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FOUR REFLECTIONS ON "THE COUNTERFEITERS"

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By Robert Wexelblatt

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The Montréal Review, February 2011

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André Gide, de Solange de Bièvre, huile sur toile. (Musée Georges Borias, Uzès, France)

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 "The Counterfeiters: A Novel" by André Gide (Vintage, 1973)

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1. Liberation from Predestination

André Gide, reared by strict Protestant women, entered adult life in a state of restless religious captivity, married his cousin, contracted tuberculosis, traveled to Algeria for his health, encountered Oscar Wilde, gave free rein to his repressed homosexuality and, instead of then discreetly perishing like Mann's Gustave von Aschenbach, returned to France, made a public avowal of his sexuality and of his new credo, wrote a notorious book about both, opened himself to sensuality, to life's possibilities, became the apostle of radical individualism, conceived the acte gratuit, embraced public responsibility, rejected narcissism, kept an enormous journal, and, in the fullness of time, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Gide's break with Calvinism was spectacular and consequential, the obvious turning point of his life, and yet, in a sense, it was incomplete. His new freedom did not derive from the surgical removal of a swollen superego but from gaining a measure of control over it and, above all, displacing the powerful sense of responsibility onto a different set of moral imperatives. For example, if, as Kant says, the moral test of the rightness of an action is one's willingness to make it public, then Gide acted morally in publishing a book about his scandalous behavior in Algeria and showed as much bravery as irony in titling his confession The Immoralist.

The Counterfeiters is a highly moral book, even in the most old-fashioned sense: there are "good" characters and "bad" ones and, in general, things work out well for the good and badly for the bad. As a moralist with a particular concern for the young, Gide is careful to show how his youths go right or wrong and one way of going wrong is to ignore one's own desires. "There exists no difference between God and one's own happiness," Gide famously wrote. This apparently hedonistic dictum is only superficially scandalous; the license given by "happiness" is withdrawn in advance by "God." The same sort of ambivalent statement shows up at a key point in The Counterfeiters when Edouard advises Bernard about how to conduct his life: "The answer seems to me simple: to find the rule in oneself; to have for goal the development of oneself." Like Gide, Edouard rules out a priori judgments; but when Bernard worries about making errors, Edouard replies with Gidean double-handedness: "That in itself will teach you. It's a good thing to follow one's inclination, provided it leads up hill" (327). The proviso at the end about going "up hill" is equivalent to the earlier one about God. Gide is the most moral of immoralists.

Bernard does go up hill in the book, literally so in the Alps. He also becomes ever more conservative after running away from home; that is, after a bout of adolescent anarchism. By the end of the story he is actually in danger of joining L'Action française and is prevented only by his contempt for two who have signed the pledge, a stupid schoolmate and his elder brother. There is a Protestant rigor as well as a natural vigor in Bernard's summer in the Alps, a reminder that Geneva was the home of both Calvin and Rousseau. Gide clearly approves of Bernard's physical exertion and self-discipline, and contrasts them to Olivier's lassitude on the beaches of Catholic Corsica.

Still, it was Gide's arrival in Algeria and departure from his religion that made him a modernist. Dumping Calvinism in favor of radical freedom was fraught with aesthetic implications for a writer of novels, and it is these implications I believe he worked out in The Counterfeiters. The traditional novelist, a James or Meredith, is a "predestinator," rather like Calvin's God. Perhaps the reason why the man who had already written The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate, and The Vatican Cellars called The Counterfeiters his "first novel" is that only here did he deliberately take up the narrative implications of his moral principles. No doubt, like his alter-ego Edouard, he was also discontent with his career, craved a seat at the post-War modernist banquet, and wished to reconnect with the young; perhaps too there was some jealousy of Proust, against the publication of whose work he had foolishly recommended. There are many intentions mixed into The Counterfeiters. Technically, though, Gide was less radical than he appears. He sought a new way to tell a story, one in accord with his ideas about freedom and responsibility, about disponibilité , about God. He aimed at eschewing omniscience altogether. Gide wanted to write a post-Nietzschean novel in which god-like omniscience was dead because he had killed it.

