Saturday, 10 October 2009

Book Review: The Immoralist

The Immoralist (L'Immoraliste), by André Gide

Here's a marginally amusing little anecdote. When I was smugly telling any French person I met that I would be, was, or had just finished reading André Gide, I was greeted with blank faces. "How uncultured," I told myself, "one of the greatest exports of French literature, and they don't even know who he is. It would be like me never having heard of EM Forster."

It turns out, though, that the fault lay not with my interlocutors, but rather with my oh-so-clever-and-cultured self, who was pronouncing the name horribly incorrectly, as to render it absolutely unrecogniseable to the natives. Rather than saying " ɑ̃dʁe ʒid" ("aundray zhide"), I was saying "ɑ̃dʁe ɡiid" ("aunzhrey geed"), and probably coming across as the linguistic fraud I must be. Serves me right for such a shameless display of hubris.

Anyway, on to the review.

According to the introduction, Gide's publisher noted the saleability of the book based on its title. The title seems to be the most saleable aspect of the work, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong, it is very well written, and an engaging, intelligent piece, but I don't feel the immorality. Now, you may say that is because I am reading an early 20th Century novel from an early 21st Century perspective. Wrong: as far as I can see, when compared with Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is tame to the point of acceptable in the drawing room.

The main issue is the focus on the eponymous protaginist, Michel, and his "illness". A Queer reading (capital for emphasis on literary criticism, not just saying a queer is doing the criticising) might lead one to conclude that this is some sort of physical manifestation of the character's burgeoning sexuality, offset at first by the physical displacement from "civilised" Paris. However, reading on, there doesn't seem to be such a strong thematic link to connect these elements of the story. In fact, there is so much suggestion that vagueness becomes the overarching feel of the novel. Having said this, Michel's characterisation is strong and well presented, the piece as a whole subscribing to the early tradition of the first-person narrative novel, which allows for more subjective writing, and therefore a more interesting objective reading experience. While Michel is unsure of what his illness actually is, the reader - especially the 21st Century reader - is all too aware.

All in all, it is a good (but not a great) read.

1 comment:

  1. I'm all for an amusing anecdote, mild or not.

    It's how ya tell 'em.