Years ago, I kept a blog where I reviewed books that I’d read. While not a particularly original idea, I’m going to resurrect it here. Don’t worry. I’m not reading as much as I used to.
Also, I decided to do this after returning the book I’m reviewing to its owner, so we’re going to wing it a little bit here. Lucky you.
I borrowed The Immoralist from a friend at my neighborhood watering hole. She’s a big fan of André Gide, and I’d never read anything by him before. I let her borrow Cat’s Cradle in exchange. She definitely made out better on the deal.
That’s not to say The Immoralist is a bad book. On the contrary. For the time period in which it was written, Gide’s eloquent prose and and unflinching portrayal of taboo topics is an example of literature at its finest. Of course, if I wrote the same book today, I’d probably be accused of violating all kinds of craft guidelines, but I digress. The writing and literary components of the novel are exceptional.
Also exceptional are the existential elements of The Immoralist, even though existentialism in art and culture hadn’t really taken off yet. The protagonist, Michel, is an apathetic character from the start, not as sterile and ambiguous as The Stranger‘s Meursault, but generally unconcerned with the affairs of anyone but himself. He is tired of duty and responsibility; he wants to experience freedom of self–to be in charge of his own destiny. This desire manifests itself as debaucherous affairs held in secret from his own wife, whom he doesn’t really love as much as he pities. Yet while each affair or temptation begins with a certain excitement and passion, there always remains a sense that there is something more, that freedom isn’t so freeing after all.
These are things I can appreciate about The Immoralist. The part that I never connected with was the unreliable, unsympathetic narrator.
The unreliable narrator is a tricky literary tool. What person would sit through five pages of an unreliable narrator’s story, let alone 125? But when it’s done well, there is a level of sympathy generated for these narrators who are so depraved. David Lurie in Coetzee’s Disgrace is an unreliable narrator and a jerk to boot, but as the story moves on, his love for his daughter slowly turns him into a sympathetic character even if he is unreliable. The same can be said for Maurice in Greene’s The End of the Affair. Through the lying, the spying, the infidelity, and the misogyny, the reader necessarily experiences a sort of heartbreak for Maurice when all comes crashing down. In both cases, these men show significant change.
Michel, on the other hand, shows very little evidence of change. In the end, he remains dedicated to a hedonistic lifestyle that even he can’t define, as demonstrated in the last paragraph of the book:
“…she laughs and declares that I prefer the boy to her. She makes out that it is he who keeps me here. Perhaps she is not altogether wrong…”
It’s that “perhaps” as well as the passive final sentence that colors the ending and by extension the rest of the book. Everything in Michel’s life is a possibility, something that can’t be committed to only because Michel himself can’t commit to anything. As he explores his newly-accepted (by him) homosexuality, he can’t commit to one man or boy, but flirts and fornicates with many, an ongoing cycle that seems only ramping up at the end instead of slowing down. He knows this, too, or his final statement would be a firm, confident, “She is right.” No “perhaps,” no passive voice.
Michel’s unwillingness to commit along with his selfish pursuits of pleasure, the horrible way he treats his wife throughout the book, and the disinterest he shows in the well-being of every human being he encounters–all these make him a character who is so rotten, there is nothing left to relate to. There is no heartbreak when his world falls apart because Michel himself is never particularly upset about it all. He is like a child who demands his own way, throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get it, and then five minutes later forgets that anything ever happened and moves on to the next desire to be fulfilled.
The reality is that Michel is essentially a spoiled brat. He’s never had to work for his keep, never lacked a material thing that he wanted. That excessive privilege spills over into his interpersonal relationships, which he also sees as objective things rather than something more complicated. Whether it’s shouting at his wife for no reason or ogling the Arab boys he takes such a liking to, Michel doesn’t see people as people, and that is where I shut down as a reader.
In Gide’s defense, Michel is still a very well-written, complex character. His conflicts and trials are compelling and very human. And while his utter lack of sympathy and empathy for others deters my interest in the story, that doesn’t make it a bad story as much as it makes me an intolerant reader.
But then, what should I have expected from a book titled The Immoralist? From that very starting point, Gide makes no bones about it: this book is going to explore dark, sometimes distasteful, culturally subversive themes. And perhaps the only person qualified to explore those things at any substantive depth is someone who is, for lack of a better phrase, a complete jerk.