The plot here is strangely constructed. Book One (30 pages) is about Anthime, a crippled vivisectionist and freemason who, despite living in Rome, is militantly atheist until a miracle occurs. In Book Two Anthime's brother-in-law, Julius, an aristocrat and novelist whose latest book is a distressing flop, seeks the secretarial services of beautiful 19 year old Lafcadio Wluiki on the instruction of his father; in the course of hiring Lafacdio he sneaks a look at a photograph which shows Lafcadio naked and at several cryptic diary entries in a notebook; later Lafcadio relates the story of his childhood amongst five aristocratic 'uncles'. In Book Three we meet the utterly ineffectual Amedee Fleurissoire who marries a girl no one else wants except for his best friend and then tells his best friend he will never have sex with the girl; he then learns that the Pope has been kidnapped (a rumour put around by a gang of swindlers led by Lacfadio's schoolboy pal, Protos) conning dowagers out of their savings to 'rescue' the Pope and travels to Rome to save the Pope. Here (book 4) he is tricked into sleeping in a brothel with the mistress of Protos (who, as his name suggests, is a veritable master of disguises) and tricked by Protos into cashing a cheque and bringing the cash to Protos to 'save the Pope'. But Lacfadio is travelling on the train (book 5) and murders Amedee on a whim and then is confronted by his old school chum Protos and blackmailed into working for him as a gigolo and sometime rent boy but the worms turn and Protos is in trouble but Lacfadio's conscience troubles him and somewhere along the line Anthime decides to renounce Catholicism and become a Freemason again.
Not so much a plot as a set of short stories bundled together by unlikely coincidences (or is it all a huge conspiracy?).
But Gide can write. He observes things that no author I know has previously observed:
- As Julius gets in to bed next to his wife Marguerite "she gave an animal grunt and turned to the wall."
- "I see something disquieting in the appearance of everyone I pass in the street. It alarms me if they look at me, and if they do't look at me they seem as if they were pretending not to see me." (p 144)
And he writes beautiful pathetic fallacies:
- "Come, come, my son! You mustn't let yourself go like that. Well, yes! you have sinned, but, hang it all, you are still needed. (You've dirtied yourself; here, take this napkin; rub it off.) But of course I understand your anguish, and since you appeal to us, we will give you the means of redeeming yourself. (You're not doing it properly. Let me help you.)" (p 156)
And there are philosophical pointers:
- "Do you know what I dislike about writing? - All the scratchings out and touchings up that are necessary? ... In life one corrects oneself ... but one can't correct what one does." (p 72)
- "1. The slim recognize each other. 2. The crusted do not recognize the slim." (p 216)
The plot is bizarre. But the character of Lacfadio, the amoral, sexually ambivalent outsider, seems to be the template for Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley.
December 2016; 237 pages