life to everything he touches. He talks as the sower sows; and the seeds that he scatters all around him ask only to be allowed to take root, and to flower.) (Page 59)
I’ve read many biographies and memoirs. I cannot recollect an instance where the author attempted, let alone achieved, this level of objectivity.
In a previous post, I reviewed Gide’s Corydon. I wanted to get insights from this book about just why he published something so controversial. Du Gard objected to the choice, but offered an explanation.
The idea of a public confession is infectious; like the hero of a Russian novel, Gide is burning to affront Society and invite its punishment; outrage, opprobrium, the pillory—those are the things to which he aspires…He has such a strange inspired smile when he disposes of my objections! When he thinks of being misunderstood, shunned and despised—the expiatory victim of a sublime sincerity—I believe he feels enlarged and exalted. (Pages 26 – 27)
I wonder if the Chinese curse about getting what one wishes for had been around in Gide’s time.
At any rate, for his myriad contributions to the field of letters the Nobel Prize Committee honored him with the award for literature in 1947. Du Gard included the following except from the citation.
Gide has often been accused of corrupting young people and leading them astray; the great influence which none can deny him is regarded by many as an influence for evil. That is the ancient accusation which has been laid against all the emancipators of the human spirit. Protests are superfluous, however; we need only consider the worth of those who are his real disciples…It is doubtless this, as much as, or more than, his literary work which has made him well worthy of the signal honor which Sweden has just accorded him. (Pages 94 -95)
Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.” If he’d had the opportunity to read du Gard’s Notes, even he just may have reconsidered.