The Immoralist by Andre Gide
For André Gide, writing The Immoralist was a near-death experience. "I have lived it for four years and have written it to put it behind me," he wrote to a friend. "I suffer a book as one suffers an illness. I now respect only the books that all but kill their authors." Now that's dedication. If this is the case, novelists today might think twice before penning their next oeuvre, or at least take a very deep breath.
At first sight, it seems inconceivable that Michel, our studious, naïve narrator, "having thought of little else but ruins and books, and knowing nothing about life," would eventually break from the herd to become the so-called "immoralist" of this tale. But, while recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis while on his honeymoon in North Africa, he experiences a reawakening and latent feelings, suppressed after years of dusty learning, resurface: "Until that day, it seemed to me, I had felt so little and thought so much... Yes, as my senses awoke, they rediscovered a whole history, reconstructed a whole past life. They were alive! Alive!"
Intoxicated by sweet scents, dazzled by the "luminous" air and shadows that barely skim the ground, Michel surrenders to Nature's assault on the senses. Here, amidst some of Gide's most exquisite descriptions, emerge subtle hints of sexual yearning: Michel sits in shaded parks and watches young boys with billowing cloaks and "naked golden flesh." Later, these desires are acted upon as we find him "prowling" late at night -- "I touched things with my hand." In turn, he begins to despise his studies, derides his "foolish" former academic self and, gradually, the layers of acquired learning "flaked away like greasepaint, offering glimpses of bare flesh, the real person hidden underneath."
In the hands of another, less talented, writer this overnight transformation could seem like a rather cheap plot device; a convenient way to throw a relatively "normal" character into moral crisis and use him as a puppet for philosophical contemplation. But Michel's rapture and boundless awe of the beauty of nature are glorious and wholly convincing; it's easy to believe that this lost soul who, after peering into the abyss, could throw himself so feverishly into a new lease of life. The sheer thrill of Michel's determination to step off the well-worn path of decency is heightened by the unsettling ambiguity of it all: his venture is shrouded in darkness as he seeks "an unknown perfection."
However, and this is the crux, Michel is unable to define his new life and subsequently fails to maintain it, as he admits: "Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom."
The real beauty of this book is that there is no distant rumble of didactic undertone; it's neither a radical case for dissent, nor a smug sermon against immorality. This shameless refusal to offer a neat moral in a box makes The Immoralist more than simply a brave exploration of all things licentious and something far more disquieting and profound. Gide may have risked life and limb for this novel, but in doing so, he saves it from withering in a preacher's grip.