[O'Brien is best known for his many studies of modern French literature. In the following excerpt from a 1951 essay, he traces the origin of many of the plot and narrative techniques that Gide used in Les Faux Monnayeurs and earlier works.]
Just what does Gide mean by a recit? The word signifies merely a narration and is by no means so exact a designation as conte or nouvelle. It is vague and not very committal. All his tales have certain elements in common: (1) concentration of action, (2) limitation to two, three, or four characters with almost no incidental figures, (3) a personal form of narration by one of the interested parties, and (4) a directness and simplicity of style. In other words, the tale as Gide conceives it is a narrative of crisis, an active type of fiction, close in form to the famous seventeenth-century novel La Princesse de Cleves or even to the French classical tragedy of Racine. It is highly dramatic because of the concentration of action and because of the narration by one of the actors. It is noteworthy that L'Immoraliste (The Immoralist) is told entirely by the chief protagonist to a group of friends who may be able to help him. On the very first page he says: "I am going to tell you my life simply, without modesty and without pride, more simply than if I were talking to myself." La Porte etroite (Strait Is the Gate) is again a direct narrative made by the principal actor Jerome, who begins: "Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which it took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply.... " But at one point in Jerome's account he is obliged to describe the most intimate emotions of his beloved, which he could not possibly have known. Hence Gide has him discover her journal after her death and that journal is incorporated verbatim into the novel. La Symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) is entirely in the form of a journal kept by the principal male character, the Pastor himself. On the very first page the Pastor notes: "I will take advantage of the leisure this enforced confinement affords me to think over the past and to set down how I came to take charge of Gertrude." The use of direct narration and especially of the diary form has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Its appearance in so many of André Gide's works--even in [ Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters)] he will have a novelist character commenting on events in his own diary--suggests that the journal is Gide's form par excellence and that his imaginative works might almost be considered to be extracted from his own Journals. It would be more just to say that the habit of spiritual self-scrutiny contracted during his pious childhood and reinforced by the fairly regular keeping of his own diary has caused him to make his characters indulge in the same practice.
Thus Gide repeatedly risked the dangers of narration in the first person singular. By the time The Immoralist appeared Oscar Wilde had already warned Gide never again to use the pronoun "I," but Gide was to flaunt that advice so consistently that in 1921 Marcel Proust had to repeat it to him. It would be hard to imagine, indeed, what his work would be like were it less personal--and one might even say less confessional. Autobiographical elements in The Immoralist are so numerous that the author has suffered ever since from the identification of his hero with himself.... Yes, Michel was torn from the very heart of his author but this does not mean that Michel is Gide. In one of the most significant letters written by that great letter-writer, whose entire correspondence will doubtless not become known for many years yet, he stated his theory of the creation of a character. It so happens that he related that theory to this particular novel, stating: "That a germ of Michel exists in me goes without saying.... How many germs or buds we bear in us which will never flower save in our books! They are `dormant eyes' as the botanists call them. But if one intentionally suppresses all of them except one how it grows! How it enlarges, immediately monopolizing all the sap! My recipe for creating a hero is quite simple; take one of these buds and put it in a pot all alone, and one soon has a wonderful individual. Advice; choose preferably (if it is true that one can choose) the bud that bothers you the most. In this way you get rid of it at the same time. This is probably what Aristotle called katharsis." Others have expressed the same theory, even going so far as to see works of imagination as safety valves preventing the writer from indulging in the excesses which symbolize his characters. Bergson, for instance, remarked that "Shakespeare was not Macbeth nor Hamlet nor Othello but he would have been those various characters if circumstances and the consent of his will had brought to a state of eruption what was but an inner urge."
