mardi 10 décembre 2013

La Symphonie Pastorale, Andre Gide (1919)


"La Symphonie Pastorale" is a novella written by Andre Gide in 1919 when he was 50 years old, and despite its small size (70 pages), it is both structurally and thematically sophisticated.
The characters, for example, are complex: some grow, some change, one dies, while one, the narrator, damns himself to perpetual moral stagnation. He is the most interesting figure in this sad story: a sort of anti-hero, he is a country minister living in a remote part of Switzerland in the 1890s, who, imbued with some kind of truncated Christian charity, takes on the academic and moral education of a blind, initially mute orphan girl, and two and a half years later, at the girl's demise, falls to his knees, now broken and pathetic but still not enlightened, petitioning God for forgiveness.
Poor us. We have waded through the theological distinctions he has made between Protestantism and Catholicism, Pauline doctrine and Jesus' teachings; listened to his theories of language acquisition; and patiently stood by as he puzzled out the role of knowledge in happiness. In fact, the minister at first seems erudite, quoting Scripture and Virgil but his logic proves faulty and his self-described Christian core shows itself to be empty. He is always almost coming to self-understanding but always falling short, retreating...
The last line, "I would have wept but I felt my heart more arid than a desert" should signal understanding and remorse but only a paragraph or two before he dismisses the authenticity of his son's newly discovered vocation and instead of asking for his wife's forgiveness, asks her to pray for his redemption...as if he is all that matters.
The form of the book is appropriate to the characterization: divided into two notebooks, the first, written in the past tense and told after the fact, describes how the narrator educates Gertrude, ending with the girl moving to another home, inadequately formed perhaps, but happy; Jacques, his eldest son and his competition for Gertrude's affections is temporarily sent away; and Amelie, the minister's watchful wife, while purposely ignored by him, anchors the events in some kind of objectivity.
At the close of the first notebook, redemption is possible and no irreparable damage has been done but the second notebook is different. The action in this one moves quickly, it is set in the narrator's present, writing it as it happens to him, so that in the span of a few short weeks, the minister's life unravels and he lacks the time to figure out how he is responsible: Jacques, disillusioned by his father's ministry, joins a Catholic order, converts Gertrude and offers her real understanding of the world. Gertrude in turn, comes to see her guiltless but central role in the disintegration of the unity of her host family, and accepting the impossibility of love with the priest, she dies by her own hand. This is a perfect, lyrical tragedy.

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