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The Immoralist Paperback – International Edition, February 13, 1996
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With today's headlines and talk shows, it takes a lot to shock a reader--certainly more than was required in 1902, when André Gide's The Immoralist was first published. What was seen then as a story of dereliction translates today into a tale of introspection and fierce self-discovery. While traveling to Tunis with his new bride, the Parisian scholar Michel is overcome by tuberculosis. As he slowly convalesces, he revels in the physical pleasures of living and resolves to forgo his studies of the past in order to experience the present--to let "the layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there."
But this is not the Michel his colleagues knew, nor the man Marceline married, and he must hide his new values under the patina of what he now reviles. Bored by Parisian society, he moves to a family farm in Normandy. He is happy there, especially in the company of young Charles, but he must soon return to the city and academe. Michel remains restless until he gives his first lecture and runs into Ménalque, who has long outraged society, and recognizes in him a reflection of his torment. Finally, Michel heads south, deeper into the desert, until, as he confides to his friends, he is lost in the sea of sand, under a clear, directionless sky.
What Gide's story lacks in sensationalism is fulfilled by his descriptive prose, which evokes the exotic nature of Michel's inner and outer journey: "I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself." --Joannie Kervran Stangeland
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
Top customer reviews
Gide's 1902 novel makes a strong statement on individualism.
A `simple' story, told in simple straight language.
Rich young nerd (Michel) without interest in women (or in men, so far) marries to please his dying father. Goes on honeymoon trip to North Africa, falls ill with tuberculosis, barely survives, and then, during reconvalescence, learns to live, to appreciate life, finds a new self, which leads him away from old habits and old convictions. This is a strong part, but it must be said that there is a distinct, if not explicit pedophile strain in Michel's revival.
On the way home via Italy he comes closer to his wife, who has been nursing him loyally during his illness, without much attention by the patient. She even becomes pregnant, so that they look forward to a `normal' life. They spend time on their farm in Normandy, then in their Paris apartment, but Michel drops out: he has lost the ability to function in his old role. He quits his lecturing job; he sells his farm after bouts with low lives.
The wife falls ill, has a miscarriage, they travel again; finally back to Tunisia... happiness is not to be found. Michel's tendency to drift off to darker worlds becomes stronger. After his wife dies, Michel reaches the end of his tether. Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.
Structurally, the narration is first person by Michel, but wrapped in a fiction that he tells his story and his predicament to some friends of his, who come to see him in Tunisia.
I was motivated to try Gide again (after over 40 years, hadn't read him since high school, and did not keep such great recollections) by his friendship with Conrad. However similarities in narrative style or content are negligible.
The Penguin edition that I read has this to say on the back: A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts...
Hmm. Is it possible that even Penguin editors don't read the books that they praise? Where is the `frank defense'? There is nothing frank in this book, probably with good reason. It was 1902 after all. There is no explicitness. We need to guess what Michel is doing. What we see is this: his new found attitudes don't seem to make him happier.
That is not a criticism of the novel, but of the simplifiers.
While reading this, I was torn between respect for the man's struggles, his attempts to be decent, i.e. not all that much of an immoralist, on one side, and rejecting his spineless lack of direction on the other. The man is a pushover. Once he drops out of his world of respectability, he loses solid ground under his feet.
A strong novel about a weak man.
The publishers of this book chose the title L'Immoraliste for melodramatic reasons, though Michel is not immoral in the strict sense of the term. He does not behave immorally and does not urge others to do so. Sure, he leaves his wife and goes off on his own, but other than being amazed by being in the world, he does not dramatize any of his exploits and always returns to care for his wife. His homosexuality is not described and is only implied.
It is a gross exaggeration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, prevalent at the turn of the century, that "Neo-Kantians tried to remain as detached as possible from the troubles of real life and had as much interest in it as the algebraist has for the object of his calculations." I excuse Gide of such a gross ignorance of Kant and modern philosophy, for it is spoken by Michel his alter ego, a fictional character.
Michel is not an Übermensch out to cast aside moral conventions and aspire to the belief that God is dead. Nietzsche above all philosophers would see through this argument as another form of belief system that is not true philosophy. Nietzsche believed that the God of metaphysics is dead, not necessarily the God of the universe of whom we can have no knowledge.
After a long illness that brings him to the brink of death, Michel has an epiphany of being that cannot be explained; it can only be lived. Even his colleagues "...didn't live at all; they were content merely to give the appearance of it; to them life seemed little more than an annoying impediment to their writing.... They give the appearance of living, yet they don't seem to know that they are alive."
All of us who have had the flu or serious illness know how recuperation can be an exhilarating experience, somewhat akin to that felt by R.L. Stevenson's character Dr. Jekyll in becoming Mr. Hyde. We become full of life, energetic, and invincible, knowing that we have beaten a disease and cannot be overcome by it again. But when a loved one contracts the same illness, we feel guilty and obligated, especially when we suspect the person might die in our place. And if the illness lingers for months, we begin to dread the possibility that we may become infected again and suffer the same fate. This accounts for Michel's longing to be outside, to get away from the infected and immoral side of life. In other words, to be amoral.
So, is Michel instead an amoralist? But "amoralist" is not a word, since a person cannot "be" amoral nor do amoral things. This is his dilemma in telling the story to his friends. He is a character without substance, a character of fiction, not really Gide himself, only a creation of the mind, a Zarathustra that cannot really walk a tightrope.
Michel is at a loss in describing his feelings. The reader knows that he is not going to die, being the first-person narrator of the story, so Gide switches the illness to his wife Marceline, who becomes the third person subject to the predicated illness, tuberculosis. Thus, Gide becomes a Kantian after all.
If Michel is not going to die, then who is he other than a man who derives his being from being a patient, a man who draws attention and care from his wife, a man who needs understanding from his friends who hear his story? If this is the immorality in the story, namely, that narrative cannot become transcendent and spiritual but must survive only through the other, then literature is brought to its knees. Herein lies Gide's greatness as a writer.
But there are indeed consequences, and in the end a path toward a hedonistic existance bares fruit for no one. Beautifully written and a view into the world that this story had an impact on.
It reminded me of that time in the mid to late 1960s, where people felt that they no longer had to be hypocritcal, and that they should impose whatever the felt at any time on all of those around them, regardless if it destroyed relationships or workplace atmospheres. They felt equally that they were being true to themselves; that their rudeness was some how liberating.
The author played with this theme well...many felt that it was a credo...it is after all a novel which asks us to consider things we normally wouldn't consider...and in the end asks us to judge.
Most recent customer reviews
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