André Gide: Subtle Master of the Homoerotic!

I picked up André Gide’s L’immoraliste (1902) during one of my insomniac stews the other night to take a break from philosophy and I’m now deep in its sensual throes. This is my first Gide book. After a tedious beginning, it’s getting wonderfully cynical and I’m underlining like a madman. I knew little about Gide going into it. I expected lots of pastoral Maghreb and suppressed homosexuality. And I was pretty much right.

Gide’s setting is exotic, but in spirit (though not style) he might be Oscar Wilde’s most direct literary successor (and perhaps predecessor to Proust if we stay in the decadent aesthete niche). Indeed, the two authors even met. Indeed, Wilde claimed to have delivered Gide into his sexual self-awareness. Little did Wilde know, however, that Gide had already seen the light with an adolescent North African callboy… much like the ones Michel, the titular immoralist and thinly veiled André stand-in, bribes and stalks through palmy Biskra.

Like any responsible art lover, I’m entirely forgiving of older works of art for not being up to today’s ‘standards.’ You have to learn to appreciate how a scene might have been frightening or funny or dangerous to its contemporary audience, even if it seems hilarious now. Seeing what was meant to be to be sexy – sexy and subtle – is simply the most amusing. Really, was this brand of hit-me-over-the-head-with-a-phallus subtext ever really discrete?

Ham. Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Oph. No, my lord.
Ham. I mean, my head upon your lap?
Oph. Ay, my lord.
Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?

Ah, do you think he means country matters? (Hey, bad actor, make sure the audience hears that. Maybe grab your crotch and wink while you say it?) It wasn’t all so bawdy. A suitor resting the tip of his boot against the cross-stretcher of Emma Bovary’s chair: that’s subtext. Billy Budd sending a bowl of hot soup trickling down the galley seems comic in comparison.

I’m not sure what the first major literary work was to contain the phrase ‘He put it in‘ – probably Bataille – but before that breach, you have to admire how these authors made due with their euphemistic ingenuity. L’immoraliste contains a few particularly suggestive scenes. The one suggestive enough to appear on the book’s jacket has young Moktir feeling the immoral Michel’s concupiscent gaze in the mirror as Moktir slowly pockets a pair of Michel’s wife’s scissors. (What was she doing with them before? Chopping off your metaphorical penis?)

But today the sweet-fruit-as-vagina award for transparency, the reason I even thought to post, goes to this fine passage. A little exposition: Michel has been lusting after Charles, his groundskeeper’s teenage son. Michel and Charles pass the days surveying the property, taking in the acrid must of apples fermenting on the ground and riding – yes, bareback – fiercely though the valleys. In this scene, Michel and his men are repairing a pond. They must first empty the water, leaving a shallow pool teeming with fish. I guess certain pond dwellers only emerge when the situation is truly dire, so as the water recedes, someone spots the first eel:

‘Charles, who until now had stayed at his father’s side on the bank, couldn’t take it anymore; he tore off his shoes, set down his coat and vest, rolled way up his cuffs and sleeves and went resolutely into the pond. Soon enough, I followed suit. ‘Well, Charles!’ I called. ‘Are you glad to have come back yesteryday?’ He said nothing, only looked at me, laughing, already deeply involved in his fishing. I called him over to help me corner a thick eel; we joined hands to grab it.

Ta-da! It’s a shame that ‘anguille,‘ so writhingly tangible in French, translates to the flat fragment ‘eel,‘ but you get the picture.

Does Michel ever explicitly consummate his desires? I’m not sure. But Ménalque is leaving tomorrow, and they did make plans to ‘taste his Chiraz.’

* * *

The Immoralist is available in an English translation by Dennis Watson. It’s probably fine, but look out for a probably better, out-of-print Mass Market copy of Richard Howard‘s translation.

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~ by ohkrapp on October 14, 2008.

One Response to “André Gide: Subtle Master of the Homoerotic!”

  1. A lot I didn’t know about Andre’s life, and his taste for “not so subtle” homoerotic prose…

    Apres avoir lu un passage aussi explicite que celui-ci, pourrait-on dire que l’homosexualite de Gide ne relevait finalement en rien de “l’anguille sous roche”…

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