The Immoralist was originally published in 1902 in French as L’Immoraliste; this translation, by Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), was first published in 1930. It begins with a preface by the author then a fictional letter to the Prime Minister explaining that the following text is what the main character, Michel, told them after asking them to visit him in a little village somewhere in Algeria. The rest of the novel is Michel’s story.
Since last seeing his friends Michel explains that he had married Marceline, even though he hadn’t particularly loved her, in order to please his father who lay on his deathbed. The thought of marriage had not previously entered his head as he had been occupied with his work on ancient cultures. On their wedding day Michel and Marceline embark on their travels, first to Paris and then on to North Africa. Whilst travelling Michel begins to pay a little attention to his new wife and realises that she is in fact very pretty, something he had never noticed before even though they had grown up together. It is only now that he really considers his recent marriage and what it means to him.
So the being to whom I had attached my life had a real and individual life of her own! The importance of this thought woke me up several times during the night; several times I sat up in my berth in order to look at Marceline, my wife, asleep in the berth below.
In Tunis Michel develops a cough and feels tired but they head further south until they get to Biskra. He starts to cough up blood and initially tries to hide it from his wife but she soon realises that he has tuberculosis and she looks after him during his illness. As a distraction Marceline brings Bachir, an Arab boy, in to Michel’s room; Michel soon starts to look forward to Bachir’s visits and develops a definite desire to live.
And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.
With Marceline’s help and his own renewed will to live Michel recovers from his illness. He finds the presence of children both in the street and at home a great help as he enjoys watching their healthy bodies. There is one incident when he witnesses, via a reflection, one of the boys, Moktir, steal a small pair of scissors behind his back. Michel says nothing and, curiously, Moktir then becomes his favourite. Later on in the novel Michel is made aware, from the enigmatic character Ménalque, that Moktir knew that Michel saw him.
Once Michel’s health has returned they return to France via Italy. Michel returns to work and decides to spend his time between Paris and an estate he inherited in Normandy called La Morinière. Whilst at La Morinière Michel learns about the state of the tenants and the land from Bocage who has been looking after the estate during the abscence of the landowner. Michel becomes irritated with Bocage’s old-fashioned ways and becomes besotted with Bocage’s young son, Charles: ‘…a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made…‘ Charles has ideas to shake up the running of the farms and Michel helps him implement some of these ideas. Michel is uneasy being a landowner and tries to ingratiate himself with the tenants and local populace but under the influence of Charles he evicts two farmers for no real reason. There is also an episode whereby Michel encourages another boy, Alcide, who is also Bocage’s son, to poach from his own land while at the same time encouraging Bocage to catch the poachers. Michel seems to just be playing at being a landowner, he doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of owning land and instead makes an ass of himself.
In the third part of the book events mirror the first part in that they leave Paris to travel to North Africa via Italy but this time Marceline falls ill. Michel looks after Marceline but he keeps them moving on until they finally reach Biskra and the conclusion of the book.
I have missed quite a lot out of this review. In fact, it is amazing just how much is packed in to such a small book. Both the setting and style is similar to Albert Camus and so it is no surprise to discover that Camus was influenced by Gide’s work. The story and style also made me think of Paul Bowles’s work such as The Sheltering Sky et al. Michel’s illness makes him re-evaluate his life and to take control of it but he soon falters as his freedom brings confusion. Near the end of the book he tells his friends:
What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.