restricted access Andre Gide: A Life in the Present (review)
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André Gide: A Life in the Present, by Alan Sheridan; xix & 709 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, $35.00.

That André Gide, an eminently self-aware twentieth-century author, was among the first, following Diderot and Sterne, to call into question, within his fiction, its form and suppositions (as early as Paludes, 1895) makes the following point especially apt: whatever its genre and scope, any work of [End Page 441] literature, criticism, history, biography, or philosophy presents an image of what, in the author’s understanding, such an undertaking should consist of and how it should be shaped, and thus sheds light, implicitly or otherwise, on its genre and its rationale. In the present volume (identical to the 1998 publication under the imprint of Hamish Hamilton), Alan Sheridan, sensitive to the implications of his enterprise, sets forth plainly its principles.

The works . . . are not to be treated as raw material of the biographer’s own work: their autonomy must be respected. In that hybrid form, literary biography, the writer must be both literary critic and historian. Space forbids too lengthy analysis of each work, but it is the duty of the literary biographer to delineate the process by which the author transmutes the material of his life into the work, the formal structure of the work, its relation to other works and its reception at the time of publication. But the life, too, has its autonomy: it does not require justification by works. It is part of history and therefore our history . . . .

(p. xvi)

What Sheridan treats, then, is the life (within the historical context) and the works in their close interrelationships, the works justifying the biography but not overwhelming it, the life keeping its autonomy, the osmotic connections between them receiving illumination.

His success is due in part to his eschewing of theory. “For me, such grand theories as theology, psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc., have turned out to be fictions . . . . I have scarcely more time for their younger, more sophisticated, but no more personable sisters, with their self-deprecating prefixes ‘de’ and ‘post-’ that tease, half-seriously, with their own fictionality” (p. xvii). Readers may take issue with this stance, wishing Sheridan had not dismissed one or more of their favorite theoretical devotions. They would do well, however, to weigh the merits of his lucid, jargon-free presentation against what might have been.

Sheridan gets down to business directly; we do not have to suffer through scene-setting evocations or anecdotal explanations of how he came to the topic. The introduction begins: “At the time of his death in 1951, aged eighty-one, André Gide would have been on most lists of the ten most important novelists of the century . . . .” Compare this opening (whatever one thinks of the claim: I consider it valid) with the following incipit, from Annie Cohen-Solal’s 1987 biography of Sartre: “Room number 1 in the Nouveau Drouot [the premier auction house in Paris] is carpeted in red; the ceiling’s neon tracks cast a brutal, almost unbearable light . . . .” (The page concerns a sale of Sartre’s manuscripts, by way of introducing him and the book.)

Quite properly, Sheridan does, however, set forth scholarly justifications for his undertaking. The major attempts at biography earlier were cursory or limited chronologically: one slim volume by George Painter (1951), later revised but still inadequate; two volumes by Jean Delay, a psychiatrist, massive but covering only Gide’s childhood and youth; the exhaustive study by Claude [End Page 442] Martin of the years 1895–1902; Pierre de Boisdeffre’s prudish biography, going only to 1907; and Pierre Lepage’s survey (1997), which does not treat Gide’s works at all. A new, critical biography is surely justified. Moreover, the biographer now has at his disposal even more material than earlier: Gide’s diary (an enlarged edition containing material suppressed earlier); forty volumes of letters (some intimate); manuscripts, critical editions, and scholarly studies; Les Cahiers de la Petite Dame, Maria van Rysselberghe’s eye-witness record (1918 on); and others’ diaries, including Martin du Gard’s.

These facts, however, merely push back the question, without explaining why Gide deserves any exhaustive biography. Sheridan’s...