March 13, 2008

André Gide: Strait is the Gate

Posted in Gide André, Penguin Modern Classics at 10:13 am by John Self

I read Gide for French A-level – La Symphonie Pastorale – and liked it better than the other two set texts (Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux and Sartre’s Les Jeux Sont Faits). Since then I’ve been meaning to read more of him; and it only took me 17 years.

Strait is the Gate

Strait is the Gate (1909) was his first novel: not that he was any spring chicken, at 40, when he wrote it. The first thought I had about it was that the title is in serious need of retranslation. The original title, La Porte Étroite, has the internal resonance which the translation tries for without the asinine rhyme. And what sort of a word is strait anyway? Has it ever been in normal use as a plain adjective in the 99 years since the book was published? I mean, I get it, mainly by back formation from Straits of Gibraltar etc – it means narrow but also implies difficult or arduous – but it’s a fairly dire choice, even if it is a lift from a Bible passage. Not that I have an immediately better alternative.

Anyway, Strait is the Gate/La Porte Étroite is a love story about Jerome, the narrator, and his cousin Alissa. There’s an immediate appeal to me – much as in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country – from the mere setting of memories of youth in the blissful countryside. However Alissa, traumatised by her mother’s whorish ways (she drunkenly flaunts her lover before her children), turns in on herself and dedicates her life to God. Now we’re in trouble, because Jerome himself (sharing a name with the ‘author’ of the Vulgate, the 5th century translation of the Bible into Latin) is no wild thing. “Self-control was as natural to me as self-indulgence to others.” Even his poor mother, widowed while Jerome was a child and “always dressed in mourning”, isn’t spared his ostentatious sobriety:

One day – it was a good long time, I think, after my father’s death – my mother changed the black ribbon in her morning cap for a mauve one.

‘Oh mamma!’ I cried. ‘That colour doesn’t suit you at all.’ The next morning the black ribbon was back again.

His dedication to this way of thinking is confirmed by the “peculiar discomfort” he feels when in the company of his aunt Lucile, Alissa’s mother, who brings out feelings Jerome would rather not face:

‘Sailor collars are worn much more open,’ she said, undoing a button of my shirt. ‘There, see if that doesn’t look better!’ and taking out her little mirror, she drew my face down to hers, passed her bare arm around my neck, put her hand into my shirt, asked me laughingly if I was ticklish – went on – further … I started so violently that my shirt tore across and with a flaming face I fled…

He has a kindred spirit then in Alissa, who similarly rejects her mother’s sexual expressiveness, and in Jerome’s mind all this conspires to make “the very idea of laughter and joy [become] an offence and an outrage … the hateful exaggeration of sin!”

Alissa declares happiness secondary to holiness, and she and Jerome both strive to be one of the “few” who “enter ye in at the strait gate,” according to Luke’s gospel: “because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

The reader already can sense that this firm dedication to the narrow, difficult way, with resistance to temptation, can as easily become a matter for pride and piety as humility and holiness. Jerome and Alissa in their youth and idealism lack such self-awareness, however, and there follows a prolonged (seeming longer, indeed, than the punchy 128 page extent of the novel) to and fro between them, where Jerome states and restates his love for Alissa, and she ebbs and flows, declaring her dedication to him by letter when they’re apart, and going cold on him when they’re together.

It’s both frustrating and enjoyable for the reader, not least because Gide acknowledges the fictional status of the tale and the reader’s dual role: first as an innocent story-follower who wants some progress, and second as a reader of a literary text where we acknowledge the need to follow certain conventions and suspend our disbelief of implausibilities in order to extract the goodness. He tips a wink in the opening line (“Some people might have made a book out of it…”), setting up a sly contract between author and reader, and restates it later when the narrator reflects on his friend Abel’s over-dramatic expression of love: “the slight strain of literary affectation which I felt in it jarred in me not a little…”

The ending is foreseeable but there’s a reversal of viewpoint in the last dozen pages which shakes things up a little. The obvious message of the dangers of piety is pretty clear too. I am now re-fired with enthusiasm for Gide, and am all geared up to read the other book of his I have to hand, The Immoralist, apparently as interested in innocent perversity as La Porte Etroite is in perversely pursued innocence. I hope it will give me even more pleasure. But what was it Alissa said? – “Oh Lord! Preserve me from a happiness which I might too easily attain!” I’ll give it another few weeks then.

