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André Gide
(November 22, 1869 - February 19, 1951) France

André Gide

Writer and humanist

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André Gide - 1891One of the few great writers to publicly identify himself as a homosexual, André Gide was born in Paris in 1869 from a family of Huguenots and recent converts to Catholicism. His father, a professor of law at the University of Paris, died in 1880 and Gide was raised by his very possessive, Calvinist mother, a Norman heiress, who devoted her life to him. Gide was in his childhood educated mostly at home - he was lonely and ill for long periods. Much of his childhood and later life was spent in his mother's native Normandy. Gide had a strict Protestant upbringing. Throughout his adolescence he experienced an intense religious fervour. As his family was wealthy, he was able to devote himself to writing. His first prose work was the symbolist influenced, anonymously poems and other works inspired by the symbolist movement.

At the age of 13, Gide fell in lowe with his cousin, the devoutly Protestant Madeleine Rondeaux, but the family separated them. They married 13 years later, in 1895, following his mother's death. Madeleine inspired a number of Gide's works. Although they loved each other, their marriage was unconsummated. Later in life Gide was to have an illegitimate daughter. Gide also had homosexual affairs with men.

Gide attended several schools. At the Protestant École Alsacienne Gide developed an interest in literature and was introduced to Symbolist circles. As a child he was often ill and his education at the École Alsacienne was interrupted by long stays in the South, where he was instructed by private tutors. He made friends with other aspiring writers and artists and attended the literary salons of Josée Maria de Heredia and Stéphane Mallarmée. In 1891 Gide made his debut as a writer with Les Cahiers d'Aandré Walter. It told the story of an unhappy uoung man. Next year apperared his first poems, but by 1900 he had practically abandoned poetry. His Les Cahiers d'Aandré Walter opened the door to the symbolist literary circles of the day.

AthmanBut the decisive event of these years was a journey to Algeria, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, who shocked him with their boldness, in 1893 and 1894. It was during this trip that he first came to grips with his homosexuality. In Tunisia he lost his virginity, at the age of twenty-three to a fourteen-year-old Arab boy, Athman. He realised that he was homosexual, and Athman became his lover -- he mentioned him in his book Amyntas and was the model for Moktin in The Immoralist. In Si Le Grain Ne Meurt, Gide relates how he slept with a boy named Muhammed, and came five times in that single night. The boy was procured for Gide by Wilde.

In North Africa a severe illness brought him to the verge of death and precipitated his revolt against his puritanical background. Henceforth his work lived on the never resolved tensions between a strict artistic discipline, a puritanical moralism, and the desire for unlimited sensual indulgence and abandonment to life. Les Nourritures terrestres [Fruits of the Earth], the drama Saul, and later Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue [The Return of the Prodigal], are the chief documents of his revolt. Saul, based on the Biblical story was considered by Gide as his great contribution to homosexual literature.

Gide traveling to North Africa, learned different moral and sexual conventions which gave basis for his psychological novels L'Immoraliste and La Porte Étoite [Strait is the Gate]. The Immoralist was a frame narrative in which the distance between the inner narrator and the outer narrator creates moral and psychological uncertainty. The contradictory impulses in the hero parallelled Freud's understanding of destructive human impulses. Strait is the Gate was a critical counterpoint of the former work, showing not hedonism but the aesthetic impulse as a destructive force. "Families, I hate you! Shut-in homes, closed doors, jealous possessions of happiness." (from Fruits of the Earth)

Gide + AllegretIn 1916 Gide started to keep a second journal, in which he recorded his search for God. But in this same year he met Marc Allegret a sixteen-year-old boy, he fell in love with the boy and they became lovers. In 1917, he emerged as a prophet of French youth and his unorthodox views caused much debate. A result of Gide's revolt was the unprecedented freedom with which he wrote about sexual matters in Corydon (privately published 1911, public version 1924), his autobiography Si le grain ne meurt [If It Die...], and Gide's lifelong diary

Gide divided his narrative works into soties such as Les Caves du Vatican (1914) [Lafcadio's Adventures] and classically restrained récits, for example, La Porte étroite [Strait is the Gate] and La Symphonie pastorale. The only work which he considered a novel was the structurally complex and experimental Les Faux Monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters].

His book of prose poems, Fruits of the Earth, appeared in 1897. It became in the 1920s his most popular work, influencing a generation of young writers, including the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. The hymn in prose and poetry to the beauty of all experience urged the receptive youth to cast off all that is artifical or merely conventional. In 1909 Gide helped found the influential literary magazine The New French Review. Gide's defence of homosexuality in Corydon was violently attacked.

In The Pastoral Symphony, written in the form of the diary, Gide explored the hypocrisy which marquerades as Christian pity and duty. In the story a Swiss pastor adopts and educates the blind orphan Gertrude. The pastor is afraid that Gertrude loves him less than his son Jacques, and seduces the girl on the eve of an operation, which may restore her sight. The operation is succesful, but when Gertrude understands the truth about the people around her, she commits suicide.

