On the chance that a shepherd boy …

Edmund White

  • Andre Gide: A Life in the Present by Alan Sheridan
    Hamish Hamilton, 708 pp, £25.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 241 12729 7
  • Andre Gide ou la vocation du bonheur. Tome 1, 1869-1911 by Claude Martin
    Fayard, 699 pp, frs 180.00, September 1998, ISBN 2 213 02309 3

André Gide made his life the very core of his art. In that way he was quite different from Oscar Wilde, who was 15 years his senior and, for a brief but crucial period, a friend. Wilde may have said he put his genius into his life and merely his talent into his art: what is indisputable is that he was careful to keep them well apart. Nothing Wilde wrote is directly autobiographical except De Profundis. Gide, on the other hand, published his indiscreet journals in instalments throughout his long life, brought out his tell-all autobiography, Si le grain ne meurt, in 1926, and left a short confession about his marriage, Et nunc manet in te, which he wrote after his wife’s death in 1938 and arranged to have published after his own in 1951.

Gay men like me who came of age in the Fifties and Sixties knew more about Gide’s personal life than they knew about many of their own friends’ lives: his Protestant beginnings, his sexless marriage to his cousin Madeleine, his espousal of Catholicism, then Communism, and his subsequent renunciations of each, his affair with Marc Allégret, 31 years younger than he, his year-long trip to Africa with Marc, his fathering a child with Elisabeth van Rysselberghe after what appears to have been his unique sexual experience with a woman.

Today many if not most up-and-coming writers in the English-speaking world are routinely confessional. Focused on their childhoods, they invariably discover the same pathetic blights – parental alcoholism and abuse, family dysfunction, even incest. Gide, by contrast, never saw himself as wounded, never complained about his fate nor sought to assign blame. And he wasn’t much interested in the past (hence Sheridan’s subtitle). On the contrary. He was eager to attune himself to each new generation. More anguished than complaining, he was quick to assess the exact degree of his own responsibility for Madeleine’s unhappiness, for instance, just as he was unusually receptive to criticism directed at him or his work by his friends. When the arch-Catholic poet and playwright Paul Claudel begged him not to publish an overtly gay passage in his 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican, Gide corresponded with him at length (and agreed to the publication of their complete correspondence). He did not drop the offending passage – in fact he and Claudel ended by dropping each other – but at least, unlike the literary feuds of today, those that Gide engaged in usually had some intellectual substance.

Gide obviously regarded his life as exemplary and, as an open paedophile, he frequently invoked the didactic Greek model of man-boy love. Today adult sex with adolescents is universally condemned. I suppose if people are going to find the defining moment of their lives to have been the abuse they suffered while young, the act must necessarily, and invariably, be branded as criminal. Not long ago an American teacher was put in prison for seven years after she became pregnant for the second time by her teenage student; the second baby was born behind bars and is being raised alongside the first child by the very young father’s mother. But as Alan Sheridan writes of Gide in his comprehensive (et compréhensif!) book, ‘surprisingly, no complaint was ever made against him, either by a boy or by his parents. He was, of course, protected by the innocence of the times. But he never forced his attentions on anyone.’

His circle, with the exception of his French Reformed Wife and the Catholic converts, was sophisticated and indulgent. He was lucky enough to count among his most intimate friends the writer (and Protestant) Jean Schlumberger and the novelist and Nobel Prizewinner Roger Martin du Gard, both of whom were bisexual, though less conspicuously so. They accompanied him on his adventures or exchanged letters with him about his encounters with adolescents, and they almost never reproached him. More often, they encouraged him and took vicarious pleasure in his frequent conquests.

Even less judgmental was his best female friend, Maria van Rysselberghe, whom Gide called the ‘Petite Dame’, a painter’s wife and the bohemian companion who shared an apartment with Gide for years on the rue Vaneau in Paris. She judged Gide’s affairs only by whether they made him happier, more productive or, as she put it, ‘younger’. She observed his moods in a journal that she kept for more than thirty years.

In his pursuit of youth (and youths), Gide was capable of leaning out of a train window as it was travelling to stroke the extended arm of the kid in the next compartment, or of following a troop of sheep for hours on the chance that a shepherd boy might be found at the end of the trail – and he was seldom disappointed. Just as he was able to domesticate wild animals, young men seemed, as the French would say, tétanisés by him.

