The Calendar of Modern Letters

 

Samuel Hoare

avril 1928    

 

THE MARKET PLACE AND THE CAVE

 

Idola specus... idola fori
Bacon: Novum Organum.

 

  M. Andre Gide, in the dedication of his new book, terms it his premier roman, and, looking at the long list of his works on the flyleaf, the reader observes that his previous attempts in this kind are classified under the titles: récits and soties. This, then, is something different. For a first novel it is an ambitious attempt - a large volume of 500 pages.  

It is difficult to say what its subject is. Each chapter presents us, in succession, with a different group of characters and with different themes and threads of action, and the apparently unrelated groups are all ultimately related by events which are not so much a plot as a series of surprises. We have young Bernard Profitendieu, left alone in the house to study for his matriculation, discovering a bundle of letters in a locked drawer in his father's room, which reveal to him that M. Profitendieu is not his father at all. He decides to leave the house and that night sleeps with his friend, Olivier Molinier. Olivier has several subjects of conversation. For one thing, he is going to meet the next day his uncle Édouard, the novelist, who is coming from England to Paris. And for another, he has overheard a dialogue on the landing in the dead of night between his brother Vincent and a woman who must be Vincent's mistress - and a mistress whom he is casting off. We are next introduced to Vincent, who has made a friend of the sinister Count Passavant, and is about to yield to the seductions of Lady Lilian, Passavant's mistress. Then we are with Édouard in the train from Dieppe and are admitted to the intimate pages of his journal. In this journal, of which we shall see a good deal as the novel advances, Édouard keeps a record of the events in which his relation to the other characters involves him, and his thoughts about the novel, based on these events, which he means to write, and which he decides to call Les Faux-Monnayeurs. But at the moment, the principal fact which his journal discloses is that he is coming to Paris to assist the distressed Laura Douviers, the wife of Félix Douviers, who has been seduced and deserted by her lover.  

Olivier is at the station, but Bernard is there too, an unseen watcher engaged in a vague bid for an independent existence, which, in the light of day and the absence of funds, seems a rather more desperate venture than he had contemplated. Édouard drops his left luggage ticket; Bernard, picking it up, recovers his bag, reads Édouard's journal, and, realizing that the distressed Laura is none other than Vincent's victim, boldly proceeds to call on her, and is engaged on an offer of assistance when Édouard arrives. The result of this encounter is that he becomes Édouard's secretary and all three disappear into Switzerland, while Olivier, who has meanwhile entered into relations with Passavant and who is later to enter into relations with Édouard, proceeds with Passavant to Corsica. Here M. Gide, having distributed his characters, pauses, and devotes a chapter to a discussion of them and a consideration of what he will do with them next; and we may pause too, only remarking that the intrigues we have recounted take up little more than half of the book and that the remainder contains as many more, with as many stratagems of circumstance to unite them, and that in this hasty summary we have omitted all reference to the depravity of the youthful Georges Molinier, the strange inhabitants of the pension kept by the Protestant pastor Vedel, La Pérouse, the old broken-down musician, and his grandson Boris, and Strouvilhou and the coiners for they are real and not symbolic coiners. But we have said enough to indicate that if M. Gide refuses to call his book a sotie or a récit, we must still hesitate to call it a novel. Its analogy as regards its construction is clearly with the fantasies of detective-fiction. Les Faux-Monnayeurs is, in short, like Les Caves du Vatican before it, a shocker for intellectuals. M. Gide is obviously not engaged on a representation of reality: the period of the action in this book, for example, is extremely uncertain. The account of the psycho-analytic treatment of young Boris by Sophroniska, the Polish lady-doctor, seems to place it in the present day, and in the opening pages a group of students are discussing among other subjects, Charles Maurras. But later the sister of one of them, Sarah Vedel, a young girl, who has independent views, ideas about the equality of sexes, and other attributes of modernity, goes to a literary party at which one of the lions is Alfred Jarry, and we recall that Jarry died long ago - to be exact, in 1906. And yet, further on, Édouard deplores that a certain gentleman's taste was not equal to appreciating the merits of a Montrachet 1904. As this wine must, one imagines, have been newly bottled at the time of the party, it is perhaps Édouard's palate that is at fault.  

