When I was in graduate school, Gide (who was born in 1869) was thought of as one of the great towering virtuosi of French prose—or of any prose anywhere (he won the Novel Prize for Literature in 1947). I remember hearing Gore Vidal’s referring to him as “maestro” on some long-ago TV talk show—William F. Buckley’s Firing Line maybe.
The library—around which we are voyaging weekly—is rich in Gide holdings, mostly because when I was still at university, a big dusty old basement bookstore in town was offering some Gide novels—the exquisitely designed and printed Knopf “Borzoi” editions in hard cover (with dust wrappers)—for two or three dollars each. I bought every one they had: The Fruits of the Earth, The Counterfeiters, Strait is the Gate, The Immoralist, Imaginary Interviews, So Be It and (a collector’s coup!) the four volume set of The Journals of Andre Gide, translated by Justin O’Brien, Gide’s best translator and commentator. And also Madeleine, the book under discussion here.
Madeleine, curiously subtitled “Et Nunc Manet In Te” (which is a quote from Virgil meaning “and now she remains in you”), is a painful—though exquisite work. As editor-translator Justin O’Brien notes in his introduction to the book—which was published in 1952, a year after Gide’s death—“Rarely has a writer confessed himself more intimately in public than Andre Gide” (one has only to peruse the vast Journals and his memoir, If It Die, to acknowledge the truth of this). Indeed self-revelation, carried on at psychologically minute distances from the self seems to have been Gide’s great subject and his chosen angle of writerly implementation.
Madeleine is the memoir of a disastrously conflicted marriage. It was printed in 1947—the Nobel year—in Neuchatel by a friend of Gide’s in an edition of only thirteen copies, each inscribed with the name of the recipient, invariably a close and trusted friend of the author’s.
Mme Gide, whose name was Madeleine Rondeaux (Gide often referred to her in his writings as “:Emmanuele”) died in 1938. Very little was known of her—in fact few even knew her actual name until Madeleine was published. She seems to have been delicate and frail, both physically and morally, and remarkably private, almost to the point of reclusiveness. And while she loved her husband on an exalted, non-physical plane, she was damaged almost to the point of eventual unreachability by his agonized but inexorable homosexuality.
Gide wrote everything down. Justin O’Brien writes in his introduction to Madeleine, “With what keen curiosity and excited anticipation, then, did we note a passage in the last Journals in which Gide, blocked in German-occupied Tunis in March 1943, wondered if he would ever see again the private papers he had let in Paris—among which, he says ‘the manuscript relating to Em [i.e. Emmanuele], in which I had transcribed the unpublished parts of my Journal and everything concerning that supreme part of my life which might explain and throw light upon it.”
When he returned to Paris, he found the documents intact (though Madeleine had burned all of his letters to her) and decided to print them. The present book is the result.
Madeleine is often painful—if exquisite—reading. “What would I have been,” Gide asks himself, “if I had not known her? I can ask myself this today; but then the question did not arise. Everywhere I find, thanks to her, a silver thread in the weave of my thoughts. But whereas I saw nothing but brightness in hers, I had to recognize much darkness in me; it was only the best in me that communed with her.”
“However great the impulse of my love, it served only, it now seems to me, to divide my nature even more deeply, and I was soon obliged to realize that while aiming to give myself altogether to her (however much I remained a child), that worship in which I held her did not succeed in suppressing all the rest.” The rest being his homosexual encounters, liaisons and loves. Why does he sound so surprised?
“I am amazed today,” he writes in Madeleine, “at that aberration which led me to think that the more ethereal my love was, the more worthy it was of her—for I was so naïve as never to wonder whether or not she would be satisfied with an utterly disincarnate love.”
“A disincarnate love.” What a lovely, terrible phrase. And the fact is she was and she wasn’t. As for Gide, he lived his whole life with, as he outs it, “heart and senses pulling him in opposite directions.”