One of the advantages of ‘those linguistically innocent days’, Alan Sheridan correctly observes, was that people could perform homosexual acts without naming them and ‘therefore regarded them as quite normal’. By contrast, one of the unexpected results of the noisy debate about homosexuality in our day is that only those who feel powerfully drawn to same-sex love are sufficiently motivated to indulge in it at all; casual bisexual encounters have disappeared, largely because the growing wealth of Europe and America and the collapse of religion have meant that heterosexual ‘dating’ now starts at puberty and no one (except prisoners) has recourse to homosexuality merely because nothing else is on tap. Similarly, working-class boys no longer have an automatic respect for ‘gentlemen’ like Gide nor do they unquestioningly submit to their whims.

Certainly Gide would never be considered a great ‘moralist’ today. Yet his reputation lingers on; in France the idée reçue about Gide even now is that he was a ‘puritan’ or a ‘preacher’, foolishly fussing over his own conscience, and those people who dismiss him without having read him say, typically: ‘His scruples seems so naive to us now.’ Sheridan’s biography should cause them to re-examine their assumptions. For instance, the great love of Gide’s life was Marc Allégret, a boy of 16 when the 48-year-old Gide seduced him in 1917. The boy’s father, the Pastor Elie Allégret, who had been Gide’s best man and was an old family friend, had confided the care of his four young sons to ‘Uncle’ André when he, Elie, was sent off to serve as an army chaplain in the Cameroons. He did not return to France until 1919 – by which time Marc and André had been lovers for two years. ‘Don’t devote yourself too excessively to the Allégrets,’ Madeleine wrote to her husband. ‘I think there is some danger there.’

The danger she sensed was that for the first time Gide was madly, profoundly in love. He’d never been so besotted before, though he’d had a short, intense affair with Jean Schlumberger’s young brother Maurice a few years earlier. Nevertheless most of his sexual dalliances so far had been with working boys, usually in North Africa, boys with whom he had had nothing in common. Now he was enamoured of a boy of his own class, someone who had a claim not only on his body but also on his mind and soul. In the last three months of 1917 Gide travelled between his house in Normandy and Paris eight times to see Marc and each time spent more than a week with the Allégrets in Passy. As he confided to his journal, ‘never have I aspired less to rest, never have I felt more uplifted by that excess of passion that Bossuet regards as the privilege of youth.’

The affair with Marc had a disastrous effect on Gide’s marriage. Madeleine and André had known each other since infancy (he was two years younger than she). He had staged a long campaign to marry her, even though they were first cousins and, as he acknowledged from the very beginning, he was never remotely attracted to her sexually. Madeleine agreed to marry André with deep misgivings – she was especially afraid she would not be up to his constant call to adventure – and quickly came to understand that her husband would pursue his own life apart from her, but later she treasured their shared moments at their Normandy house in Cuverville.

When she realised that Gide was going off to England for three and a half months with Marc (a bit like the married Verlaine and the much younger Rimbaud half a century earlier), she begged him not to leave her. Gide wrote her an unforgivable letter in which he said he had to leave because he was rotting with her. While Gide was with Marc in Cambridge, Madeleine destroyed all his letters to her – as many as two thousand, written over a 30-year period. ‘At first I thought that my heart had stopped beating, that I was dying,’ she later told Gide. ‘I had suffered so much ... I burned your letters in order to have something to do. Before I destroyed them I read them all over, one by one.’ They had been, she confided, her most precious possession. When Gide discovered what she had done, he was inconsolable. He wept for a week, waiting for Madeleine to come to him to comfort him, but she went about her household chores and pretended not to notice his misery. She was waiting – fruitlessly – for his return to the Protestant faith of their childhood; that was where, she believed, he should seek consolation for his loss. He was convinced that his collected letters to his wife would have been his best book, a warm, human, spiritual testament that would have corrected the much cruder image given by his other work. ‘An incomplete, inexact, caricatured, grimacing image is now all that will endure of me. My authentic reflection has been wiped out, for ever ... All that was purest, noblest in my life, all that could best have survived, and shone, and spread warmth and beauty, all is destroyed. And no effort of mine will ever be able to replace it.’

Gide and Marc seem to have remained lovers from 1917 to 1927 and friends until the end of Gide’s life. For the first time he experienced jealousy – especially of Cocteau, who enjoyed teasing Gide by flirting with the boy. I had always been puzzled by Gide’s antipathy to Cocteau, especially by his repeated bitchy denunciations of Cocteau’s work. If Cocteau was regarded in France as something of a charlatan and un petit touche-à-tout until his revival in the Eighties, the responsibility lay largely with Gide. Now it turns out that Gide had been irked by Cocteau’s behaviour as much as his style. As Sheridan puts it,

for Gide, with his cult of sincerity, Cocteau represented cultivated insincerity, outward show, showing-off, parade. It was morally dangerous in life as well as in art. It was not to be confused with the kind of ‘immoralism’ that he had himself entertained (without entirely adopting): such a post-Protestant, Nietzschean ‘immoralism’ was, effectively, a ‘higher’ morality, one that must be preached with all the ardour of the Protestant missionary. Gide was afraid that Cocteau might give Marc Allégret something that he himself could not give him, something, moreover, that would be corrupting, that would undermine all the patient Socratic education that he had lavished on the boy.

