The Monthly Criterion
Though M. Paul Valéry has succeeded to Anatole France's chair at the Académie Française, the successor to the throne of French fiction so long occupied - worthily or unworthily - by Anatole France is M. André Gide. It is true that Gide's work bears little superficial resemblance to France's. Where France's tone was frivolous Gide's is grave, where France was decorative Gide is bare, France was artistically lazy, Gide is painstaking. But it is not without significance that Gide was one of the very first critics to estimate fairly, certain of the deficiencies of France's work. His intelligent, somewhat restive public corresponds to the public France had in his day, and it is with the decline of France's prestige that Gide's has grown. Since the death of France, Gide has to a greater and greater degree come to be regarded - outside of his own country especially - as the most representative and considerable of living French novelists.
Why is it then that Gide has not been elected to the Académie, and that even the idea of his ever being elected is not taken seriously by most interested Frenchmen. Is it that he is in the line of the great nineteenth-century outsiders in whom the spirit of Gothic France was reborn: Balzac, Rimbaud, Mallarmé? Is M. Gide, like them, a pioneer, to be fully justified only in generations to come? He is not reluctant to stake out a claim in the future for himself. He is not greatly troubled by the extent of the present-day hostility to him. He makes no pathetic attempts to force academic doors. He is content to wait. He writes, he believes, <<pour les générations à venir>> It ought to be convincing and one ought, no doubt, to regard him as a neglected genius. But one recalls suddenly that M. Gide is rather far from being neglected. He may, of course, have a future - he may even enter the Académie. What is certain is that he has a very considerable present. He is widely read. His pretensions to a classical aesthetic are treated with respect. His influence on the attitude and on the behaviour of the younger generation in France is said to be profound. M. André Malraux says that <<par son talent d'écrivain qui le fait par bonheur le plus grand écrivain français vivant, il est un des hommes les plus importants d'aujourd'hui. A la moitié de ceux que 1'on appelle "les jeunes" il a révelé la conscience intellectuelle.>>. The first chapters of Si le grain ne meurt are being used, one is told, as a class book at numerous English schools. But this success is only natural after all. Writers who are mainly concerned with ideas gain influence more quickly than any others, and M. Gide is a writer mainly concerned with ideas. With disquieting ideas. <<Inquiéter tel est mon rô1e>>, he says in the Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs. Sometimes he succeeds in being disquieting through a character, sometimes through an incident, but always he succeeds in his aim. He suggests when he does not utter a disquieting idea. It is probably because this is his rôle that M. Gide has not received official recognition. It is certainly an explanation of his deficiencies as an artist.
The characters in Les Faux-Monnayeurs are a group of people who belong more or less to the same world in Paris: a boy who leaves his home because he discovers that he is not the son of his ostensible father whom he thinks at first he loathes, but afterwards finds he loves; two brothers: the elder of them the seducer of a young married woman whom he deserts for a titled English adventuress, afterwards murdering the latter and finishing up in the belief that he is the devil, in Africa; the younger brother loves his mother's half-brother, and when ultimately misunderstandings between them are cleaned away he tries in the fullness of his happiness to commit suicide; then there is a school where the happenings amongst the members of the schoolmaster's family are like much else in the book, material for either comedy or tragedy, but which in the hands of M. Gide remain merely sordidly banal; and there is a trio of boys amongst the pupils who having been frightened out of circulating false coin in the shops round the Boulevard St-Michel form a suicide club for the express purpose of driving a timid little boy whom they all dislike to suicide - and succeed in doing so. It is undoubtedly disquieting. The influence is obviously Dostoevsky, a writer whom M. Gide admires profoundly. But over-sentimental as he was Dostoevsky, had at least one of the tragic qualities. He had pity if he could not produce terror. M, Gide approaches his subject like a detective. He reconstructs it convincingly, but these nightmarish people and incidents should make a moving and tragic story, and told as it is, it is only pathetic as a police court story in a Sunday newspaper is pathetic. One would be humanly sorry if one were certain that the characters and incidents were taken from life. That is all. From the Journal one learns that the incident of the little boy's suicide was at any rate paralleled in life. But M. Gide's little boy does not appeal or repel apart from his fate. And the same is true of the rest of the characters. They are machines and part of a machine - like Paula Tanqucray in Sir Arthur Pinero's play. <<Oui, vraiment,>> says M. Gide,<<il m'est arrivé, des jours durant, de douter si je pourrais remettre la machine en marche>>. He did make it move however. It is a finer machine than any ever made by Sir Arthur Pinero, but if it has any beauty, it is not the beauty of art, but the adventitious beauty of machinery in motion, the machinery of a biased intellect.
