1909 – strait is the gate ~ andre gide

I know I say this every week, however, this time, I mean it more than most – OMG WHAT A WEEK.

I’m writing to you from the strangest place ever. I’m currently sitting on a borrowed mattress in a spare room nearly ten hours away from my lovely, comfortable bed. I’m hunched over my laptop, typing away like some kind of crazy person. It’s dark, and I can’t see a thing – apart from my computer screen.

Angus and I decided to both take a week off work and go on a slightly impromptu road trip. More about that in the middle of the week…

The week off work is good news. Fantastic news, actually. However, the thing with my work is that, whenever I take a day off, I have to make up for it by working twice as hard the day before. So can you imagine what would happen when I take a whole WEEK off…?

Yeah. Last week. Was not pretty. At all.

But that’s last week.

For the following week, I don’t even have to THINK about my job. However, the complete disaster that was last week has prevented me from getting my review up on time for Sunday, for which I apologise.

And that’s why, after spending hours and hours in a car today; after very little sleep last night, I’m here, now – staying up late to finish my review. In the dark. Like a crazy person.

Here it is. If there are any mistakes, blame it on the sleep deprivation…

Strait is the Gate

by Andre Gide

Published in 1909

“Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.”

– Andre Gide, Strait is the Gate

This is the very first sentence of Andre Gide’s short 1909 novel, Strait is the Gate – and it’s one of the most interesting first sentences I’ve ever read. From the very first sentence, this-book-that-claims-it-isn’t-a-book had me intrigued. It begs the question – if what I’m reading isn’t a book, what exactly am I reading?

Oh, and then there’s that slightly confusing title (which is really the translator’s, not Andre Gide’s). It looks like a typo. The word “strait” went out with the dinosaurs. These days, we use it to refer to a bit of ocean that flows between two bits of land. But the word “strait” used to refer to something that was narrow or restrictive. It still survives in the expression “strait-laced” and the word “straitjacket” – which are generally altered to “straightjacket” and “straight-laced” anyway.

The title, Strait is the Gate, refers to a particular passage from the Bible, in which it’s explained that the path to Heaven is narrow and secluded, while the road to damnation is a five-lane highway. Or words to that effect. “Strive to enter in at the strait gate” says the Bible, in the book’s epigraph.

Strait is the Gate is, essentially, a romance. In fact, it’s the story of one of the greatest, most passionate loves of all time. But if you’re hoping for a happy ending to this love story…you’re going to be disappointed. Ditto if you’re looking for raunchy sex scenes – at one stage, our main characters hold hands (gasp!) but that’s about as far as they get. Yes, seriously.

But I’m afraid I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Our charming first-person narrator is Jerome. After the death of his father, he lives in Paris, with his mother…but, in the summer, he goes to live with his uncle at his idyllic home in the countryside. It’s there that he falls desperately in love with Alissa, his cousin (yes, really).

Everything seems perfect during these long, long summers. But then, there’s Jerome’s aunt. She has, we’re told at the beginning of the book, frequent “attacks” that “turn the whole house upside down”. During these attacks, the adults of the house are careful to hide the children away so as to protect them from the “dreadful screams” of Jerome’s aunt.

Jerome discovers the truth when he sneaks into the house to see Alissa during one of his aunt’s “attacks” – she’s entertaining gentlemen. Gentlemen, that is, other than Jerome’s uncle. Oh dear. Jerome’s aunt deserts the family home for good, leaving the family in a state of disarray and scandal.

But back to the love story. Alissa and Jerome are both very young, and very much in love with each other. They’re also very pious children, so the relationship between the two is (seemingly) quite innocent. As they grow older, they continue to see each other. They write to each other long, passionate letters that Jerome, the narrator, often quotes at length in his story-that-isn’t-a-book.

But as the two grow older, they only seem to grow more distant. Although Alissa continues to write to Jerome telling him how much she loves him, when they’re together, every moment is tinged with awkwardness. Poor, confused Jerome. In the meantime, Alissa’s sister marries a man she doesn’t love, despite being obsessed with someone else…Jerome.