According to a mutual friend, Gide confessed that his ‘hatred for C... derived from C...’s moral influence, his brio, which had dazzled, spellbound a still childish mind ... I was like Pygmalion finding his statue damaged, his work vandalised; all my effort, all that care that I had expended as an educator ... had been sullied by someone else, the “nice” C.’ Cocteau himself suspected Gide of wanting to kill him.

Marc Allégret was Gide’s great love, but the gay friend to whom he was closest was the novelist and doctor Henri Ghéon. From 1898 to 1913, Gide and Ghéon cruised Paris together, frequenting the saunas and cottaging in the pissotières. Their correspondence is full of coded references to the young men they met in such places. As Ghéon said afterwards, ‘I think Gide looked to me for what was lacking in himself: a certain drive, exuberance, strength, health, frankness and, I admit, boldness in satisfying my desires.’ In the years that led up to the First World War, the two men made annual visits to North Africa as sexual tourists, though they would not have thought of their travels in such disparaging terms; as they saw it, they were not exploiting impoverished Arabs but exploring their own erotic depths, thereby liberating their creativity and defying bourgeois convention. Nevertheless Gide declared at the age of 70: ‘I like a country only if it offers many opportunities for fornication.’ Madeleine Gide accompanied Gide to Algeria once and said, after he tried to seduce three schoolboys in the next compartment: ‘You looked like a criminal or a madman.’

Gide was so used to sharing his gay experience with Ghéon that when he fell in love with the adolescent Maurice Schlumberger in 1904, he couldn’t wait to share him, too, with Ghéon. Maurice obligingly began to sleep with both older men, which excited them into a furious correspondence about the youth. This was perhaps the ultimate example of René Girard’s ‘triangulation’ in love – the notion that one can experience love only if it is mediated through a third person, an observer-participant. As Sheridan puts it, ‘the letters are not only a record of the three-sided relationship, an attempt to salvage the details, the words without which this adventure could not become a story, a narrative that could endure long after the adventure itself; they also feed back into it.’ Soon Maurice himself was asked to read the correspondence. After he’d done so, he said, with Jamesian elegance: ‘Yes, everything in our story is marvellous; yes, every chapter, from the beginning, there’s no falling off of interest at any point.’

Schlumberger soon enough dropped both men and went on to a long, exclusively heterosexual life; he died in 1976 at the age of 91, the immensely wealthy founder of the Banque Schlumberger. But the ‘story’ that this adventure was struggling to become was Les Faux-Monnayeurs, Gide’s greatest novel (he would have said his only novel, since he called the others either récits or soties). Les Faux-Monnayeurs was not published until 1926 and the actual writing of it was inspired by (and addressed to) Marc Allégret, but the Ghéon-Gide-Schlumberger triangle and the ‘intertextuality’ of their correspondence some twenty years earlier form the background to this brilliant novel, Gide’s most Modernist work.

After years of ecstatically pursuing a bit of trouser with Gide, Ghéon in the end succumbed to the prevailing Catholicism, renounced his old life and came to ‘pity’ Gide’s appetites. Ghéon is what American evangelists would today proudly call an ‘ex-gay’. Gide himself was dangerously close to converting, at least if we are to believe the 1916 volume of his journals. Ghéon’s conversion, the horrors of the war and his remorse about his continuous and furious sessions of masturbating all made the consolations of faith seem momentarily appealing. Perhaps Claudel’s flattering efforts to convert him, a true military campaign in itself, also swayed him. But his own scepticism soon reasserted itself – and he met Marc Allégret, obviously a god cut closer to Gide’s measure. In fact, after this single moment of temptation Gide became quite testy with his pious friends on the spiritual make. When the theologian Jacques Maritain asked Gide in 1924 not to publish Corydon, an essay that would later become a founding text of gay liberation, Gide flatly refused. As a parting shot Maritain begged him to ask Christ ‘directly’ if he was doing the right thing. ‘No,’ Gide replied testily. ‘I have lived too long, too intimately, with the thought of Christ, to agree to call him today as one might call someone on the telephone.’