Gide's theory of katharsis holds of course not only for Michel but also for his other characters. In general, each of the short tales presents a single protagonist who represents the monstrous flowering of one of the buds in the author. Has not Gide said of himself: "I am a creature of dialogue; everything in me is at war and in contradiction"? In Strait Is the Gate a very different bud is produced: the heroine Alissa, who is so close in many ways to Mme André Gide that we tend to forget she is a projection of the author. Alissa is the excessively pious young person afraid of life whom Gide might have been had he never transcended his adolescence.... By a series of subtle touches, Gide unfolds the obsessive character of Alissa and reveals her motivation. At one point she asks her diary: "Was that sacrifice really consumed in my heart? I am, as it were, humiliated to feel that God no longer exacts it. Can it be that I was not equal to it?" From such a doubt it is but a step to the decision to make the sacrifice anyway, simply to prove that she is capable of it. Commenting on his novel years later, Gide noted that whenever she thought of Jerome, there welled up in Alissa a sort of unconscious and irresistible burst of heroism. And he adds: "Absolutely useless heroism."
In The Pastoral Symphony, still a third bud reaches fruition. Here it is the Pastor with his lamentably good intentions, his sanctimonious hiding behind the Scriptures, and his blind self-deception who reflects a facet of his creator....
[It] was easy for André Gide to put himself in the position of the hero of his Pastoral Symphony. Around this figure he constructed a parable of blindness in which the spiritual blindness is so much more dangerous than the physical blindness. Subtly and yet emphatically by repetition Gide established a parallel between Gertrude's actual blindness, her state of innocence, and the Gospels on the one hand, and on the other, lucidity, the state of sin, and the Epistles of St. Paul. It is important to note a variation of the diary form in The Pastoral Symphony. Obviously the Pastor would not and could not have recounted the whole story after the final tragedy. Or if he had, he would inevitably have transferred to its beginning the state of mind with which he witnessed its end. Hence Gide makes him begin to keep his notebook in the middle of Gertrude's evolution, recording at the start events that began two and a half years before. On 10 February he makes his first entry and on 30 May, his last. Meanwhile, on 8 May events catch up with his diary, and from that point on the Pastor is recording the present as it unfolds. This skillful technique gives to the tale an extraordinary mounting intensity that could have been achieved in no other way....
Judging his work from the inside, Gide is pleased to emphasize the differences between his Faux-Monnayeurs and all the rest of his fiction. In an ironic and unused preface for that novel he declared that he had not classified his earlier works as novels for fear they might be accused of lacking some of the essentials of the genre, such as confusion, for instance. In the novel itself he makes his novelist Edouard reflect that his earlier tales resemble those basins in French parks, precise in contour, but in which the captive water is lifeless. "Now," he says, "I want to let it flow according to the slope, at one moment rapid and at another slow, in meanders that I refuse to foresee."
Between The Pastoral Symphony and The Counterfeiters, Gide gave a series of lectures on Dostoevsky in 1921 and 1922. Rereading the great Russian, he noted certain similarities between Dostoevsky and himself; he found the same type of irresolute, half-formed, contradictory characters to which he has always been drawn himself; he recognized his own familiar themes: the relation of the individual with himself or with God, the demoniacal role of the intelligence, the challenge to conventional ethics and psychology, the value of an audacious deed, the opposition of thought and action and of carnal and emotional love, the influence of convention in counterfeiting us. He became aware that Dostoevsky, too, invariably expresses ideas in relation to individuals, depicts the particular to achieve the general, intentionally interrupts action at its most intense, and creates a painting with a specific source of light rather than a lifeless panorama.
But the break at this point in his career is less abrupt than he implies. In actual fact The Counterfeiters covers less ground both spatially and temporally than most of the tales. The Immoralist includes scenes in Paris, North Africa, Italy, and Normandy; Strait Is the Gate is laid in Rouen, Fongueusemare, Paris, Havre, and Aigues-Vives (near Nimes); only The Pastoral Symphony with its limitation to La Brevine and nearby Neuchatel rivals the economy of The Counterfeiters, which takes us out of Paris only for a brief stay at Saas-Fee in Switzerland. It is equally surprising to note, in view of the novel's complexity, that the action of The Counterfeiters is concentrated within a few months, whereas The Immoralist records three years, Strait Is the Gate, twenty years, and The Pastoral Symphony, two years and nine months of life. Furthermore, for all their precise contours, not one of the tales is as balanced in composition as The Counterfeiters with its eighteen chapters and 220 pages of the first part exactly paralleling the eighteen chapters and 225 pages of the third part.
