André Gide - The Fruits of the Earth
It is a great shame when the works of important authors fall out of print. It happens too often in English to those foreign authors who, for whatever reason, have fallen out of favour, and the consequent result is that they are often never rediscovered. André Gide has not been as unlucky as some, for there are a number of his works still in print, but nonetheless it is discouraging to find his early novel, Les nourritures terrestres, which was published in 1897, was first published, in English, in 1947 by Knopf, and now out of print; and then again in a different edition in 1969 by Peter Pauper Press, a publisher devoted to gift books, stationery and journals – and this, too, is out of print. I can't find the details for the version published by Knopf, but the Peter Pauper Press edition has been sadly mauled, reducing the page count from around 200 to a little over 50, and that with illustrations, large text, and wide margins.
But we work with what we have, and not with what we wish we had. Finding this book at all was a happy and unexpected event, and it is certainly true that reading some of Gide is preferable to reading none. I have read a few of his mature works, including Strait is the Gate and the excellent The Counterfeiters, but neither of these had prepared me for The Fruits of the Earth, which shows a young Gide in full prophetic mode, his thoughts at 28 dressed up into a philosophy that is quasi-mystical and brimming with the voluptuous excess of life and living. Summed up, The Fruits of the Earth can be stated as
Look, we must get ready to dispose of all the books! For it is not enough to read that the sand of the beaches feel smooth; I want to feel it with my bare feet.
Give up all, that is to say, family ties, the constraints of money, the shackles of employment, the rigour required by scholarship and the pettiness of the bureaucracy which surrounds us all. Give it up – and live, enjoy sand, and water, and food, and sleep, and love, and harmony, and the sense of self that understanding one's self can bring.
The introduction to The Fruits of the Earth, written by translator B. A. Lenski, informs us that this text was written to a fictional boy, Nathanaël, and sought to “incite young Nathanaël to detach himself from every rein that has bound him.” This is nice, but the boy is never named within the selection provided, which is ominously identified as chosen because they are “deem[ed] appropriate for today's young people”.
But let's not quibble. Adults have always believed, and will continue to cherish, their right and ability to inform those younger than them as to the best course for their life. Tellingly, the quotes contained within the text reject exactly that type of idea, but it's always hard to tell what is missing because unread sentences are simply that – unread and unknown.
What remains, though, is encouragement to live a life that, while not simple, is certainly free from material goods and the trappings of (then) modern life. Gide writes,
Shun whatever comes to look like you. As soon as surroundings come to resemble you, or you the surroundings, you must leave. Nothing is more dangerous for you than your family, your room, your past. Gather from every single thing whatever it can yield you, then let it go.
Gide's utterances – for that is how they are portrayed – contain worlds, and beckon one along to the experiences available in everything. His writing is unrestrained and all embracing, coveting everything and glorifying the simple and the sophisticated in everything there is. The description of a fruit is that of all fruits, and a short piece on drinking turns into a catalogue of the many pleasurable types of drink available, from the finest wine to the crudest tavern ale. On sleep, Gide writes,
Let me tell you of sleeps, sleeps at noon, sleeps in the middle of the day after work begun too early, troublesome sleeps, sleeps in the haystacks, sleeps in the wheat-fields, in the grass, in attics, in hammocks, on shipdecks, in narrow cabin bunks, in moving train compartments...
Read carefully, we notice that Gide begins intimately and expands outward, starting with the smallness of sleep experienced personally, then broadening his vision until we are dealing with trains, ships, hammocks and wheat. This technique is used often, whereby something small and personal becomes large and encompassing, highlighting the link between ourselves and the world.
Tell me, are you amazed enough just to be alive? Do you admire enough this superb miracle called life? Look around you. Everything is getting ready for the organisation of joy. Behold! All of nature suggests that man is born to be happy. It is the aspiration toward pleasure that provokes the germination of the plant, fills the honeycomb with honey and man's heart with goodness.
Love flows from the spring which is untapped, which is to say that nature, in its unblemished state, provides the clearest mirror with which to understand the machinations of our own hearts. Gide, when he writes of love, writes most often of self-love, but he understands the need to care for others, too.
And you said: the Autumn at least will compensate me for my miscalculations and console me for my worries. She won't come, I suppose, but at least the huge trees will turn crimson. During certain, still warm days, I will go sit by the edge of the pond, where last year, so many dead leaves fell. There I shall wait for evening.
The Fruits of the Earth is formatted (for I cannot, with confidence, indicate whether it was written in this manner in the original French, or not – thus format, and not written) into discrete paragraphs, many of which coalesce around a central theme, but many also do not. They hang suspended, asking to be plucked from the book and written down in one's diary, or, perhaps, as a Facebook status update. The Peter Pauper Press edition comes across as a self-help book, one of those little pocket-sized editions designed to be whipped out and consulted when one 'feels bad' thanks to, oh, I don't know – the loss of a Facebook friend? The failure to purchase that pair of shoes so desired thanks to an embarrassing mixup with credit card limits? You get the idea. Gide does, too, writing:
Throw away my book. Tell yourself that this is only one among a thousand possible postures before life. Seek your own. What somebody else would have done as well as you, don't do.
But I shouldn't come down too hard on this work. What is there, is very good, what is missing, is too much. The book is 57 very liberally margined pages, and the book itself is small and the text large. Add to that full-page illustrations and little nonsensical logos and images scattered throughout the text, and we are look at perhaps 35 or 40 actual pages. I suspect that even Gravity's Rainbow could be turned into a self-help book were the sentences well chosen and the margins adjusted accordingly. We are simply missing too much to create a firm opinion of the text, and I feel uncomfortable assessing Gide's early work as being overtly prophetic unless it truly is so – and the best and only way to learn that is to read the full, translated text, or to read it in the original French. As both seem increasingly unlikely, I shall leave the final word to Gide and close by saying that, should you find this edition, like I did, buried away in a tiny second-hand bookstore, without even a price tag, buy it, certainly, but treat is as the curiosity that it is, and not as the larger text itself.
And now to Gide:
Melancholy is nothing but fervor relapsed.
||The Fruits of the Earth
(Original Title: Les Nourritures Terrestres)
||B. A. Lenski
||Peter Pauper Press
"for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight"
-Nobel Prize in Literature 1947 Citation
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
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About the author
André Gide was born in Paris in 1869. Among many other awards, he was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947. Gide died in 1951, aged 81.