Book Review

The Immoralist by Andre Gide

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.

-- Reviewed by Alexandra Masters on 04/06/2009

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0141182997
ISBN-13: 9780141182995
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 04/05/2000
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 144

Readers Comments

  1. J.C. Hallman says... Saturday 13 June 2009

    I once heard Deborah Eisenberg say that she never wrote a story that at some point she didn't want to kill herself over. Has she upped the ante on Gide? As well, it's interesting to note that in 1901, just a year before The Immoralist appeared, Gide wrote an introduction to a selection of work from pleasure prophet (and decided weirdo) Charles Fourier. One must conclude there's at least an intellectual connection. Noting that in 1901 there was renewed interest in Fourier, Gide described Fourier's work as, “some conjuring book of a necromancer written in some very fabulous age.”

  2. Certainly sounds like Eisenberg has upped the ante there!

    This element of sacrifice always fascinates me. Auden once offered a rather black and white (and I think overly simplistic) dichotomy suggesting that one has to relinquish one type of world for another, and I think it was Flaubert who said that a writer should only wade into life waist-high. On the flipside, D.H. Lawrence always insisted on being in "the thick of the scrimmage". So what's it to be?

    There's a (I think rather uncharacteristic) quote from Auden which always foxes me:

    "Heaven and hell. Reason and Instinct. Conscious Mind and Unconscious. Is their hostility a temporary and curable neurosis, due to our particular pattern of culture, or intrinsic to the nature of these faculties? Can man only think when he is frustrated from acting and feeling? Is the intelligent person always the product of some childhood neurosis? Does Life only offer two alternatives: ‘You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on condition that you are not overcurious about life.

    On the other hand you shall be attentive and sensitive, conscious of what is happening around you, but in that case you must cease to expect to be happy, or successful in love, or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both. If you belong to the second of these worlds you will be unhappy because you will always be in love with the first, while at the same time you will despise it. The first world on the other hand will not return your love because it is in its nature to love only itself."

  3. marianne says... Thursday 16 July 2009

    oh god
    Auden has just said it all
    in two paragraphs
    incredible sight

    i fell on this accidentally
    but must just say thank you Alexandra Masters

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