The Immoralist

The Immoralist
André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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Compare these descriptions of The Immoralist from two separate publishers:

Penguin Classics description:

“In The Immoralist, André Gide presents the confessional account of a man seeking the truth of his own nature. The story’s protagonist, Michel, knows nothing about love when he marries the gentle Marceline out of duty to his father. On the couple’s honeymoon to Tunisia, Michel becomes very ill, and during his recovery he meets a young Arab boy whose radiant health and beauty captivate him. An awakening for him both sexually and morally, Michel discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires. But, as he also discovers, freedom can be a burden. A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts, The Immoralist is a literary landmark, marked by Gide’s masterful, pure, simple style.”

Vintage International description:

“First published in 1902 and immediately assailed for its themes of omnisexual abandon and perverse aestheticism, The Immoralist is the novel that launched André Gide’s reputation as one of France’s most audacious literary stylists, a groundbreaking work that opens the door onto a universe of unfettered impulse whose possibilities still seem exhilarating and shocking.

Gide’s protagonist is the frail, scholarly Michel, who shortly after his wedding nearly dies of tuberculosis. He recovers only through the ministrations of his wife, Marceline, and his sudden, ruthless determination to live a life unencumbered by God or values. What ensues is a wild flight into the realm of the senses that culminates in a remote outpost in the Sahara–where Michel’s hunger for new experiences at any cost bears lethal consequences. The Immoralist is a book with the power of an erotic fever dream–lush, prophetic, and eerily seductive.”

Notice how the second one makes practically no mention of homosexuality? This is actually a pretty common occurrence with this book; there is a large subset of readers who are absolutely adamant that The Immoralist is NOT about being gay. Homosexuality is only present, they would argue, it’s not the focus. In my opinion, that attitude is a product of that common problematic perception of sexuality as a purely physical trait or behavior. Gide’s book is not about the physical dimension of homosexuality, it’s about the psychological and ethical ones. Michel’s recognition of his true desires inspires a moral rebellion against the unspoken codes that govern our behavior. It awakens him to the realization that traditional morality often denies people the things they really want, and that very little stops us from shucking those chains and living as we like. I consider this book essential reading for queer men because we should be asking: If I am happier bucking the moral conventions of heterosexuality, what other moral standards should I question? Perhaps the answer is none, but the question should be asked anyways.

Be forewarned that The Immoralist’s transgressive themes are wrapped up tight in the coded language of the era and will require a little interpretation. It’s not a thriller or even a drama, it’s more a quiet, philosophical meditation on how one should live one’s life. Chances are many readers will have an intense dislike for Michel and his philosophy, which is an entirely valid position. In my experience, everyone seems to read this book a little differently. Some agree with Michel, some pity him, some revile him, but it is precisely because there is no consensus that it remains such a useful book after more than 100 years. It reminds me a bit of Lolita in that way, a cultural and moral flashpoint at which fundamental tenets of society are attacked and defended. And as I said, it’s not really about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about having the conversation at all. We become so used to the way things are that it’s easy to forget it’s not the way things need to be, and texts like The Immoralist remind us of that.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers
by Jean Genet
Difficulty: Very Hard
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I said in my post on Genet’s The Thief’s Journal that I preferred it over Our Lady of the Flowers, and while that’s true, Our Lady definitely deserves some time in the spotlight too. Many of the themes present in the former will also be found in this book, most notably Genet’s inverted Christian value system, which is discussed at greater length in the post about The Thief’s Journal. But unlike Thief’s Journal, Our Lady has a bit more in the way of plot and story, and adopts an impressionistic, hallucinatory style to tell it. Genet himself appears frequently in it as the narrator, and sometimes even pauses the story to masturbate in his jail cell. Indeed, he begins his tale by explaining to the reader that these are the stories he tells himself to masturbate to when he’s bored. While Our Lady does have some explicit moments, much of the novel’s content isn’t what most of us would consider to be pornographic.

Our Lady of the Flowers opens with the death of its main character, Divine, a cross-dressing homosexual (usually referred to as ‘she’) formerly known as Culafroy. DIvine has died of tuberculosis, and Genet portrays her as a holy saint ascended to heaven and sets out to tell us about her life. Prior to her death, Divine lived in a cramped attic overlooking a graveyard with her true love, a pimp named Darling Daintyfoot. When Genet isn’t showing us Divine’s childhood (when she was still Culafroy), he’s following Divine and Darling through the Parisian underworld as they interact with all manner of social outcasts and criminals. One of these criminals is Our Lady of the Flowers, a small time dealer turned murderer, who temporarily forms a ménage a trois with Divine and Darling before being caught by the authorities and executed. As previously mentioned, Genet is heavily present as a narrator and is constantly breaking in on his own story, further fragmenting an already tenuous narrative. 

I’ve always found the story behind this novel’s creation and publication to be particularly fascinating. Before he became a writer, Genet was a career criminal, primarily a thief, prostitute, and most unforgivably, a homosexual. Our Lady of the Flowers was composed entirely during one of his many stints in prison, and actually had to be written twice after a guard discovered his first draft and burned it. After his release, he introduced himself and his work to Jean Cocteau, and several years later, when Genet was facing a life sentence for repeated convictions, Cocteau, Gide, and other French luminaries advocated for his release on account of his great artistic potential, using Our Lady as evidence. And the French government let him go. It’s such a wild thing for me to imagine. I suppose we do similar things here in America, with pop stars and football players, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. Ours is a court of public opinion in an age of information for relatively small-time offenders, whereas Genet’s case was taken up by a few intellectuals arguing, it seems to me, for the primacy of art over law and order and actually winning. No doubt there’s a cultural divide that muddles my understanding of it, but there it is.

Corydon

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Corydon
by André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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André Gide was an extremely influential, very prolific French author known for his autobiographical and moralistic works. Though he considers it to be one of his most important books, Corydon is one of his least discussed, at least in anglophone literary communities. This may be attributed to his full-throated defense of pederasty, homosexual relationships between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, a practice he engaged in throughout his life. Despite this complication, Corydon still has much to offer a modern reader.

Gide’s book is a series of four Socratic dialogues in which the eponymous Corydon defends the existence of homosexuality (and pederasty specifically) to an unnamed, rather obtuse narrator. His arguments range from the philosophical to the biological and historical in his attempt to prove that homosexuality is not only natural, but can also be virtuous and uplifting. He also criticizes other homosexuals for their refusal to be out and open about their sexuality, and allowing the public condemnation of them to persist.

Gide’s arguments are a mixed bag. Some have aged well, others less so, and some of them come across as weak and self-serving, even for the era. Regardless of these problems, Corydon is still an important landmark in the discourse of homosexuality, and we can see how some of his arguments contributed to the development of the current movement. One thing I found to be particularly interesting about Gide and this text is the fact that he speaks with demonstrated conviction. When he was 47 (well before Corydon was written), Gide eloped with the 15 year old Marc Allégret, and the two remained together for 11 years before Allégret discovered he preferred women. They stayed close friends even after this and Allégret went on to a successful career as a filmmaker, in part thanks to the connections he established during his time as Gide’s lover.