by André Gide (1895)
translated from the French by Damion Searls (2021)
NYRB Classics (2021)
André Gide won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, when he was in his late 70s (he would die in 1951 at the age of 81). Marshlands, which has just been released by NYRB Classics in a new translation by Damion Searls, is one of his earliest works, published over a half century before he’d win the Nobel, when he was in his mid-20s. For such an early work by a relative newcomer to the Parisian literary stage, it is written with the verve and confidence of a famous (and presumptuous) man of letters, taking as its subject a well known (if primarily among friends) author who frequents Paris’s literary salons and has as his primary occupation the work on a novel. In this case, the novel the narrator is writing is entitled Marshlands.
Clearly Gide is having some fun here. As I’ve looked into Gide’s work in preparing to write this, he is often credited with building a space for metafiction and auto fiction. Both of those would apply to Marshlands. The book we are reading is set up almost like a journal, with most sections occupying a day in a week when the narrator is working on his own novel called Marshlands. And our narrator’s book has its own narrator, named Tityrus, whom he refers to once as himself. I’m getting a bit tangled up here, I feel, but ultimately we have several layers, and it made me wonder where Gide himself fit into it all. Or is he just having fun?
This is the first thing I’ve ever read by Gide. While in her (very playful itself) preface Dubravka Ugresic says that it is quite unique in Gide’s work, I am sure that my lack of familiarity has created some major gaps in my understanding. Nevertheless, though I don’t know how it all links up to other works or trends or whatever, I really enjoyed Marshlands, both for its humor as well as for its underlying gravity.
As a whole, the book is very playful. I mean, just check out these first lines:
Around five o’clock, it started to get cold outside; I closed my windows and returned to my writing.
At six o’clock, my dear friend Hubert walked in. He was back from riding school.
“So!” he said. “Hard at work?”
“I am writing Marshlands,” I replied.
“Will I like it?”
“Why write it then?”
“If I don’t, who will?”
The narrator himself clearly has a high-minded tone, but it’s hard to think he takes himself too seriously (and harder still to think Gide takes him too seriously). The premise of the narrator’s Marshlands, which we read in some fairly small bits, is this: a shepherd named Tityrus finds himself on his own rocky and swampy field; however, knowing that he cannot change it, he chooses to be satisfied with it, which makes him happy. Our narrator says, “There is no wiser thought than that, if you are unable to change your field, don’t you think?”
As for the Marshlands we are actually reading, the one by Gide, its narrator doesn’t seem too satisfied with his field. Each section is a new day, one that usually begins with the narrator sleeping in, working on Marshlands, and then visiting Angela, Hubert, and a few other friends, discussing with them Marshlands, which they don’t seem to care much about. As the week goes on, he has a panic attack at night and determines to get away for a little holiday trip with Angela. That little vacation is even shorter than anticipated, and it doesn’t help at all. Quite the contrary, actually.
It’s not just his routine that gets him down, though. He is also struggling to fill Marshlands with the deeper thoughts going on in his head. Not that this stops him from proclaiming the book is just as it should be! I love this, and I think I feel this way about Marshlands itself in the end:
“You should put that in Marshlands,” Hubert said.
Now that really made me mad.
“My poor friend, have you really never understood anything about a poem’s reason for being? Its nature? Where it comes from? A book . . . A book is sealed, Hubert, full, as smooth as an egg. You can’t put anything else in it, not a pin, except by force, which would shatter its form to pieces.”
“So you have filled your egg?” Hubert said.
“But, my dear friend,” I cried, “no one can fill an egg; eggs are born full! Anyway, it’s already in Marshlands . . . Plus I think it’s asinine to say that I would do better to write something else . . . asinine! Do you hear me?”