M. Gide, however, is subtle enough to have foreseen the kind of criticism of his novel which have been making, and has put into Édouard's mouth, apropos of Édouard's novel, a statement which may be taken, if one wishes, as that of his own intentions, though as Édouard's novel (passages from which are quoted) turns out not to be M. Gide's novel, M. Gide is still able to parry further thrusts. Édouard's statement we shall glance at later, but, in the meantime, we may solve these perplexities by saying that in the present book M. Gide is engaged, as before, in making a construction by means of a kind of discussion with himself of the ideas of which the book is also the presentation. In his novel a statement of his intentions, a criticism of them, and their representation, are all equally and ingeniously combined. The reflection of the events of the novel in Édouard's journal, Édouard's further views on the relation of the events so represented to his novel, and M. Gide's representation of Édouard's views by these devices M. Gide multiplies the mirrors which he holds up less to nature than to his own ideas of nature. For between M. Gide and his characters the umbilical cord has never been severed. They represent for him possibilities with which his intellect has played, attitudes which have allured him. He watches them with an anxious interest and frequently interrupts their encounters with commentary. Lady Griffith becomes excited: «Elle [..,] s'élanca joyeusement sur Robert, dont elle bourra le dos de coups de points en sautant, dansant et courant (Lilian m'agace un peu lorsqu'elle fait ainsi l'enfant).» The old Count Passavant is dead : «dans une chambre du premier le vieux comte repose sur le lit mortuaire. [...] Précisément parce que nous ne devons plus le revoir je le contemple longuement.»   But, whatever M. Gide's apparent interest in his characters, they only exist for the ideas which they fulfil for him, and for this reason they are curiously unreal to us. They are never living enough for the reader to forget the printed page and merge his identity in theirs; they seem always to be conscious of the audience - an audience consisting of M. Gide in a self-critical capacity — and this gives to their doings a certain remoteness and to M, Gide's own transparent and flexible writing only too often the air of an extremely able piece of reporting. Morally, the characters in this book divide up into three classes, the forts, who have specific vices (notably sexual inversion), the faibles, who suffer from mental conflicts (Armand Vedel from a serious inferiority-complex. La Pérouse from suicidal mania, Boris from nervousness induced by onanism), and the bourgeois, who are simply platement bourgeois. Almost all the adolescents, of whom there are so many in this book, are vicious in some way. This preoccupation with vice and with the abnormal is, of course, a necessary consequence of M. Gide's method. It is not only that for a mind occupied with possibilities, the possibilities that are farthest removed from the <<normal>> are the most attractive — since the <<normal>> is nothing but the neutral stuff a divergence from which constitutes the possibility.   The reasons go somewhat deeper than this.  M. Gide, as we have said, is not endeavouring to imitate reality, or even, to use a less question-begging phrase, to reconstruct reality on another framework of reference.   What he is really engaged with are ideas of relationships. The idea of a relationship which can be called a normal or ordinary relationship is of little interest, though the relationship itself, if it is rendered or given its peculiar individuality and completeness by the artist, may be of surpassing interest. Such a rendering is not M. Gide's aim - he is concerned with ideas of relationships, and after the reader has closed his book, it is the ideas of the relationships that remain with him. The characters do not live, the period, as we have said, is uncertain, the Swiss mountains are perfunctory white peaks, and the Paris, which seems to have a little more reality — that Paris of the Luxembourg Gardens, cheap hotels, plane-trees, dusty sunlight, Latin Quarter hats, and the odour of stale cigar-smoke — may very well be a sympathetic response of the reader's memory.   But the ideas of the relationships are definite in our minds as they were in the author's. The writer of the ordinary shocker finds his material in what is curious or unusual in events, the writer of the intellectual shocker has to have recourse to what is curious and unusual in relationships; and to furnish out a cabinet of intellectual curiosities such as this of M. Gide's what we call for convenience the abnormal is absolutely necessary. It must be added that in this melodramatic kind M. Gide has some trouvailles — the curious behaviour and conversation - a kind of mutual exhibitionism — of the young people at the wedding party at the old pastor's house, the scene where Armand Vedel locks Bernard into Sarah's bedroom. These have strangeness, a horrible fascination, and a kind of power.  