All of Gide’s friends were horrified by his determination to publish Corydon – in effect, the first attempt by a celebrated homosexual to defend his orientation before the general public. They didn’t object to Gide’s paederasty: they just didn’t want to see it discussed in print. They thought Corydon would ‘marginalise’ him, to use our word. Gide had begun working on this little book in 1908 and had even published a few copies of the first two dialogues in 1911 before locking it away in a drawer. Now, as he had confided in a hasty note in his journal, he was afraid ‘that someone else might get there before me; it seems to me that the subject is in the air.’ It certainly was, in the aftermath of both the Wilde trial and that of Philipp von Eulenburg in 1907 (Eulenburg was a former German Ambassador to Vienna whose trial had revealed the homosexual activities of several high-ranking German officials and a French diplomat). In 1918 Gide had published 21 anonymous copies and distributed them to friends. At that point he was still trying not to offend Madeleine, but after she burned his letters he no longer felt bound to protect her reputation or her sensibilities. Corydon was, accordingly, published under his own name in 1924; within a few months some 13,000 copies had sold.

Much later, in 1942, Gide wrote, ‘Corydon is still, for me, the most important of my books,’ even while he conceded that it was also his least successful and the one he would most willingly rewrite. Certainly its arguments today seem spurious or absurd; Gide even suggests that male homosexuality is the best way to preserve female virtue. There is a lot of rubbish about homosexuality among the monkeys, an old defence that has recently been taken up with much more scientific detail by Bruce Bagemihl in the soon to be published Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. No matter that there’s something fishy about Gide’s book or that it defends paedophiles while condemning ‘sodomites’ (Gide’s name for males who sleep with men their own age) and ‘inverts’ (whom Gide defines as those men who play the female role in bed). He even goes so far as to say of inverts: ‘It has always seemed to me that they alone deserved the reproach of moral and intellectual defamation, and were guilty of some of the accusations levelled at all homosexuals.’ (Gide can be tedious with his definitions. Much sprightlier is Proust, who once wrote with perfect accuracy: ‘A homosexual is not a man who loves homosexuals, but a man who, seeing a soldier, immediately wants to have him for a friend.’) Despite his Protestant heavy-handedness, Gide must be commended for his courage in defending paederasty against all comers; almost the only friend who saluted his action was the discreet 75-year-old Edmund Gosse, who said: ‘No doubt, in fifty years, this particular subject will cease to surprise anyone, and how many people in the past might wish to have lived in 1974.’

Gide’s moral campaigning didn’t end there. In the two books he wrote about his travels in Equatorial Africa in 1925-26 with Marc Allégret, who filmed the expedition, Gide denounced the exploitation of African labour by European rubber monopolies – which led to a reform of French government policy.

More dramatically, he visited the Soviet Union in the mid-Thirties and, after a painful inner debate and again against the counsel of all his friends, ended by denouncing Stalin’s regime. As late as 1933 he was extraordinarily naive about the prevailing mood of the Soviet Union. ‘I’d like them to have Corydon translated,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘It seems to me to have been written for them.’ After the Nazis’ burning of the Reichstag, Gide published a protest (typically weakened by qualifications and second thoughts) in the Communist paper L’Humanité. For quite a while he justified Soviet censorship and lack of civil rights (he didn’t know about the terrorism) as necessary and somehow different from Nazi tactics; the Communists represented the ‘future’, whereas the Nazis stood for the ‘past’. Of course Gide was specially drawn to Communist youth summer camps in France and their scantily clad boys. Though he was never a party member or a Marxist, his adherence to Communism became so celebrated that it caused the Royal Society of Literature to ‘revoke’ the honorary fellowship it had conferred on him in 1924.

Slowly and against his will Gide was weaned away from his endorsement of the Soviet Union. Quite apart from the news of the Great Purge that was beginning to emerge in the West, he learned that the apparently easygoing Soviet attitude to sexual morality had turned into a new puritanism, with homosexuality being declared illegal. In 1936 he made plans to visit Russia and ascertain the situation for himself; he told the suave Soviet diplomat Ilya Ehrenburg that he wanted to speak directly to Stalin about the legal position of homosexuals. The Soviet Government prepared for his visit by printing up 300,000 postcards bearing his photograph; Gide, no doubt anticipating anonymous adventures, was dismayed and said: ‘But everyone will recognise me!’