After the mid-1920s he became champion of society's victims and outcasts and demanded more humane conditions for criminals. After the war, he was seen as one of the foremost representatives of the modern literature of introspection, with sexual abnormality as its theme. He became widely read and even more widely discussed, influencing the aesthetic and moral values of the inter-war generation.

He became increasingly introspective and questioned his religious faith, pronouncing himself an agnostic, as he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality.

Until the twenties Gide was known chiefly in avant-garde and esoteric literary circles (he was one of the founders of La Nouvelle Revue Française), but in his later years he became a highly influential, although always controversial figure. He travelled widely.

In July 1925 Gide set out for a journey to the Congo with his friend Marc Allegret, returning in 1927. In 1926, this visit to Africa turned him against colonialism. His trip to the Congo led to a scathing report on economic abuses by French firms and resulted in reforms. During this time he experienced religious crisis, and published his autobiography Si le grain ne meurt, which has been compared to Jaques Rousseau's Confessions.

André GideIn the novel The Counterfreiters Gide exposed the hypocrisy and self-deception with which people try to avoid sincerity. The protagonist, Edouart, keeps a journal of events in order to write a novel about the nature of reality. Another internal author - the 'pseudo-author', an intervening first person voice - comments the action. Edouard falls in love with his newhew Oliver Molinier, and illustrates what Gide saw as a constructive homosexual relationship. Numerous themes are woven into the complex structure, not only the novelist writing a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about forging. The intrigues of a gang of counterfreiters symbolize the counterfreit personalities with which people disguise themselves to conform hypocritically to convention or to deceive themselves. The novel ends with the suicide of one of the charactes.

In the 1930s Gide announced his conversion to Communism. Gide had a brief flirtation with Communism, which ended in disillusionment after visiting the Soviet Union in 1936. He spoke at the funeral of Gorky in Red Square, flanked by Stalin and Molotov. After this disillusioning trip to the Soviet Union Gide made a decisive break with Communism. If in the thirties Gide put off one part of the public by his sympathies with communism, his disillusioned report of his journey to Russia, Le Retour de L'U. R. S. S, scandalized another. Gide's interests went far beyond the confines of French literature.

Among Gide's last work was Thésée, like the earlier Oedipe the reworking of an old myth. Gide's collected works have been published in fifteen volumes (1933-39).

From 1942 until the end of WWII Gide lived in North Africa. In the 1940s he began receive honors, which culminated in the Nobel Prize in 1947 - he was the first openly homosexual man to receive it. Gide's correspondence with his friends Francis Jammes (publ. 1948) and Paul Claudel (publ. 1949) reveals their unsuccessful attempt to convert the author to Catholicism. Among Gide's later works were Theseus, which contributed to the renewed use of Greek myth in the 20th century literature. Gide died on February 19, 1951. The following year the Vatican placed all his works on the Index of Forbidden Books.

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As a novelist, and still more as an intellectual figure, Gide has appealed to different audiences: a traditional psychological novelist to some, an innovative modernist to others; he was a major literary critic, social crusader, and spokesman for homosexual rights. Gide's search for self - the underlying theme of his several works - remained essentially religious. Throughout his career Gide used his writings to examine moral queastions. He is as well known for his influence as a moralist and as a thinker as for his contributions to literature.

"It is not so much about events that I'm curious, as about myself. There's many a man thinks he's capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point... What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! And no more right to take back one's move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there'd be no interests in the game!... Between the imagination and a deed and... Hullo! the bank's come to an end. Here we are on a bridge, I think, a river..." (from The Vatican Cellars)

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Selected works:

  • Les cahiers d'André Walter (The Notebook of André Walter, 1891)
  • Le traité du Narcisse (1891)
  • Le voyage d'Uurien (Urien's Voyage, 1893)
  • La tentative amoureuse (The Lovers' Attempt, 1893)
  • Paludes (Marshland, 1895)
  • Les nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth, 1897)
  • Le Prométhée mal enchainé (Prometheus Illbound, 1899)
  • L'immoraliste (The Immoralist, 1902)
  • La porte étroite (Strait is the Gate, 1909)
  • Isabelle (1911)
  • Les caves du Vatican (The Vatican Cellars / Lafcadio's Adventures, 1914)
  • La symphonie pasttorale (The Pastoral Symphony, 1919)
  • Coridon (1924)
  • Si le grain ne meurt (If It Die... , 1924-26)
  • Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters, 1926)
  • L'école des femmes (The School fo Wives, 1929)
  • Robert (1929)
  • Oedipe (play, 1931)
  • Geneviéve (1936)
  • Journal 1889-1939 (1939)
  • Journal 1939-42 (1946)
  • Thésée (Two Legends: Oedipus and Theseus, 1946)
  • Journal 1939-49 (1950)
  • Et nunc manet in te (Madeleine, 1951)

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