Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1999

André Gide: a life in the present, by Alan Sheridan;
André and Oscar: Gide, Wilde and the gay art of living, by Jonathan Fryer

reviewed by Ted McFadyen

“My dear, would you like the little musician?” said Oscar Wilde to André Gide. Nearly choking with nervousness, André croaked back – “Yes!”

The scene was Algeria, 1895, and Gide and Wilde had met up by chance while both travelling in North Africa. While they were sitting one evening in a somewhat louche cafe, “a marvellous youth” appeared and started to play the flute. Oscar arranged for André to meet the young man later. It was a crucial experience for Gide whose sexual adventures up to that time had been pretty thin on the ground. Twenty-five years later, Gide was to write: “Since then, whenever I have sought pleasure, it is the memory of that night which I have pursued.”

Oscar and André had met a few years earlier, in Paris, but at that time Oscar’s influence was largely intellectual. Alan Sheridan puts forward the view that this earlier encounter “accelerated the intellectual and emotional movement away from the Christian puritanism of [Gide’s] youth, and thus prepared the way for the later physical experiences. It is arguable that Gide would have found his way without Wilde’s help, but the sheer brilliance ... of Wilde’s reversal of all the moral precepts to which Gide had clung must have accelerated the process.”

Jonathan Fryer offers a brilliant analysis of the effect the two men had on each other, at a time when Wilde was reaching the zenith of his powers and success, while Gide was still young and impressionable. Fryer also provides a highly readable account of the literary and social background of the late 90s, particularly in Paris, and of Gide’s life during the disastrous events which were to overtake Wilde; it was only a few months after the “little musician” incident that Wilde was to face trial in England.

Fryer discusses with insight a further similarity between the two men: both were married, but the differences between the two marriages were significant. Wilde’s marriage to Constance was of course consummated, and his early married life was to all appearances a happy one. Gide, on the other hand, married his cousin Madeleine, with whom he had always had a close emotional relationship, but theirs was a marriage blanc – in fact he treated her more like a sister. Sheridan comments that “a degree of revulsion to the physical implications of love operated on both sides.” Each of these women, in different ways, led tragic lives.

Wilde’s and Gide’s lives overlapped for only a relatively short period – Wilde died in 1900, a few years after he was released from prison, whereas Gide went on to become a towering figure in French literature, and a Nobel prize winner. He died in 1951 at the age of 82.

From a relatively early date, Gide discussed his homosexuality in his books and elsewhere with commendable courage. His earlier autobiographical work, If it Die (Si le Grain ne Meurt), describes his African encounters, and in 1925 he published Corydon, an essay on homosexuality and its place in society, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Some of his arguments now strike us, inevitably, as dated, but to have published such a book at all at that time, even in the relatively more civilised culture of France, was brave.

Gide also took a wide-ranging interest in social and political affairs. Like many intellectuals in France and England in the 1930s he became enthusiastic about Soviet Communism and the “successful experiment” which many at the time thought that Stalin was bringing about. Courted by the Soviet authorities, he went to Russia in 1936 and was invited to give the Funeral oration for the writer Gorky. There is an intriguing photograph of Gide standing on the podium beside Stalin and Molotov, delivering the oration in Red Square.

But disillusion was soon to set in, and Gide realised that he, like many others, had been duped. He publicly recanted his pro-Communist views in a book called Retour de l’URSS, which naturally brought opposition from his erstwhile left-wing friends.

Alan Sheridan’s biography of Gide is nothing if not comprehensive; at over 700 pages it gives more detail on his subject’s life than you might want to know. It is a scholarly work, with all the apparatus that one has come to expect of contemporary biographies – a forest of footnotes, an extensive bibliography and index. Jonathan Fryer deals only with the period in which Gide and Wilde knew each other, and his approach is less academically stringent; the two books are admirably complementary.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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