Tuesday, January 24, 2012

465. The Counterfeiters – Andre Gide

History: This book was written in 1925. The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) intending to write a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. Therefore, the book has been seen as a precursor of the nouveau roman.
The novel features a considerable number of bisexual or gay male characters – the adolescent Olivier and at least to a certain unacknowledged degree his friend Bernard, in all likeliness their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe, and finally the adult writers Comte de Passavant (who represents an evil and corrupting force) and the benevolent Edouard. An important part of the plot is its depiction of various possibilities of positive and negative homoerotic or homosexual relationships.
Initially received coldly on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition, The Counterfeiters has gained reputation in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the Western Canon of literature.
The making of the novel, with letters, newspaper clippings and other supporting material, was documented by Gide in his 1926 Journal of The Counterfeiters.
Plot: The plot revolves around Bernard – a schoolfriend of Olivier's who is preparing for his bac – discovering he is a bastard and taking this as a welcome pretext for running away from home. He spends a night in Olivier's bed (where they discuss sexuality with Olivier recounting a recent visit to a prostitute and how he did not find the experience very enjoyable). After Bernard steals the suitcase belonging to Edouard, Olivier's uncle, and the ensuing complications, he is made Edouard's secretary. Olivier is jealous and ends up in the hands of the cynical and downright diabolical Comte de Passavant, who travels with him to the Mediterranean.
Eventually, Bernard and Edouard decide they do not fit as well together as anticipated, and Bernard leaves to take a job at a school, then finally decides to return to his father's home. Olivier is now made Edouard's secretary, and after an eventful evening on which he embarrasses himself grossly, Olivier ends up in bed together with Edouard, finally fulfilling the attraction they have felt for each other all along but were unable to express.
Other plotlines are woven around these elements, such as Olivier's younger brother Georges and his involvement with a ring of counterfeiters, or his older brother Vincent and his relationship with Laura, a married woman, with whom he has a child. Perhaps the most suspenseful scene in the book revolves around Boris, another illegitimate child and the grandson of La Pérouse, who commits suicide in front of the assembled class when dared by Ghéridanisol, another of Passavant's cohorts.
In some regards, such as the way in which the adolescents act and speak in a way beyond their years and the incompetence of the adults (especially the fathers), as well as its motives of developing and confused adolescent sexuality, the novel has common ground with Frank Wedekind's (at the time scandalous) 1891 drama Spring Awakening. The Counterfeiters also shares with that play the vision of homosexual relationships as under certain conditions being "better" than heterosexual ones, with the latter ones leading inevitably to destructive outcomes in both works.
Review: André Gide, reared by strict Protestant women, entered adult life in a state of restless religious captivity, married his cousin, contracted tuberculosis, traveled to Algeria for his health, encountered Oscar Wilde, gave free rein to his repressed homosexuality and, instead of then discreetly perishing like Mann's Gustave von Aschenbach, returned to France, made a public avowal of his sexuality and of his new credo, wrote a notorious book about both, opened himself to sensuality, to life's possibilities, became the apostle of radical individualism, conceived the acte gratuit, embraced public responsibility, rejected narcissism, kept an enormous journal, and, in the fullness of time, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Counterfeiters is a highly moral book, even in the most old-fashioned sense: there are "good" characters and "bad" ones and, in general, things work out well for the good and badly for the bad. As a moralist with a particular concern for the young, Gide is careful to show how his youths go right or wrong and one way of going wrong is to ignore one's own desires. "There exists no difference between God and one's own happiness," Gide famously wrote. This apparently hedonistic dictum is only superficially scandalous; the license given by "happiness" is withdrawn in advance by "God."
There is a Protestant rigor as well as a natural vigor in Bernard's summer in the Alps, a reminder that Geneva was the home of both Calvin and Rousseau. Gide clearly approves of Bernard's physical exertion and self-discipline, and contrasts them to Olivier's lassitude on the beaches of Catholic Corsica.
So, just as he had freed himself from the tyranny of Calvin's God in North Africa, Gide seeks in The Counterfeiters to liberate his characters from authorial predestination. On page one Bernard is detached from the determination of both home and genetics, fulfilling those twin fantasies of the restless bourgeois child: that he is an orphan and that he can run away. Gide weaves his theme of liberation into the form and content of his novel as well as his brand of moral relativism by making the work "Cubist" in portraying multiple points of view. The Counterfeiters is a pluralistic novel, offering many distinct voices. Even secondary characters like La Pérouse, Rachel Vedel, and Oscar Molinier have their moment at stage center; for Gide's open universe is a sphere with an infinite number of centers. Through the manner of his storytelling he is able to convey his moral convictions directly: that one should put oneself at the disposal of life without prejudices, be tolerant of other viewpoints, and relish the relativity of the modern world rather than deriding or complaining about it.
Not only does Gide liberate his characters to behave as they wish (that is, by making the strings by which he manipulates them invisible), he also frees the reader. So far is the putative author of The Counterfeiters from omniscience that he is actually self-effacing. In contrast to the Victorian clutter of drapes, knickknacks, pouffes, and sofas of Late Victorian sensibility and psychologizing, Gide's novel feels airy and light, a book of springtime and summer. While the novel bites off quite a lot, it is the reader who gets to do the chewing. The author serves as a kind of maitre d'hôtel or as a train conductor, inviting all aboard: though the rails are already laid, the conductor himself does not know the route or the destination any better than we do, and so we are at liberty to discover what is worthwhile on the journey for ourselves.
As the author is not omniscient, so he cannot be omnipresent. One of causes of the openness achieved by the novel is the sense that the characters are pursuing their lives outside our ken. If we are with Bernard in Saas-Fée then we cannot be with Olivier in Corsica. If we are to follow Edouard down a Parisian boulevard, then we cannot also keep our eye on Georges disappearing around a corner. Gide intended The Counterfeiters to take place, as much as possible, in the present tense, like a film. The author may also be compared to a camera with a bland personality. The novel unfolds like music; in order to come to life, a symphony must also be performed in the present.
Opening Line: “The time has now come for me to hear a step in the passage,” said Bernard to himself.”
Closing Line: “And I feel in myself, on certain days, such an overwhelming inrush of evil that I imagine the Prince of Darkness is already beginning to set up hell within me.”
Quotes: "That in itself will teach you. It's a good thing to follow one's inclination, provided it leads up hill"
Rating: Couldn’t read after the first few chapters.

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