The complexity and "confusion" of the novel must be attributable, then, to the number of characters or rather to the number of plots, since the twenty-eight characters are necessitated by the multiple plots. Now, André Gide has noted most loyally in his Journals for 1928 that his friend Roger Martin du Gard gave him "the advice to gather together the various plots of Les Faux-Monnayeurs, which, had it not been for him, would have formed so many separate `tales.'" ... Just now--after noting in passing that even more than the example of Dostoevsky was required to renew Gide's fictional technique--it is more important to emphasize the persistence, nevertheless, of certain elements within that technique.
From June 1919 to June 1925--that is, during the actual writing of The Counterfeiters--Gide kept a separate notebook in which to record "inch by inch," as he said in English, the progress of his novel. That fascinating and invaluable [Le Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs (Journal of "The Counterfeiters")], which has never been a part of Gide's monumental Journals, was first published in French the same year as the novel.... In it the author presents the problems encountered in composition, his hesitations and false starts, and the solutions he has found to his difficulties. The novelty of his approach throughout and his little youthful thrill of triumph at each new problem overcome prevent the reader from noticing how many of the apparent technical innovations had already found their place in the earlier tales. For instance, the first entry in The Journal of "The Counterfeiters" reads: "For two days I have been wondering whether or not to have my novel related by Lafcadio. Thus it would be a narrative of gradually revealed events in which he would act as an observer, an idler, a perverter." Is this not again the first-person narration of the tales? To be sure, a month later Gide abandoned this plan after writing some pages of Lafcadio's journals; yet in doing so he added: "But I should like to have successive interpreters: for example, Lafcadio's notes would occupy the first book; the second book might consist of Edouard's notebook; the third of an attorney's files, etc." Surely this is the same technique as in La Porte etroite where, at a certain point, Jerome's account is broken to admit the diary of the dead Alissa.
In fact, it was not until much later that it occurred to Gide--possibly as a result of rereading Tom Jones -- to resort to impersonal narration with frequent interventions of the author. As late as May 1924 he noted: "The poor novelist constructs his characters; he controls them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them. It is only according to what he hears them say that he begins to understand who they are." ... "I should like events never to be related directly by the author, but instead exposed (and several times from different vantages) by those actors who will be influenced by those events. In their account of the action I should like the events to appear slightly warped; the reader will take a sort of interest from the mere fact of having to reconstruct. The story requires his collaboration in order to take shape properly." But this is already true of the tales. That there are two points of view in Strait Is the Gate -- thanks to Jerome's account and Alissa's diary--is obvious. In The Immoralist, although there is but one narrator (Michel) who is trying to report himself objectively, he is nevertheless judged by his wife, Marceline, and by his friend, Menalque, not to mention the Arab youth Moktir; and Michel strives to record those judgments--with the inevitable result that the reader has to re-establish the truth. Likewise in The Pastoral Symphony where the lamentable Pastor is judged by his wife, his son, and the blind girl he loves.
After The Counterfeiters, when Gide writes L'Ecole des femmes (The School for Wives) and its two sequels, Robert and Genevieve, he somewhat mechanically presents three views of the same family conflict, one to a volume, much as he had toyed with doing in The Counterfeiters.
Perhaps the most generally acknowledged originality of The Counterfeiters is that of a novel within the novel. As the author noted in The Journal of "The Counterfeiters": "Properly speaking, the book has no single center for my various efforts to converge upon; those efforts center about two foci, as in an ellipse. On one side, the event, the fact, the external datum; on the other side, the very effort of the novelist to make a book out of it all. The latter is the main subject," he continued, "the new focus that throws the plot off center and leads it toward the imaginative. In short, I see this notebook in which I am writing the very history of the novel, poured into the book in its entirety and forming its principal interest--for the greater irritation of the reader." With Edouard's journal this is precisely what Gide has done. It was a brilliant idea to set Edouard the novelist at the center of the novel, both an observer and an actor in the events, engaged in grappling with the problems posed by the translation into art of those events. Yet this was far from a new idea with Gide. His very first work, published in 1891, shows a young romantic hero writing the novel we are reading. And in his Journals for 1893, Gide has noted: "I wanted to suggest, in the Tentative amoureuse, the influence of the book upon the one who is writing it, and during that very writing.... Our acts exercise a retroaction upon us.... In a work of art I rather like to find transposed on the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work. Nothing throws a clearer light upon it or more surely establishes the proportions of the whole."
