ANDRE GIDE lived for his art. Born to a wealthy family, as a young writer he had no financial worries and he could afford to be experimental in his writing. For a brief time he associated himself with poet Stephane Mallarme and the Symbolist School. Later, his affiliation with the Communist party and his brief attraction to Christianity were both heightened and terminated by his aesthetic sensibility. Throughout his life, however, Gide stopped short of any ideological commitment, but he remained a firm believer in the life of the senses.
One of Gide's biggest mistakes was his rejection of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu for his magazine, Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Later, Gide would regret the decision and invited Proust to resubmit. Many critics view Gide as the greatest journalist of the 20th century; Gide himself believed that he was preparing for a "much greater work" (as a child he wondered if adults could see this "future great work" in his eyes). For most of his life, he owned two manor houses and an apartment in Paris. It is said his house in Normandy contained staircases that glowed like polished amber.
"Polished amber" best describes Benjamin Ivry's first-ever English translation of Judge Not,* a little-known Gide work, which adds significantly to the Gide corpus. Ivry, the author of biographies of Francis Poulenc, Arthur Rimbaud, and Maurice Ravel, has translated and written a lengthy introduction to a small book that's a testament to Gide's fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment. In novels such as Lafcadio's Adventures (1928), Gide often explored the criminal mentality as well as the criminal's place in society. In Judge Not, Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror. He wrote about the cases in depth, examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality. Many of the cases involved murder, with adolescents as the accused, and one can imagine Gide using them as the raw material for his fiction. Although Gide declared that his writings on judicial cases were not "literature," they are nevertheless artful journalism in which Gide often saw facts that judges and jurors overlooked. As Ivry explains, some critics have deemed Judge Not as too graphic in its descriptions of violent crime, but such charges appear illogical given the book's subject matter.
Gide used criminals in his fiction in order to explore human psychology. He himself was often considered an outcast or criminal because of his open defense of homosexuality in his writings--Jean Genet once referred to him as "the master"--and because of his brief alliance with the Communist Party. (Gide mourned what happened to Marxism twenty years after the Russian Revolution and documented these changes in Return from the USSR.) Despite his lifelong love of the Bible, he had a persistent wish to escape conventional morality and explore the sensual life. Writing about his youth in his journal in March 1893, he wrote: "I have lived until the age of 23 completely virgin and utterly depraved; crazed to such a point that eventually I came to look everywhere for some bit of flesh on which to press my lips." Although he married in 1895, the marriage ended once he announced his homosexuality. No longer content to live life according to values that were not his own, Gide advocated in Fruits of the Earth (1897) that one partake of life's sensual pleasures rather than think of everything in terms of "sin."
The newly liberated Gide was proud of his emerging "new self." His reinvention of himself laid the groundwork for the private publication of Corydon in 1911. This was his masterful defense of homosexuality as expressed in the "homosexual models" of ancient Greece. The first edition was a mere twelve copies; later it would go to 66 editions, representing 33,000 copies. Wrote Gide in Corydon: You must also recognize the fact that homosexual periods, if I dare
use the expression, are in no way periods of decadence. On the
contrary, I do not think it would be inaccurate to say that the great
periods when art flourished--the Greeks at the time of Pericles, the
Romans in the century of Augustus, the English at the time of
Shakespeare, the Italians at the time of the Renaissance, the French
during the Renaissance and again under Louis XIII, the Persians at the
time of Hafiz, etc., were the very times when homosexuality
experienced itself most openly, and I would even say, officially. I
would almost go so far to say that periods and countries without
homosexuality are periods and countries without art.
Gide considered Corydon his most important work. He remarked that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947 despite this book.
In 1924 he published another controversial work that dealt explicitly with his homosexuality, the memoir If It Die, where he described his first homosexual experiences, his first attempt at authorship, and his family relationships. It was the openly homosexual content of this work that turned Gide into an international target of derision by some critics. (The American author Dashiell Hammett, on hearing that Gide admired his detective stories, said, "I wish that fag would take me out of his mouth!") Even as early as 1912 Gide was aggressively supporting the idea of homosexual rights, if only in his private writings. In a journal entry, Gide wrote:
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