“Who was this Gide whose name [he] uttered one afternoon, almost furtively, and with a smile that seemed to ask forgiveness for his audacity?”
Introduced to the writing of André Gide by an early mentor, Simone de Beauvoir feasted on everything he wrote. This early Gide story takes its title from the King James bible, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Thrown by the blurb on the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition, which reads, “A devastating exploration of aestheticism taken to extremes,” I was half way through before I realised the typo: for ‘aestheticism,’ read ‘asceticism’.
Though there are nods toward modernism, Strait is the Gate is fundamentally a Romantic story of doomed love. Gide writes exquisitely; the suppressed agonising of the three primary characters, Jerome, Alissa and Juliette is visceral in its despair; the final chapter is almost unendurable.
Written in the first-person, Gide uses letters and a diary to present contrasting perspectives. During an uneasy walk after a long absence, Jerome narrates:
My head was aching so badly that I could not extract a single idea from it; to keep myself in countenance, or because I thought that the gesture might serve instead of words, I had taken Alissa’s hand, which she let me keep. Our emotion, the rapidity of our walk, and the awkwardness of our silence, sent the blood to our faces; I felt my temples throbbing; Alissa’s colour was unpleasantly heightened; and soon the discomfort of feeling the contact of our damp hands made us unclasp them and let them drop sadly to our sides.
Days later, when the couple have again parted, Alissa writes:
But when our lugubrious expedition to Orcher came to an end without a word, when, above all, our hands unclasped and fell apart so hopelessly, I thought my heart would have fainted within me for grief and pain. And what distressed me most was not so much that your hand let go of mine, but my feeling that if yours had not, mine would have done so, for my hand no longer felt happy in yours.
Alissa adds a postscript to this letter with the phrase, “[…] your love was above all intellectual, the beautiful tenacity of a tender and faithful mind.” I am much taken with the concept of an ‘intellectual love,’ so devastatingly accurate; I write it in my notebook and repeat it throughout the day.