In The Counterfeiters this apparent narcissism reaches its height when Gide puts a novelist resembling himself at the center of the novel, engaged in writing a novel to be entitled The Counterfeiters and recording and commenting on the action in his diary as it unfolds. Such a device offers the incalculable advantage of narration by indirection, for "a character may well describe himself wonderfully while describing someone else or speaking of someone else--according to the rule that each of us really understands in others only those feelings he is capable of producing himself"--as Journal of "The Counterfeiters" points out. Thus it is that the progress of Michel in The Immoralist, or of the Pastor in The Pastoral Symphony, becomes apparent to us through his wife's attitude toward him as reported by him himself.... Hence, Gide is stating a principle that has always been his when he says in Journal of "The Counterfeiters": "It is appropriate, in opposition to the manner of Meredith or James, to let the reader get the advantage over me--to go about it in such a way as to allow him to think he is more intelligent, more moral, more perspicacious than the author, and that he is discovering many things in the characters, and many truths in the course of the narrative, in spite of the author and, so to speak, behind the author's back."
Many of us have long admired the ending of The Counterfeiters with Edouard's suspensive remark: "I am very curious to know Caloub." And indeed, in his workbook the author notes: "This novel will end sharply, not through exhaustion of the subject, which must give the impression of inexhaustibility, but on the contrary through its expansion and by a sort of blurring of its outline. It must not be neatly rounded off, but rather disperse, disintegrate...." This too is less new than Gide would have us think. Do not the earlier novels likewise blur off, leaving the reader to reflect at length on the situation and emotions of the chief protagonist? Particularly in The Immoralist and in Strait Is the Gate, when the end is reached, the reader feels better informed--thanks to the technique of indirection--than does the bewildered narrator. Consistently André Gide has allowed the reader the illusion of getting the advantage over him.
It is by no means necessary, or even advisable, to attempt to diminish The Counterfeiters in order to build up the earlier tales. That there is a difference is only too apparent. The example of Dostoevsky and the capital advice of Roger Martin du Gard suffice to explain Gide's new orientation in the years 1919 to 1925. But three points must not be forgotten: (1) that as early as 1908 Gide had already sketched a portrait of Dostoyevsky According to His Correspondence, (2) that between 1909 and 1914 in the newly formed group of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise the conversation and writings of intimate friends as Jacques Riviere, Roger Martin du Gard, Jean Schlumberger, and Albert Thibaudet had centered about the aesthetics of the novel, and finally (3) that in 1914--directly between Strait Is the Gate and Isabelle on the one hand and The Pastoral Symphony on the other--Gide had brought out Les Caves du Vatican (badly titled in one English language edition as Lafcadio's Adventures). That thrilling novel--for it is a novel despite the author's timid and misleading classification of it as a sotie--has more in common with The Counterfeiters than with the tales that precede and follow it. Comprising almost the same multiplicity of plots and contrapuntal composition as the later novel, it is narrated in the third person by a very conscious writer who even indulges in Fieldingesque or Sterne-like apostrophes and asides to disclaim omniscience and responsibility; and it unfolds swiftly with all the complexity and compulsion of a novel of adventure. Furthermore, it comprises a microcosmic novel within the novel, which Julius is writing almost at the dictation of Lafcadio. Clearly it is a tryout of the techniques to be used ten years later in The Counterfeiters. Nothing is more natural than that Gide should have begun The Counterfeiters, in his first draft, with the journal of Lafcadio, the charming and elusive hero of the earlier novel. His later rejection of Lafcadio reflects his characteristic desire not to take conscious advantage of momentum acquired in an earlier work.
Yet, as we have seen, it was impossible not to benefit from unconscious momentum in the form of the fictional techniques patiently elaborated over the preceding twenty-five years. Some readers will always prefer the concentrated, gemlike tales of Gide's early maturity, whereas others will choose the exasperatingly living, Dostoevskian qualities of The Counterfeiters. But, whatever their differences, the men and women who have the good fortune to read those works a century from now will doubtless not hesitate for a moment to recognize the same hand in all of them....