Booksluts Challenge Read #1: ‘The Immoralist’
Okay, off to a hiss and a roar with the Insatiable Booksluts ‘Award-Winning’ Challenge! As mentioned in my last post, I’m doing this ‘Full Frontal’ Challenge, which is where you read three books from Nobel Literature Laureates, three from Man/Booker winners, and then one each from winners of the PEN/Faulkner award, National Book Award for Fiction and… one other award winner. Oh yeah, the Neustadt International Prize for Fiction. Which is great, because that means that I can read Baby No Eyes by Patricia Grace as part of this challenge, which I’m feeling quite patriotic about. I’m just gonna record for posterity my apologies to New Zealand Novelists; I’m sorry for hating on you guys for so long, but I’m trying to mend my ways.
So, without further ado, here are my impressions of André Gide’s book, The Immoralist.
Gide won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, four years before his death. But man, according to Wikipedia, he had a pretty amazing life – buddies with Oscar Wilde, critic of the French colonisation of Africa (in particular the Congo and Algiers). He actually has a centre for Gidean studies now, which I took a quick glimpse at; crazy. He was, from reading around about his life, a highly moral individual who was unfortunate enough to be living in a time when his sexuality was enough to condemn him to living outside of the ‘normal’ model of moral behaviour. Okay, actually, given his penchant for young men, outside the morals of this current time as well, but… yeah. His work was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Forbidden Works) by the Catholic Church in 1952 too, just for good measure. They abolished that list in 1966, so that’s alright.The Immoralist is a pretty autobiographical tale. The protagonist, Michel, is basically telling the tale of his long crazy trip from uptight academic to bohemian sensualist. He gets sick, gets married, tries his hand at farming, moves around a lot, all the while trying desperately to ignore his attraction to men; it’s basically a bit of the old Buddhist maxim of ‘wherever you go, there you are’. His wife gets very sick and starts to pine away, and he blames himself for her illness, thinking that his obsession with one boy in particular has caused his wife’s illness. It was André Gide’s defence of pederasty in a public journal in 1924 which earnt him widespread villification, so you can kind of get where I’m going with this whole autobiographical thing.
There are some really evocative scenes in it as well – you can almost feel the opulence of Mélanque’s apartment when he’s entertaining (I don’t know, it might just be my gutter mind, but I could never figure out if that was just entertaining or if it was “entertaining”, you know what I mean?) Michel. I also really like the parts with Michel and Charles in the country – there are some really wrenching scenes when Michel is kind of hinting to Charles that he might like a bit more from their relationship, but Charles is all “What?”, and then Michel chickens out of taking it further. There is a lot of soul-searching that gets done in that part of the book – it’s almost as if the protagonist is purposely putting himself in temptations way, perhaps to see if other men will react, perhaps to see if he can resist his inner urges.
I don’t know what made me chose André Gide out of the big swag of Nobel laureates in literature. I mean, there have been plenty of them to chose from, so it’s not like I was chosing from only a couple. I guess part of the attraction of this is not so much in Gide himself, but in The Immoralist; you know me, I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to sex and gore, and while this book is pretty old-school on the sex front (in that there’s no heavy descriptions or anything like that), and it’s not gory, it’s still ar eally interesting read. I guess also, because I’ve been reading Coming to Writing and other essays by Hélène Cixous and reading around that a bit, that I became interested in French writers who identified strongly with the Algerian cause. Plus, the book is seriously wee. In fact, it’s hardly even a novella, which is pretty great; I’m always impressed by writers that can cause maximum thinkage with minimal verbosity.
It’s difficult to recommend this book though. Aside from the whole homosexuality thing, which you know, some people aren’t that comfortable about reading, it hasn’t aged that well. The language is pretty obtuse at times, and can become a bit of a struggle if you’re not that familiar with reading books from around this period (The Immoralist was first published in its French language editions in 1904). Having said all of that though, you never know unless you try – I mean, I left this book lying around when my Grandma was visiting, and she read the whole thing while I was making lunch, more or less. It’s a good, intriguing title too, and there is nothing obtuse about that, so if you leave it lying around, and someone does get all up in your bid’ness about it, you can just look at them and go “Duh – Immoralist!” And then cluck sarcastically and roll your eyes.