November 22, 2013
In the 1890s Oscar Wilde lured ANDRÉ GIDE (1869–1951) out of the closet; in 1908, he co-founded the Nouvelle Revue Française; in 1916, he adopted a friend’s teenage son with whom he’d be romantically involved for years; in the 1920s, he wrote unashamedly about his predilection for boys, and at the same time influenced the burgeoning anti-colonialism movement by criticizing the exploitation of Africans; in the ’30s he became a communist, then (after a visit to the USSR) an anti-communist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. But the Gide in whom I’m interested is the one who rejected the either/or choice of conventional morality vs. cynicism; the one about whom a 22-year-old André Breton wrote, to fellow Dadaist Tristan Tzara, “You can’t imagine how much André Gide is on our side.” This is the Gide of whom we catch a glimpse via his 1902 novel The Immoralist, his 1925 novel The Counterfeiters, and most directly via his 1914 adventure yarn The Vatican Catacombs. In this proto-postmodernist sotie (jape), three brothers-in-law — a Masonic scientist, a renowned author, a pious Catholic — are entangled to various degrees in a con game the victims of which are led to believe that the Pope has been kidnapped. Across their interwoven stories like a comet streaks their illegitimate half-brother-in-law, Lafcadio, a sexy young hustler whose one goal in life is to perform an acte gratuit — an action, whether a good deed or a crime, that is truly unmotivated. Though hailed and reviled as a nihilist and anarchist, Gide’s hero is more feral than that. He’s an ironist!
READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864–73).