The real English parallels to M. Gide are Samuel Butler and the writers of his school, and most of all, because like M. Gide almost an artist, Mr. Bernard Shaw. M. Gide is a more conscientious craftsman than Mr. Shaw, but Mr. Shaw has a dynamism in the play of his second-hand ideas that, as with many late Gothic and late Renaissance artists and writers, practically amounts to a decoration of his pseudo-Mephistophelianism. M. Gide has no such pronounced technical advantage. He has pretensions to classic restraint. «Le style des Faux-Monnayeurs ne doit présenter aucun intérêt de surface, aucune saillie. Tout doit être dit de la manière la plus plate, celle qui fera dire à certains jongleurs: Que trouvez-vous à admirer là-dedans?» M. Gide is never unaware of the jongleurs. Perhaps he feels emotion towards them. But it is difficult to find emotion, restrained or unrestrained in his work. And if emotion is lacking, there is no art, classic or unclassic. One fears that Gide has no passion, only a conviction, a fixed idea, the idea of the malevolence of society. No doubt he has appetites. He has written about them. But he has said, and it is always a sign of inhumanity, <<J’aime mieux faire agir que d'agir>>. One remembers Mr. Bernard Shaw's pseudo-pacifist pamphlet about the war which must have sent as many liberal young men into the army as an honestly imbecile recruiting speech by Lord Roberts sent conservatives. M. Gide and Mr. Shaw have endeavoured all their literary lives to influence people and especially young people towards admittedly dangerous ways, and especially morally dangerous ways. Of course young people who allow themselves to be influenced must take the consequences. But the reaction will be against M. Gide and Mr. Shaw.
Undoubtedly, however, there were reasons beyond mere personal temperament for rise of Gidism and Shawianism. M. Gide and Mr. Shaw came at the time of the lowest and latest decadence of Renaissance and Reformation ideals in art and in life. M. Gide, like M. Valéry, inherited the Leonardesque tradition in art - but M. Valéry being a poet seized on the creative «decorative» side of it, while M. Gide was influenced by the adulterate, inquiring, disquieting, psychological element in it. And then M. Gide, brought up a Protestant, naturally turned to the Protestant nations for literary sustenance. There he found the worship of Nietzschean hysteria and joined in the welcome given to the sentimental hysterics of Dostoevsky. But there is a more intimate explanation of Gidism even than that. It is to the credit of M. Gide that he has gone back on much of his own dishonesty. He has a habit of confessing his sins publicly. And if he makes him temporarily more, it also makes him ultimately less, sinister. In his youth he was in close touch with a group of young men who <<lived dangerously>> at least from the moral point of view. Even then it was not a very original thing to do. It was only a tradition inherited from Baudelaire in France and Swinburne and Rossetti in England. A jesting priest once explained profoundly to me the reason for the Baudelaire and Swinburne preoccupation with lesbianism. "It was the only sin they could not commit." They took a childish delight in sin for sin's sake. The young men of the 'nineties inherited the attitude though it could scarcely have been imagined that their sins were of a kind to lead to serious tragedy. Then came the Wilde disaster. The effect on a temperament oriented as was Gide's could not be other than terrible. Society's treatment of Wilde must have helped to make him the enemy of society that he became. This would explain why for Gidians it is better to be habile than naïf, to be clever rather than innocent, suspicious rather than trusting. If the world is too much with them they are not altogether inexcusable.
The Voyage au Congo is an account of one of M. Gide's escapes from the world, and it has most of the merits that his European books lack. He writes with understanding and sympathy for simple people. His descriptive prose follows the changing colours of the beautiful country he passed through with pleasing variety. He almost becomes the blue and white young man of the 'nineties in his delight in the chase after African butterflies.
Lever dès 4 heures. Mais il faut attendre les premières lueurs de 1'aube pour partir. Que j'aime ces départs avant le jour! Ils n’ont pourtant pas, dans ce pays, 1'âpre noblesse et cette sorte de joie farouche et désespérée que j'ai connue dans le désert.
That is not art but it is very pleasant aestheticism. Occasionally the silly cleverness appears again. He is reading Bossuet, and makes the entry :
Il est réjouissant de penser que c'est précisément à ses qualités les plus profanes et qui lui paraissaient les plus vaines, que 1'orateur sacré doit sa survie dans la mémoire des hommes.
But that is only the memory of a Europe that once showed little mercy, and it should be emphasized that the African reporting which except for one or two such minor interruptions occupies the whole of the book, is delightfully done and makes a genuinely attractive, even an impressive, causerie.