Wilful Blindness: The Marriage of André and Madeleine Gide

We have to wonder how disingenuous Gide was in refusing to understand Madeleine’s pain, for an ever greater change now occurred in his behaviour: he began publishing works that spoke openly about homosexuality. All of Gide’s early books recounted the failure of heterosexual relations, which usually withered away before ever becoming fully formed, but this was a typical compromise with social taboos. Gide had quietly been preparing a theoretical defence of homosexuality for almost thirty years; one version of it he had privately published. But now that the decisive puncturing of the illusions and half-truths that held his marriage together had occurred, Gide was ready to reveal his sexuality to the literary world. In the mid-1920s he published not just Corydon, a series of Socratic dialogues about homosexuality, arguing its case as a natural instinct, but also his extremely revealing autobiography, Si le grain ne meurt (If it Die…) and the experimental novel that remains his most lasting legacy, Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters). The novel he wrote for Marc Allégret in order to prove to him he was a great writer, and being Gide, it contained a portrait of a homosexual couple that bore a striking resemblance to them.

Speaking out about homosexuality was a courageous act that Gide presented as a vital necessity. He knew what the fate of Oscar Wilde had been, and even though it was not a criminal offence in France, he was well aware of the social ostracism that would be attendant on a public confession of his sexuality.

Speaking out about homosexuality was a courageous act that Gide presented as a vital necessity. He knew what the fate of Oscar Wilde had been, and even though it was not a criminal offence in France, he was well aware of the social ostracism that would be attendant on a public confession of his sexuality. He was already having his works vilified by the Catholic right, and this would put “decisive weapons” in their hands, as his friend Roger Martin du Gard, also a married homosexual, informed him. But Gide was adamant, declaring: “I must, absolutely must lift this cloak of lies that has sheltered me since my youth… I’m stifling under it!” The man of sincerity asserted himself, and in essence, publication did him personal good that outweighed the public harm. Gide did lose friends, and he was poorly regarded from more conventional quarters, but the fresh lease of life he acquired from coming out of the closet more than offset the sorrows of enmity. When Gide was fifty-five, having just completed his greatest work, Les Faux-Monnayeurs, and about to embark on a year-long trip through Africa with Marc, he bumped into his friend, the playwright and director, Jacques Copeau who, ten years younger, was feeling old and disillusioned. “Where do you get that insane strength?” Copeau asked him. The answer lay in Gide’s burst of honest self-expression; he was no longer repressing important parts of himself.

The way Gide dealt with the cost in terms of his personal friendships is most intriguing. Shortly before the trip to Africa, he put up for public auction 405 items from his library that included a large number of books from friends that had been dedicated to him. Officially, Gide offered several reasons for the sale: he needed money to finance his trip; he was not bothered about material possessions; others would take care of the books better than he would. In fact, he was settling scores with friends who had betrayed him. In an interview twenty-five years later, he confessed: “The disapproval of some friends was so violent that I nearly broke with them, and that’s what brought about, at a particular moment, the book sale from my library, books by those who had repudiated me.” The original preface to the auction catalogue explained exactly why the books were up for sale, but the director of the sale had protested and rewritten it. The anecdote neatly encapsulates Gide’s character — the courage to risk offence, quiet malice, and an elegant if imperfect mask behind which the real truth safely lies.

Ironically, Gide is no longer viewed as a “good” example of queer literature because the defence he marshalled of homosexuality in Corydon is too tainted by the mores of his time. Gide defends a Hellenic view of male relationships, but decries other kinds as less admirable or pure. Nor was Gide a poster boy for heterosexual marriage, of course, although when Madeleine died in 1938, he was distraught. In his Journal he wrote that “I have lost all taste for life… I have only pretended to live, taking no interest in anything or in myself, lacking appetite, taste, curiosity, desire…” He was in “a disenchanted world, with no hope of escape.” These are strong words from a man who had lived his life essentially elsewhere, spending little time in Madeleine’s company, investing his heart and his sexuality in other people. In the end, Gide was obliged to live between two incompatible universes in an era of deeply conventional sexuality, and he made the best of the sort of marriage that was commonplace in his time but unthinkable today. He was neither a “hero” for homosexuality, nor a man who dignified his life with what would have been impressive restraint. And in many ways the real question is why we should want people to be so admirable, when the truth is that sexuality is rarely so compliant, selfless or discreet. André Gide was that most recognisable mortal, a deeply conflicted and contradictory person. Madeleine was the one who had all the moral and personal purity; throughout her life she was reserved, devout, quiet, fearful, and this emotional coherence did not seem to bring her any great reward. But Madeleine’s contribution was huge, as Gide knew and readily acknowledged. Everything he wrote was written for her; she was the lodestar, the fixed point, the stable centre against which he measure and experienced his volatile and restless self. In the distance between the two of them, his creativity grew, sometimes twisted and painful, sometimes vigorous and wild. The real tragedy was that she never really knew it.

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