[New York Review of Books; 2020]
Tr. from the French by Damion Searls
In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the French semiotician and critic, who famously decoded elements of Parisian culture as a means of offering social criticism of prevailing ideologies, turned himself into the text to be studied. It’s an oblique, genre-defying autobiography that scrutinized fragments of his life, while refusing and ironically commenting on the conventional processes of autobiography. The writer rejected a traditional arc of development and instead offered glimpses into a self that he believed was inconsistent, elusive, and constantly performed. It is fitting that Barthes provides one of the blurbs to Damion Searls’ new and eminently readable translation of Andre Gide’s Marshlands, in which he calls the slim novel, “a great book, and a modern one.” Like Barthes by Barthes, Marshlands is both autofictional and metafictional. In Barthes by Barthes, an autobiographer writes an autobiography called Barthes by Barthes, while in Gide’s novel, a novelist writes a novel called Marshlands. In both, the authors contend with the inadequacies of their literary forms at conveying a sort of hidden truth. Marshlands is ultimately the author’s failed attempt at expressing this hidden truth, this single idea that becomes so all-consuming that its elucidation becomes his raison d’être. The deft, playful novel is rightly considered one of the first examples of modern metafiction, and arguably of postmodernism, because like Barthes’ autobiography, it rebels against traditional narrative, while ironizing the methods of its form.
The novel adopts the structured format of a writer’s journal, in which the narrator meticulously tracks the progress of his novel, so that each chapter represents a particular day over the course of a single week during his life in Paris and its outskirts. Each chapter is a diaristic account of the narrator’s activities, which largely comprise the writing of his novel, also entitled Marshlands, and his obsessively and petulantly talking about the central themes of the novel to his lover, Angela, and a number of literary friends. The narrator’s activities inevitably fall into a redundant routine — each day, he receives a visit from his friend, Hubert, at six; in the evenings, he visits Angela who asks him what he did that day; and each Friday night, he attends a literary banquet at Angela’s. The repetitiveness of these activities is not lost on the narrator, who laments to Hubert how monotonous his life has become, how “nothing ever happens,” and on one occasion, when asked by Angela what he did for the day, he cannot recall “one single thing I had done.” The narrator also observes the same deadening monotony and repetitiveness in the lives of those around him. He comments that his friend Richard has “never seen anything, never has anything interesting to say, he reads newspapers so that he’ll have something to talk about — when he has time. Every hour of the day is already spoken for. His destiny is never to do anything else until he dies.” Through the narrator’s lens, everyone, including himself, suffers from the same spiritual malaise of constantly reliving their lives, of imprisonment within routine. The narrator seems to be the only individual to notice the repetitiveness of their lives. He often seems like the only sane person among the mad, or more typically, a mad person among the sane. It is as if everyone around the narrator lives blinded with the same sickness but have become so accustomed that they do not notice the oppressiveness of their conditions. Gide employs the structured form of a journal both to underscore the writerliness of his novel and to create a sense of dailiness, of the narrator operating within a prescriptive routine.
In a metafictional turn of events, the narrator actually writes in a second journal within the journal which is the novel itself (and in a third metafictional layer, the protagonist of the narrator’s novel, Tityrus, actually records his thoughts in a third journal). In this second journal, the narrator does not merely record the activities of the day but also plans what he will do weeks in advance. The second journal is also a planner and where in the manner of Nietzsche, he records aphoristic truths in fevered moments of inspiration, which he regards as magnificent and revelatory. The narrator claims that “to keep a daily planner and write down what I need to do during the week, for every week, for every day: that is using one’s time wisely. You decide your actions for yourself; having resolve upon them in advance. . . I go to sleep every night facing a day to come that is unknown and nonetheless predetermined by me.” The narrator seeks to vary his existence by planning actions in his journal that diverge from routine. Throughout the novel, he constantly repeats the same refrain to himself, as if it were a prayer: “One really must try to vary one’s existence a little.” This second journal is the means by which the narrator attempts to escape from this strangulating routine, to will himself into living a different sort of life.
Of course, despite his best efforts, the narrator lapses back again and again into routine. He cannot live a different sort of life, the life to which he aspires. With Angela, he plans for a transformative trip far beyond Paris, a trip that will allow him to detach from routine. However, the trip turns out to be a failure when the narrator cannot travel past Montmorency, a northern suburb of Paris, finds the experience more sad than pleasurable, and does not acquire freedom from his ordinary, stifling life. During the trip, he records moments in his journal but in a manner that idealizes the vacation. He admits, “I must write down nothing but poetic moments during this trip, because they are more like what I wanted.” He writes in his journal a better life, a theoretical life, a life that does not correspond to his grey reality. The narrator’s great flaw, as related by Gide himself in his characteristically coy and ironical afterword, is that he “prefers the better to the good. That is why he wants to improve everyone else.” There is a humorous moment in the narrator’s account of his little trip when he completely invents his and Angela’s noticing of “a brown line of processionary caterpillars slowly making their way down, one by one — and at the bottom of the tree, fat patient ground-beetles devouring them.” Angela, who physically reads the sentence that is written in the journal, observes to the narrator that she didn’t see any ground-beetles. The narrator also concedes that he also didn’t see any beetles or even caterpillars. But he still insists that the “sentence is true, is it not?” Here, the narrator means that even though the event did not occur, it still metaphorically represents a deeper truth about reality. This act of rewriting reality is interesting because the narrator essentially distorts what actually occurred to establish a metaphysical truth. In other words, he lies in order to tell a concealed truth — that one cannot escape the sameness of one’s days, that one can only repeat the past.