But it is time to turn our attention to Édouard and his views on the novel; as for any further account of the plot of this book, two remarks of his will dispense us from this task : «Mon roman n'a pas de sujet», and «"Pourrait être continué"... c'est sur ces mots que je voudrais terminer mes Faux-Monnayeurs. »  

«Je voudrais un roman», Édouard says, «qui serait à la fois aussi vrai, et aussi éloigné de la réalité, aussi particulier et aussi général à la fois, aussi humain et aussi fictif, qu'Athalie, que Tartuffe ou que Cinna.» Remembering that the novel of which Édouard is speaking is Les Faux-Monnayeurs, we may perhaps interpret the present book as M. Gide's attempt to supply this want of Édouard's — in which case we may suggest that it suffers from the defects commonly attributed to indirect wish-fulfilments. For though its assortment of fantasy and realism, subtleties of psychology and improbabilities of plot, are clearly related to Édouard's formula, the whole does not exist as a work of art. And the reason is probably to be found in the fact that Édouard (with M. Gide), as is evidenced by this very passage, starts from an entirely intellectual concept, is engaged in the endeavour to give artistic form to what exists in his mind first of all as a general notion, or ideas, the idea of the qualities and method which he would like his novel to have. It wants to concentrate on these until they are determined so finally that experience will proceed of itself and almost casually to fill the mould provided. One need hardly emphasize that this is the intellectual's and not the creator's view and that the writer who settles to the labour of secreting from the material of experience the stuff of a living art is engaged on infinitely more precise and particular problems, Édouard's notebook is filled with discussions and considerations of the idea of his novel instead of drafts for the actual work, and M. Gide, too, just as he is interested in the ideas of relationships, is more interested in the idea of his novel than in the novel itself. M, Gide's principal interest is ideas. «Les idees [...], les idees, je vous 1'avoue, m'intéressent plus que les hommes ; m'intéressent par-dessus tout", says his spokesman, Édouard. We ought therefore to consider Les Faux-Monnayeurs principally with relation to its ideas, for it is full of ideas; all the characters, even, have ideas, just as Balzac's characters are all said to have genius. But the trouble about all these ideas, which are ultimately M. Gide's ideas, is that they are of a kind which seems to us not the most important kind of ideas; they proceed entirely from the intellect, and are not nourished from the profound sub-conscious sources that give ideas which are really important - the ideas of a Dostoevsky or a Nietzsche, for example -   their mutual cohesion and their power.  The ideas of these writers are part of their personality, as much theirs as the shape of their noses or the character of their handwriting.   But M. Gide's ideas are something almost external to him, something that he is interested in, as Édouard says. His alert and subtle intellect plays with all the numerous and contradictory possibilities that present themselves to him, and what is personal to M. Gide is less the nature of these tendencies and currents of doctrine than his way of committing himself to all without finally committing himself to any.   Some part of him always remains detached, an ironic spectator of these voyages of the mind, and it is curious to observe how this attitude characterizes both his method and his puppets: the introspection and self-mistrust of so many of the characters in this book is significant, and is very comparable with the continual glances with which M. Gide, standing aside, observes their actions.   «Quoi que je dise ou fasse, toujours une partie de moi reste en arrière, qui regarde l'autre se compromettre, qui 1'observe, qui se fiche d'elle et la siffle, ou qui l'applaudit.   Quand on est ainsi divisé, comment veux-tu qu'on soit sincère?», says Armand.   M. Gide is continually divided.  But in the result, his work, judged by the standards by which he would like it to be judged, and which are the only standards appropriate to a writer of his distinction, is not <<situated>>; it has no point of view, or rather it has too many points of view, and on too many subjects, and they are points of view and nothing more.    We remain in the intellectual market-place, the carrefour of intersecting streets that lead in so many directions, a place frequented by the presence and the memory of distinguished strangers, a place of passage which offers no inducement to permanent residence, though it is interesting to stand for a moment and watch the busy streams of traffic. Let us turn from this contemplation and descend into the cave of Proust.