So, just as he had freed himself from the tyranny of Calvin's God in North Africa, Gide seeks in The Counterfeiters to liberate his characters from authorial predestination. On page one Bernard is detached from the determination of both home and genetics, fulfilling those twin fantasies of the restless bourgeois child: that he is an orphan and that he can run away. Gide weaves his theme of liberation into the form and content of his novel as well as his brand of moral relativism by making the work "Cubist" in portraying multiple points of view. The Counterfeiters is a pluralistic novel, offering many distinct voices. Even secondary characters like La Pérouse, Rachel Vedel, and Oscar Molinier have their moment at stage center; for Gide's open universe is a sphere with an infinite number of centers. Through the manner of his storytelling he is able to convey his moral convictions directly: that one should put oneself at the disposal of life without prejudices, be tolerant of other viewpoints, and relish the relativity of the modern world rather than deriding or complaining about it.

There is another sort of tyranny Gide sought abolish, that of the authors of the last generation over their readers. How deliberately he went about this we can see from his journal:

It is appropriate, in opposition to the manner of Meredith and James, to let the reader get the advantage over me-to go about it in such a way as to allow him to think he is more intelligent, more moral, more perspicacious than the author, and that he is discovering many things in the characters, and many truths in the course of the narrative, in spite of the author and, so to speak, behind the author's back. (402-403)

Not only does Gide liberate his characters to behave as they wish (that is, by making the strings by which he manipulates them invisible), he also frees the reader. So far is the putative author of The Counterfeiters from omniscience that he is actually self-effacing. In contrast to the Victorian clutter of drapes, knickknacks, pouffes, and sofas of Late Victorian sensibility and psychologizing, Gide's novel feels airy and light, a book of springtime and summer. While the novel bites off quite a lot, it is the reader who gets to do the chewing. The author serves as a kind of maitre d'hôtel or as a train conductor, inviting all aboard: though the rails are already laid, the conductor himself does not know the route or the destination any better than we do, and so we are at liberty to discover what is worthwhile on the journey for ourselves.

As the author is not omniscient, so he cannot be omnipresent. One of causes of the openness achieved by the novel is the sense that the characters are pursuing their lives outside our ken. If we are with Bernard in Saas-Fée then we cannot be with Olivier in Corsica. If we are to follow Edouard down a Parisian boulevard, then we cannot also keep our eye on Georges disappearing around a corner. Gide intended The Counterfeiters to take place, as much as possible, in the present tense, like a film. The author may also be compared to a camera with a bland personality. The novel unfolds like music; in order to come to life, a symphony must also be performed in the present.

What makes all this possible is the role of Edouard, the novelist who is pin in the pinwheel. At thirty-eight, Edouard is younger than the parental generation, the settled Profitendieus, Moliniers, and Vedels, about a decade older than the young adults, Vincent, Laura, and Douviers, yet still very much in contact with the eighteen-year-olds, Olivier and Bernard. Edouard sits at the center of a web of generations and characters. It is he who leads us to La Pérouse and thus Sophroniska, Bronja, and little Boris; it is Edouard who brings us to old Azaïs perched high up in his study like a desiccated Calvinist God. Unfixed himself, Edouard moves easily among both the settled and the unsettled. It is to Edouard that La Pérouse and Oscar Molinier open their souls; Edouard is the stone against which Bernard hones his intellect; it is Edouard Olivier loves. But Edouard serves another purpose for Gide; it is on Edouard that Gide palms off the traditional apparatus he wished to avoid. For example, Edouard's journal carries out the indispensable Jamesian/Meredithian psychologizing so that the rest of the narrative can appear purified of such old-fashioned impediments. Gide wanted to avoid first-person narration, yet this is precisely the point of view of Edouard's journal. The journal is equally essential for another of Gide's experiments, setting the novel in the present; for it is Edouard's journal that enables Gide to present his background material in the present tense. It is over Bernard's shoulder that we read the chapter from Edouard's journal called "Laura's Wedding."

