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.

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