Thursday, March 7, 2013
Being André Gide and Being Free
Almost a hundred years after its initial publication a soft-cover edition of Gide’s novel Isabelle is lying face down near a window in my New England office.
When I was in high school, friends at a nearby girls’ school were assigned La symphonie pastorale to read in French class. I remember the impression that the title of Gide’s short novel made on me. Not a student of French until college, I had to content myself with the dactylic hexameter lines of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I secretly coveted the experience that friends were having reading about the blind orphan girl Gertrude adopted by a country curate and his wife.
Among my colleagues are two women born in Paris who remember reading La symphonie pastorale in their own high school years. Neither of them has read Isabelle, another of Gide’s short novels that he called récits. Nor have they read L’immoraliste, his most controversial récit, which appeared on the syllabus of a course I took as a French major in college.
That novel was my introduction to the landscapes in which Gide specialized. A young Parisian academic comes alive in North Africa, responding to the call of a sexual attraction to other men. Early in L’immoraliste is a sentence that I have not forgotten: “Savoir se libérer n'est rien; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre.” It is the kind of terse French wisdom that is sometimes hard to get into easy English: “Knowing how to get free is nothing; the hard thing is knowing how to live free.”
These days I engage again the wisdom of L’immoraliste. Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947, Gide could not know how his stature would be measured in years to come. He could only resolve to live free.
On an afternoon when snow chases snow outside my windows, what can it be like, I ask myself, to keep living free?