The Counterfeiters remains one of the most exhilarating of modernist novels. Nevertheless, the closer one looks at what it says about freedom-"such freedom as is possible today," as Kafka put it-the more melancholy one feels.

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2. Forster on The Counterfeiters

E. M. Forster was particularly mindful of André Gide's latest when he delivered the Clark lectures at Cambridge in the Spring of 1927, later collected as Aspects of the Novel. Les Faux-Monnayeurs had appeared barely two years earlier; Dorothy Bussy's translation would not be published by Knopf until the Fall. Forster offered some remarks on the book in his lecture on "People" then returned to it, speaking at considerable length, in the following week's address, "Plot." Forster's remarks in both lectures give the impression of someone strongly attracted by the book and yet unable to approve of it. British empiricism has seldom been on better than flirting terms with French rationalism, and Forster shows a Briton's mistrust of Gide's theoretical experimentalism:

The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting... Les Faux Monnayeurs is among the more interesting of recent works: not among the vital: and greatly as we shall have to admire it as a fabric we cannot praise it unrestrictedly now. (Forster, 80)

Even though he first mentions the book in his lecture on character, what really fascinates Forster about the novel is its method of narration, which he finds as "illogical" as that of Bleak House but worse, because it is intentional:

. . . it is all to pieces logically. Sometimes the author is omniscient: he explains everything, he stands back, 'il juge ses personnages'; at other times his omniscience is partial; yet again he is dramatic, and causes the story to be told through the diary of one of his characters. There is the same absence of viewpoint, but whereas in Dickens it was instinctive, in Gide it is sophisticated; he expatiates too much about the jolts. (80)

Though here, as always, Forster expresses himself in a tone of elegant common sense, it seems to me that, whether or not the charge sticks to Dickens and Gide, his own comments may be logically inadequate.

"Sometimes the author is omniscient" is already a suspicious expression, for an omniscience that is occasional is more suited to an astrologer than a novelist. Moreover, Forster doesn't specify to which author he is ascribing this intermittent omniscience-André Gide or to the author within the novel who does indeed juge ses personnage; that is, the putative author who addresses readers directly in Chapter VII of Part Two of the novel. The two are not identical. If it is Gide Forster is calling "the author," then as the indisputable writer of every word of The Counterfeiters, the author is indeed omniscient, not intermittently so. If, however, Forster means the putative author inside the novel, the author of Chapter VII, then it seems the author enjoys no sort of omniscience whatever. Yes, he does indeed judge his characters and sharply, especially Edouard and Bernard; but he is far from being omniscient. In fact, he is virtually as ignorant as the reader of what is going to happen in Part Three. He speculates that no good will come to Boris from Edouard's plans; he worries that Passavant will ruin Olivier and supposes that Vincent will soon discover Lady Griffith's soullessness--but any attentive reader could do the same. Notice that this author (again the one who is not André Gide) writes in the present indicative of his characters. Evidently, they are free to surprise him, are at the disposal of life and may develop as they like. Even for its putative author, The Counterfeiters is a journey on an open road, not a map enclosed by frontiers, as we can see in this passage:

Edouard has irritated me more than once (when he speaks of Douviers, for instance)-enraged me even; I hope I haven't shown it too much; but now I may be allowed to say so. His behavior to Laura-at times so generous--has at times seemed to me revolting... what is to be done with such people as these?

It was not I who sought them out; while following Bernard and Olivier I found them in my path. So much the worse for me; henceforth it is my duty to attend them. (Gide, 202, 205)

No more logical, in the strict sense, is Forster's statement that "at other times [the author's] omniscience is partial." There is no such thing as "partial omniscience." One might as well say that Mickey Mantle was sometimes only three-fourths ambidextrous. Hardly better is Forster's complaint that the book suffers from an "absence of viewpoint"-unless he means that he is irritated by a superfluity of viewpoints, which it certainly has. But an excess is not an absence any more than omniscience can be partial.

I would like to think that it is because Forster himself felt dissatisfied with what he had said about Gide's book in this third lecture that he took it up again at the end of his fourth.