For nine weeks, from 17 June 1936 until the end of August, Gide travelled through the Soviet Union. Maxim Gorky died around the time of his arrival (some people said he’d been killed by Stalin); Gide spoke at his funeral on 20 June in Red Square, standing on the podium beside Bulganin, Molotov, Stalin and Zhdanov, the cultural commissar who had put in place the hateful doctrine of Socialist Realism, which Gide was quick to denounce. Gide was shocked by the statues to Stalin everywhere, the privileges enjoyed by party members, the censorship applied even to his own speeches, the deadening state control of the arts and journalism, the elaborate etiquette forced on him in his telegrams to Stalin, the farcical show-trials. He was determined to reveal this situation to the Western world, even though his leftist friends, including the Dutch proletarian writer Jeff Last, urged him to wait: after all, the left was under fire, not only from Hitler but also from Franco. Perhaps because Gide had gained confidence in his fights against equally persuasive Catholic friends, not to mention less subtle if more virulent homophobes, he did not shrink from his new mission.

By November 1936 Gide had rushed into print his Retour de l’URSS, which in ten months sold some 146,000 copies and was quickly translated into several languages. The world’s Communist press treated him as a lackey of imperialism and a Fascist double-agent. When the Second International Congress of Intellectuals for the Defence of Culture took place in Madrid in 1937, Stephen Spender recalled that the unstated theme of the meeting was the Stalinists v. André Gide.

Although Alan Sheridan modestly asserts that he has ‘no theory about André Gide’, he renders him with a wealth of telling detail as a fearless crusader and a major literary innovator. He draws attention to Gide’s 1895 novel Paludes, which in the lightest, most Parisian way foreshadows the 20th-century preoccupation with intertextuality, books-within-books, perilously shifting levels of reality and the blurring between genres – between autobiography and fiction, for instance, or essay and récit. The splendidly detailed picture of Parisian gay life before the First World War that emerges from Sheridan’s pages never obscures the account of Gide’s growing mastery as an artist, which culminates in Les Faux-Monnayeurs.

Until his last breath Gide remained a convinced atheist. ‘I don’t believe; I know there is no reason to believe; that’s a certainty for me,’ he told the young Claude Mauriac, who grew weary of his Catholic father’s hairsplitting with Gide over dogma. As Sheridan’s biography demonstrates, Gide replaced his Protestant biological family with a select ‘family’ of friends whom he saw constantly and to whom he remained fiercely faithful. His paedophilia accompanied and reinforced his sympathy for the young who, he declared, were always right. After World War One the youth of France, even the cantankerous, homophobic Surrealists, embraced him and his books; he was suddenly famous. His trademark ‘inquiétude’ kept him constantly in motion, and if Sheridan’s day-by-day account of his comings and goings sometimes becomes tedious, it drives home exactly how restless Gide was. He seldom spent more than a week or two in the same place, and the reader becomes exhausted just reading the itinerary of his sixty years of château-hopping. Gide inhabited a world of rich bohemians who migrated from one week-long stay at someone’s country house to another in a ceaseless, lifelong villeggiatura.

Compared to the mendacious Proust, Gide was of an exemplary honesty about his sexual nature. In fact, no one was as provocatively open, even exhibitionistic, as he was. His style was simple, nervous, pared-down – minimalist avant la lettre; no wonder he didn’t at first recognise the importance of Swann’s Way and even initially refused to publish it. Not only was Proust considered Society’s pet flatterer, a chronicler of mondanités for the newspapers, but his style looked heavy and elaborate and insincere to the young editors of the newly-founded NRF. Proust, of course, has had the last laugh. The French have never set much store by Gide’s cult of ‘sincerity’, and they far prefer Proust’s multiple disguises. But Gide is certainly overdue for a major comeback, and not only because long before anyone else he explored the ambiguities of autofiction, one of the most fertile genres of our day.

If Sheridan is strong on Gide’s sexual and artistic life, the leading French Gidian, Claude Martin, is typically Gallic in his urbane vagueness about his subject’s peccadillos (of Ghéon and Gide he writes, ‘Les deux amis découvrent leur communauté de goûts en matiére de plaisir’), but marvellously informed about the cultural world in which he lived. To be sure, Martin is writing only about the years 1869-1911 in this first volume of André Gide ou la vocation du bonheur, but this very concentration gives him the space to draw delicious portraits of all the novelists and poets and editors whom Gide encountered. Martin has edited many of the 25,000 letters that Gide wrote during his life to over two thousand correspondents, as well as the four huge volumes of Les Cahiers de la petite dame by Maria van Rysselberghe. It is likely that no one ever again will understand this particular cultural moment as thoroughly.