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 (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.