After a lecture devoted to illustrating his definition of plot as "a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality" (86), Forster is still thinking of Gide's new book and wonders whether a novel has to be premeditated. "Cannot it grow?" he asks. "Cannot it open out?" (96). He then identifies The Counterfeiters as just such a book, "a violent onslaught on the plot as [I] have defined it: a constructive attempt to put something in place of the plot" (97). Instead of telling us at once what this something is, or how a violent onslaught can be constructive, Forster, who must have loathed Chinese boxes and Russian dolls, chides Gide for publishing his diary along with his novel:

...there is no reason why he should not publish in the future the impressions he had when rereading both the diary and the novel, and in the future-perfect a still more final synthesis in which the diary, the novel, and his impressions of both will interact. (97)

It is as if Forster were looking askance at Gallic deconstructive earnestness avant le fait , yet the book clearly fascinated him and, however grudgingly, he still wants to give Gide his due:

He is indeed a little more solemn than an author should be about the whole caboodle, but regarded as a caboodle it is excessively interesting, and repays careful study by critics. (97)

Forster's more settled view of Gide's "onslaught" on the conventions of plot turns out not to be so violent; in fact, what Gide has done doesn't appear to be all that aggressive. After all, the novel can be intelligibly seen as an elaborate exploration of the causes of the death of little Boris, and so Gide has hardly ignored the principle of causality by which Forster distinguishes plot from mere story. He notes that The Counterfeiters actually strings together a series of entirely conventional plot-fragments, the stories of the Molinier brothers, Bernard, Laura, etc. These bits of plot are "logical objective," Forster admits, "but by no means the centre of the book" (98). Forster locates the nearest thing to that center right in the middle of the book, in Edouard's discussion of his novel (also called The Counterfeiters ) with Sophroniska, Bernard, and Laura in Saas-Fée. Forster includes his own translation of an extended extract of this conversation and stresses what Edouard calls his subject: ". . . the struggle between facts as proposed by reality, and the ideal reality." The significant novelty of Gide's novel for Forster lies in "the attempt to combine the two truths"--truth in life and truth in art--an exhilarating undertaking for any novelist to contemplate.

As for plot-to pot with plot, break it up, boil it down. Let there be those "formidable erosions of contour" of which Nietzsche speaks. All that is prearranged is false. (101)

The odd things here are that Forster should take a fictional, albeit professional, colleague at his word and that he should confuse Gide's Counterfeiters, which does get written, with Edouard's, which does not . Though he may be at great pains to conceal the fact, Gide's novel is painstakingly prearranged and, as Forster notes, is constituted of familiar kinds of plots. These fragments are scrupulously thought out and artfully related: witness the symmetry of Bernard spending an improving summer with the decent novelist Edouard, while Olivier is nearly destroyed by his summer with the literary poseur Passavant; consider such deliberately, even musically, repeated themes as parental infidelity (Mme. Profitendieu, Oscar Molinier), leaving and returning home (Laura Douviers, Bernard and Mme. Profitendieu), illegitimacy (Bernard, Laura's baby), and the perils of depressed self-esteem (little Boris, Armand Vedel, Olivier Molinier, Gontran de Passavant).

Forster knows that there is no lack of French logic in The Counterfeiters so it is strange to hear him return to his idée fixe about the book, that it is not only illogical but tries to be "subconscious"--as if it were, say, André Breton's Nadja:

... [Gide] sets out to lay a parabaloid; he is not well advised, if he wants to write subconscious novels, to reason so lucidly and patiently about the subconscious... (102)

The book does worse than lay an egg; it lays a "parabaloid." Forster seems to me to come closer to the truth about Gide's novel in his concluding statement:

...the various bundles of words [Gide] has called Les Faux Monnayeurs will be enjoyed by all who cannot tell what they think till they see what they say, or who weary of the tyranny by the plot and of its alternative, tyranny by character. (102)

This praise is elegantly stated but seems to me nonetheless unjust. Gide has dispensed with neither plot nor character-nor, for that matter, with causality, logic, or premeditation. His novel is self-conscious rather than subconscious. However, I agree with Forster in one respect: the ex-Calvinist author has striven mightily to free his book of every sort of tyranny.

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Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.

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