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12 Comments »

  1. Isabel said,

    Is this novel in the same mood as Thomas Hardy’s novels?

    How about The Narrow Door or the Slim Portal for the new title?

  2. John Self said,

    Oh dear, I have no idea Isabel, as I haven’t read any Hardy!

    I think The Narrow Door works quite well; it has an almost palindromic balance in the last two syllables. Of course the best way to work out a new translation would be to find what more modern Bibles put for the passage “strait is the gate” in Luke… Other suggestions, or corrections of my crass revisionism, welcome!

  3. Isabel said,

    I am not a Bible scholar (good Catholic that I am), so we need an New Testament expert.

  4. Mark Thwaite said,

    The direct translation of the title — The Narrow Door — is perfectly good! I don’t think we need to look any further …

    I read this years and years ago. It has fallen out of my memory so completely that I don’t even recognise it from your excellent synopsis John!

    BTW, Matthew 7:14 is often rendered as “How narrow is the gate and restricted …” We should stick to The Narrow Door!

  5. Victoria said,

    Aha, Gide! Gide is one of those writers that my partner loves – she thinks a book over 200 pages long is self-indulgent! But I’ve always steered clear, if only because I find the idea of such short books disconcerting. Its a naughty prejudice, I know.

  6. John Self said,

    Excellent Mark, that’s agreed then! Will you tell Penguin or shall I?

    And while you’re here, perhaps you and I together can set Victoria right on her bizarre phobia of short books. Less is more, Victoria! Thin is in! Or to quote Bellow quoting Chekhov for the second time this year on this blog…

    Oddly, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read – my own or other people’s works – it all seems to me not short enough.

    …And what do you mean by ‘disconcerting’? Do tell!

  7. Victoria said,

    I’m not sure how to describe it John, except in non-bookish terms. It might sound strange, so bear with me. I have very long hair that drops down past my shoulders a good 7 inches; very occasionally, say once every two years, I will have it cut. I don’t do it often (I’m also discomforted by hairdressers), so when I do, I have the whole 7 inches off so that it sits on my shoulders. Afterwards I have ‘phantom hair’ for a while – when I wash it or run my brush through it I experience a mental shock when it suddenly stops short and it disconcerts me. Often my fingers just keep going.

    This is kind of how I feel about short books too. I read so many long books, and I’m so used to their rhythm, that when I read a short book (by which I mean under 200 pages), I get the same mental shock. My mind wants to *keep going*, and I experience a sort of grief. I find it difficult to reset myself to fewer pages – I read too fast (or artificially slowly), and I still feel hungry afterwards. I miss the weight.

  8. Declan Burke said,

    John –

    “It matters not how strait the gate /
    How charged with punishments the scroll /
    I am the master of my fate /
    I am the captain of my soul.”
    W.E. Henley (1849 – 1903)

    Gide’s Theseus is a glorious example of ‘a slim novel’ …

    Cheers, Dec

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks Dec – and nice quote!

    Victoria, what you say makes sense and the hair analogy is a good one! Maybe the reverse of this is why I struggle with longer books – I expect them to have got their business done with in 200 pages and resent the extra time…

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  11. Andrew said,

    I’ve read a couple of Gide’s works, & while initially much enthused, enfin & even soon enough have to say I found something essentially very off-putting, rotten at the core of presumably Gide’s being. Perhaps slightly reminiscent of Yukio Mishima, but more European in the sense of being more fertile compared to perhaps Mishima’s drier inhumaness. Difficult to describe but where Gide has fallen from grace, consciously with a kind of decadent thrill, whereas Mishima’s a more innate coldness.

  12. mrmustard said,

    Found Straight is the Gate, just too simple and vapid as to be insufferable. Halfway through I was hoping Jerome would murder Alissa, in a James M. Cain type of story, but no. That would have been interesting. The story of two saps who can’t get it on; I’d rather read Balzac or Zola, heck I’d rather read an Archie Comic.


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