Alissa and Jerome, both virtuous young souls, are determined to enter Heaven; to find the strait gate. But while Jerome imagines the gate to Heaven as the door to Alissa’s bedroom, Alissa sees love and happiness as sins (after all, her mother and sister haven’t exactly been the best examples) and, as such, they are temptations to be avoided – despite the fact that Alissa feels both these emotions intensely.

Gradually, as the pair move into their twenties, Alissa closes herself more and more to Jerome, striving for the holiness she seeks – at the cost of Jerome’s unshakable, unwavering devotion. Alissa changes everything about herself; her appearance, the books she reads in an effort to rid herself of her feelings; to make Jerome stop loving her. It doesn’t work.

For Alissa, the path to the strait gate is so terribly narrow, it can’t be walked by two, side by side. Ultimately, for Alissa, if Heaven is to be reached, she must reach it – alone.

Strait is the Gate is a story of a love that, tragically, was never meant to be. Some might find it too heart-wrenching to bear. For me, although the love story was indeed compelling (I devoured Strait is the Gate in just two days) it was the sheer intelligence and beauty of Andre Gide’s writing that kept me turning the pages.

My only gripe? The French poems and quotations that the translator leaves untranslated throughout the text. Yeah. Thanks for that…

Andre Gide is an amazing, amazing writer. The passages in which Jerome describes his idyllic summers at his uncle’s house are so beautifully written, they’ll remain with you long after you’ve finished reading. The charming simplicity of Jerome’s narration brings to this story a shattering kind of honesty. There are times where he begs the reader’s forgiveness, because he can’t quite express himself properly. It’s endearing. You can’t help but read this book and not feel intensely for Jerome…

Strait is the Gate is just as clever as it is pretty. I love books that leave me with questions, and Strait is the Gate was no exception. There are so many things about this book that’ll leave you shaking your head in awe. Is the relationship between Jerome and Alissa really as innocent as Jerome would have us believe? What’s with the creepy comparisons between Alissa and Jerome’s mother? How could the household staff (and Jerome’s uncle) really have not known what was going on with Jerome’s aunt? And what about Alissa’s sister, Juliette, who falls in love with Jerome? Jerome admits that he may have “accidentally” let his hand slide around Juliette’s waist from time to time. Whoops.

The thing is, when you’re dealing with a first-person narrator, how do you know they’re telling you the truth? After all, if you were writing the story of your life, you’d hardly include the bits you were too embarrassed to admit, even to yourself?

Strait is the Gate is a short book, at only 128 pages. But what this book lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer awesomeness. When you finish reading it, you can’t help but look at the book’s thin spine, and wonder to yourself how Andre Gide ever managed to cram so much brilliance into such a tiny little book.

If you don’t mind your love stories a little…twisted, you’ll adore Strait is the Gate. I definitely did.

~~

Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Yes. Look, Strait is the Gate is seriously short, and incredibly easy to read. You’ll knock it over in less than a week. Promise. It’s definitely worth picking up – not only as an example of brilliant writing, but also as a heartshattering love story. It’s got a bit of everything, really…

In a word:

Intriguing.

Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

3 thoughts on “1909 – strait is the gate ~ andre gide

  1. Sorry for commenting four years later, but truth is I’ve been rereading a lot of 2010 stuff this week :) I had never heard of Gide and I now have one of his recent English translations The Vatican Cellars on my shelf to read and am very intrigued. this novella sounds fascinating, I do love authors who can tell a story in a novella and make the reader feel like they read more than just a short story.

    I hope you are still planning on writing your blog, I love it. I have periods of inactivity (well on the blog I mean – they coincide with too much activity elsewhere) but like that I don’t feel compelled to write to a timetable.Anyway, bonne continuation as they say here!

  2. Hi Claire! Time often changes my opinion of books, but in this case, it’s only made it stronger. Strait is the Gate is such a good novel. After reading this, I found a second-hand copy of The Immoralist. It’s sitting on my shelf, waiting patiently to be read.

    I’m definitely still planning on blogging, despite the month or two without a single post. I’ve had a few periods of inactivity too. In my experience, writing is always the first thing to fall away when things get really busy – which is a shame, because it’s often the case that I’d much rather be writing than doing whatever it is that’s keeping me busy.

    Merci beaucoup for the lovely comment, Claire!

// leave a response