André Gide - Biography
André Gide (1869 - 1951) was a French fiction writer, memoirist, essayist and Nobel Prize winner. André Gide had a profound impact on many writers including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. André Gide also demonstrated an interest in social justice in much of his work. In 1952, the Roman Catholic Church listed the work of André Gide in the Index of Forbidden Books. Although his detractors view his work as being overly cerebral and overwrought, his prose is prized for both its style and difficult content.
In 1903, André Paul Guillaume Gide stated, “The artist cannot do without a public; and when the public is absent, what does he do? He invents it and…awaits from the future what the present denies him.” This attitude indicates the outreach he would pursue throughout his career. His sophistication led many in his lifetime to misunderstand or not value the significance of his work. Yet he would still earn a reputation as a writer of profound importance.
On November 22, 1869, André Gide was born in Paris. His father Paul Gide taught law at the Paris University. His family had a strict Protestant faith that was influenced by Calvinistic teachings. In 1880, Paul Gide succumbed to intestinal tuberculosis.
After Paul Gide’s death, André Gide was raised in Normandy. His mother, his aunt Claire and Anne Shackleton (an unmarried English woman) raised the young Gide with a rigidity based in their religious devotion. André Gide’s early indoctrination to the ideals of “purity.” These ideals would conflict with his later devotions to sensuality, forming the central conflict in his art. The isolation in his early life provided conditions that promoted his dedication to writing.
Besides the moral education André Gide received from these three women, his early education was dominated by private tutors. Gide also devoted himself to the study of piano. His musical skill and fluency influenced his later creative production. He found particular inspiration in the compositions of Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. In Paris, he studied at the Ecole Alsacienne. In 1890, he earned his baccalaureat.
In 1891, Gide released his debut novel Les Cahiers d’André Walter, which is known in English as The White Notebook. This novel was presented as the posthumous journal of a dissipated young man who wrestles with his “angel” and his “beast.” The work bears the traces of influence from Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Stephane Mallarme, and Arthur Schopenhauer.
1891 was the year that André Gide would first meet Oscar Wilde. Apocryphally, many people believe that Wilde fostered André Gide’s introduction to homosexual activity. But Gide was already well acquainted with this life. Any seduction of Gide by Oscar Wilde was merely a spiritual seduction that would lead to an easing of Gide’s moral rigidity.
André Gide enlisted in the military in 1892. But after a week, he was discharged. The military authorities suspected that Gide had tuberculosis. This diagnosis convinced Gide that he would die early; however, recuperation in the Algerian city of Biskra. After the period of convalescence, Gide devoted himself to so-called “Pagan” pleasures. His sexual activities would scandalize his friends and colleagues including George Bernanos and Paul Claudel. Gide’s comedy Paludes would playfully embrace this new “primitivism.” Throughout 1893 and 1894, André Gide toured North Africa where he explored his sexual interest in young men. In 1895, Gide renewed his acquaintance with Oscar Wilde when the older (and disgraced) author called Gide to search for finer boys.
Gide’s quest was cut short when his mother summoned him. André Gide had become distanced from his mother, but on her deathbed she desired to reconcile. Gide inherited two Norman estates, including a Louis XIII Chateau. A neurologist instructed Gide to ignore his homosexual inclinations and he began to look for ways to make his life more normal. His cousin Madeleine Rondeaux married André Gide when he was in his mid-twenties. This marriage was not surprisingly chaste. Elie Allegret, the father of Gide’s future lover Marc, stood as the best man.
In 1896 (the year after his marriage to Rondeaux), he entered political life when he was elected mayor of La Roque-Baignard. From 1901 until 1907, André Gide lived in Jersey near St. Brelade’s Bay.
André Gide devoted his energies into the creation of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1908. He undertook this endeavor with the help of Jacques Riviere. He used his reputation to promote the needs of the refugees from the European conflicts in 1914 through 1918.
When Marc Allegret turned fifteen years old in 1916, André Gide began a love affair with the boy. They absconded to London. Gide’s wife destroyed all of his letters. Gide would remain legally bound to his wife Madeleine until her death in 1938. The marriage was never consummated and it would fuel the creation of his novel Et Nunc Manet in Te.
André Gide had an affair (and a child) with Elisabeth, the daughter of Belgian Painter Théo van Rysselberghe. Elisabeth van Rysselberghe was dedicated to André Gide even after their sexual relationship ended. She would move into the Parisian apartment next door to Gide. Elisabeth van Rysselberghe would manage the quotidian aspects of Gide’s life. This heterosexual affair would strain Gide’s relationship (especially in 1923 when the relationship would produce Gide’s only child.) Their daughter Catherine was André Gide’s only direct descendant.
Si le Grain ne Meurt, André Gide’s autobiography, was published in 1924. Corydon would appear the same year. Gide would consider this defense of homosexuality his most significant work.
In the mid-1920s, André Gide began to lend his voice for prisoner’s right, an issue popular with French intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre.
André Gide and Marc Allegret toured colonial French Equatorial Africa between 1926 and 1927. Gide’s travelogues Voyage au Congo and Retour du Tchad recounted his African travels. In these accounts, André Gide condemned the brutal and exploitative practices of the French business interests. In particular, Gide saw the French system of régime des Grandes Concessions in which the French colonial authorities ceded an area to corporate interests. These interests were given free reign over the exploitation of the natural resources. He aptly identified the practice of forcing indigenous peoples out of their home to use their labor as a form of slavery. His passionate analysis of the situation was the impetus for political change in France.
André Gide’s liberal political interests led to a flirtation with Communism. Gide never officially joined the Communist Party. The Soviet Union of Writers invited Gide on a tour of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the mode of life in the Soviet Union pushed André Gide away from the communist ideologies. As Gide had done in French Colonial Africa, he turned his criticism to the Soviet-mode of Communism in Retour de L’U.R.S.S.. His analysis created a rift between himself and his socialist acquaintances.
In 1926, André Gide released Les Faux-Monnayeurs usually known as The Counterfeiters in English. This was his most famous and substantial work.
In 1935, André Gide and André Malraux traveled to Berlin to petition Hitler for the improved treatment of prisoners. In 1942, André Gide relocated to Tunis and stayed in Africa until the end of World War II.
André Gide was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947. Gide was too ill to attend the ceremony. Gide’s list of accolades includes an Honorary Doctorate from Oxford, an Honorary admission to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Goethe Prize. His death occurred in 1951. The religious elements of his funeral met with protests from his friends and admirers.