Friday, 23 October 1998

André Gide: Fruits of the Earth / New Fruits of the Earth (1897/1935)

Edition: Penguin, 1970
Review number: 144

Fruits of the Earth is a strange little book - or, in this edition, two books, since New Fruits of the Earth is also included. Forty years separate the two parts, the first being written in Gide's twenties and the second in the late 1930s during his Communist phase. They both have a similar structure, consisting of anecdotes, poetry and exhortation apparently aimed at a certain Nathaniel, the personification of the reader. (The name is actually rejected in the second part as too mournful, a comment which I was unable to find a justification for looking in the Bible, the original source for it.) The purpose of the writing is to give instruction on a philosophy of life, a subject that Gide felt qualified to write about at such a young age because he had recently recovered from near-fatal tuberculosis.

The philosophy Gide is seeking to put forward us a kind of hedonism; it rejects the sophisticated urban pleasures, however, and counsels a joy in the simple things of life, particularly the countryside. The method Gide uses is a literary rather than pedagogic one; his most stringent exhortation is extremely poetic. In this, he comes across as the opposite in talents to Sartre, whose literature frequently fails to come across as anything more than propagandist exhortation.

The writers who most frequently came to my mind as I read this excellent, though strangely unattributed, translation, are D.H. Lawrence and Joris-Karl Huysmans, because of the subject matter, and Lawrence Durrell, because of the style. It also read as I would expect French poetry at the turn of the century to read, though my French is certainly not up to reading poetry. Done as well as this, the book is a better argument for its worldview than any logical exposition; it was certainly a stimulating yet comfortable one to read.

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