The narrator is absorbed with the expression of this philosophical truth about the repetitiveness of daily life, about both his own and his friends’ steadfast attachment to routine. Autofictional novels about writers preoccupied with their writing have proliferated in contemporary fiction, from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, to Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, and to Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, the first in a trilogy that employs her characteristic fragmentary, allusive style. What is unique about Gide’s work is the degree of obsession the narrator has for his novel and its completion. He thinks and talks almost exclusively about his novel and its central idea, which is that we are ignorant of the fact we live the same days over and over again. When he encounters any scenes in daily life that suggest repetitiveness, as in the case of the beetles and caterpillars on his little trip, he immediately records these scenes in his journal for his novel. When others insist it would be better for him to write something besides Marshlands, he replies that he is unable, that he has chosen “a subject by elimination.” On days he hasn’t decided to do anything else, he works on his novel. Just as his fellow Parisians are attached to routine, so the narrator is attached to the writing and completing of his novel. The narrator’s behavior recalls, for me, the social historian Christopher Lasch’s description of his college roommate, John Updike: “All he does is write his novel.” Essentially, Marshlands (the novel we are reading, the novel we readers hold in our hands) is about a novelist completely consumed by his novel.
For this narrator, there is something parasitic about his relationship to the central idea of the novel. He sees everything in his daily life as either an illumination or refutation of this central idea. In an absurdly comic moment, he is provoked by the sight of Angela’s constantly rotating but ineffectual fan because it reminds him of ideas regarding routine in his novel: “And what, may I ask, did you mean with this little fan of yours? First of all, nothing upsets me more than an object turning round and round in the same place.” At a party with a group of pretentious literary friends, he desperately tries to communicate the idea of his novel through various metaphors that correspond to the tastes of his listener. The narrator explains to a physiologist, who is preoccupied with animal life and “returning to the source,” that his novel “is the story of animals who live in dark and gloomy caves, losing their sight from not making use of it.” The narrator is not merely possessed by his novel but also by its central idea. In his afterword, Gide remarks that he has boiled down his novel to two sentences in an appendix entitled, “Table of the Most Remarkable Sentences,” one of which is repeated throughout the work: “Once you take up an idea, you have to carry it through to the end.” This “remarkable sentence” and the explicit way it is repeated and referenced further suggest that the subject of the novel is the possession of the narrator by a single idea. Kafka, in a letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer, famously wrote, “I am made of literature; I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.” The narrator of Marshlands is a man made of a single idea. And like Nietzsche and Kafka who martyred themselves for their art, the narrator martyrs himself to sustain this idea against self-doubt and opposition from his friends. The idea is like a succubus that feeds off his life force. He wishes for a release from its oppression: “These ideas are like the ghouls that walk by night and rest on your shoulders, feed upon you, and weigh all the more heavily upon you the weaker they have made you. . .”
Ultimately, Marshlands is a novel about a man who wrestles with his faith in a single essential idea. Eventually, the narrator realizes that the release or the “end” of this idea might occur with the completion of his novel. When his little trip fails, he expresses his hopes to Angela that finishing Marshlands might “give my talents a new direction . . . I feel more clearly now everything I wanted to leave behind, in seeing it upon my return.” As expected, when the narrator finishes the novel, he fails to free himself from the idea, relapses into routine, and continues to see the world as monotonous and repetitive. He cannot alter his life through writing nor escape the idea because he still remains paralyzed within routine. But at the very least, for the narrator, the writing of his novel affirms the existence of an invisible sickness. That is, he writes his sickness into existence. Gide insists in his afterword that “anyone who thinks he sees something dull and ordinary in the world is wrong: there is nothing the least bit dull and ordinary in it, and that which you initially believe to be so is only being squeezed together by the rest, and it often gains in depth as a result.” As in Kate Zambreno’s contemporary novel Drifts, which also takes the form of daily entries into a notebook,writing becomes a way to penetrate the appearances of reality to arrive at deeper truths. Like Zambreno, Gide’s narrator wants to represent “an inner experience” through a unique, diaristic form. For the narrator of Marshlands, writing — whether in the form of journaling or novel-writing — is the only means to represent an existential condition that otherwise could not be articulated.
However, in a metafictional twist, the text itself questions whether it has achieved its central purpose. It wonders whether it has articulated what it has set out to articulate. In his afterword, Gide writes that though he has “said all these things and many more in Marshlands,” he argues the reader has “understood nothing.” The novel’s preface expresses the same anxiety over whether its content has been understood: “Before I explain my book to people, I am waiting for people to explain it to me. Explaining something up front only limits its meaning anyway, for even assuming that we know what we want to say, we don’t know if that is all we actually will say.” It is true that the novel is about the narrator’s philosophical confusion with his single idea, but it is also a postmodern commentary on the act of novel-writing itself. Just as the narrator wonders whether his novel has captured the essence of his idea about the repetitiveness of life, Gide wonders whether his novel has captured the essence of a man’s possession by an idea. Gide invites the reader’s doubt into the ability of the novelist (both himself and his narrator) to control the meaning of his novel. In this way, Marshlands wades into postmodernism because though it may not claim the death of the author as Barthes did in his eponymous essay, it unseats the author from his perch of authority.
Darren Huang is a Full Stop Reviews Editor and writer based in Manhattan.