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Four Reflections on The Counterfeiters

by Robert Wexelblatt


The Montréal Review, February 2011


 "The Counterfeiters: A Novel" by André Gide (Vintage, 1973)

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3. Freedom and Disappointment

Gide titled his book The Counterfeiters which suggests it will be a social satire. Yet, though there is plenty of social criticism in it, the novel does not read like social satire. If that were all there were to it, a send-up of bourgeois hypocrisy, adolescent self-absorption, antiquated moralism, and artistic pretension, one might feel scorn when a character or an inconsistency disappoints, but not sadness.

Take Bernard Profitendieu, the motor who generates so much of the novel's energy, the character who from the first page enacts Gide's concept of freedom; Bernard the spirited and independent, bubbling with potential; Bernard, that decent Lafcadio. He is illegitimate, what Shakespeare called a "natural child." For the socially conservative Shakespeare, bastard sons invariably incarnate the natural evil only the legitimate social order can hedge in. For the post-Rousseauian Gide, however, it is the other way around. As Edouard speculates at Laura's wedding, "It is to bastards that the future belongs" (104). Freed from the "insidious poison" of the family "cell," the bastard is most apt to attain the condition Gide values so highly, authenticity. It is surely to Bernard that we are intended to apply the botanical allegory Vincent lays out at Rambouillet:

The buds which develop naturally are always the terminal Buds-that is to say, those that are farthest from the parent trunk. (136-137)

Such sayings prepare us to expect wretched things from families and great ones from Bernard, nor are we wholly disappointed. And yet, in the end, what do Bernard's rebellions and adventures come to? Does the novel actually undo itself?

I have already mentioned how Bernard rebels against his own rebellion, winding up a long way from the classically heroic image of himself he proposes with only faint self-mockery at the start of his picaresque adventures:

To lift up a marble slab off the top of a table and to see a drawer underneath is really not the same thing as picking a lock...Theseus must have been about my age when he lifted the stone. (52)

Very well, Bernard is not Theseus any more than he is Prince Hamlet. His letter to his father is excessively insulting and nasty. Worse yet, it is not genuine. His feelings are hurt and, while it is his father he attacks, it is his mother he blames. Nevertheless, it is a disappointment to realize that Bernard's fulfillment of the orphan/runaway fantasy is little more than that, that he has been romantic and petulant, disappointing too that there should be so much truth in the sentence with which Edouard dismisses Bernard at the end of the novel: "I hear from Olivier that Bernard has gone back to his father's; and, indeed, it was the best thing he could do" (365).

The once-rebellious Bernard quite astonishes Olivier with his nationalism when they meet in September. His Platonic devotion to Laura and his contrarian nature have combined to transform him, but they seem only to have turned him back in the direction of his father. This encounter between the two young men is one of the novel's most brilliant scenes. To show the effects of the last months on them, Gide contrives to have both young men, after completing summer courses with their different tutors, reply to the same final examination question. In glossing the "Parnassian butterfly" quatrain of La Fontaine, the sartorially impeccable but emotionally tattered Olivier parrots a superficial bon mot he lifted from Passavant, just as Passavant plagiarized it from Paul Ambroise (who may well have swiped it from Oscar Wilde):

... the truth is the appearance of things... their secret is their form and... what is deepest in man is his skin. (243)

Bernard's contrary answer on his bachot is certainly preferable to this, and yet it too is disappointing. In defending the "French character" against the charge of frivolity Bernard makes himself sound a lot like Charles Maurras and France not a little like Germany:

...taking as my text the justification these lines might afford to a certain class of superficial minds, I just let myself go in a tirade against the spirit of carelessness, of flippancy, of what is called "French wit"... I said that we ought not to consider all this as even the smile of France, but as her grimace; that the real spirit of France was a spirit of investigation, of logic, of devotedness, of patient thoroughness... (245)

In passing his baccalaureate exam with honors Bernard has bought his ticket to the middle class-or back into it. We are assured that Monsieur Profitendieu loves his adopted son and that Bernard has been terribly unjust to him, and so it is emotionally fitting that the novel's end should reverse its beginning as Bernard returns to his father. And yet it feels disappointing. After all, Gide's point with Bernard's illegitimacy, one would have thought, was that he should not return to the father, that he should find the rule of his future life precisely in himself and not in his father, that like those deep-water creatures Vincent describes, he should live by his own lights. Gide could not let this theme of individual and family, of fathers and sons, alone. He took it up again in 1931 in his version of the Oedipus story:

So long as I thought I was the son of Polybius, I applied myself to mimicking his virtues... Listening to the lesson of the past, I looked only to yesterday for my so-be-it, my prompting. Then, suddenly, the thread is broken. Sprung from the unknown; no more past, no more model, nothing on which to base myself, everything to create, country, ancestors... to invent, to discover. No one to resemble but myself... It is a call to valor not to know one's parents. (413)

That is the voice of the heroic Bernard of Part One, not the Bernard who in Part Three can be tempted by such phrases as "A doctrine has been bequeathed us" (321). True, Bernard leaves the church without signing the pledge; true, he wrestles with the angel instead--though it is Boris who pays the price of the blessing-but how odd that his desire to devote himself should lead Bernard to such un-Gidean alternatives as Catholicism and Fascism. In fact, it seems to me there is something the matter with the chapter called "Bernard and the Angel."

One problem, of course, is the break in tone from the rest of the book. Forster is certainly right to say that Gide has "introduced mysticism at the wrong point." But even more than the allusion to the story of Jacob what might make an attentive reader squirm is the following paragraph, surely the worst in the novel:

Then the angel took Bernard into the poor quarters of the town, whose wretchedness Bernard had never suspected. Evening was falling. They wandered for a long time among tall, sordid houses, inhabited by disease, prostitution, shame, crime and hunger. It was only then that Bernard took the angel's hand, and the angel turned aside to weep. (323)

Gide has suddenly turned into a sentimental sociologist. His lack of knowledge of and genuine sympathy for the poor are embarrassingly obvious from the heap of abstract nouns and the absence of human beings. This is the one paragraph in the novel when we leave the milieu of the upper middle class. When Gide departs from realism, good prose, and his customary milieu all at the same time, things go awry. Why did he do it, then?

I suspect it was a shortcut, an effort to epitomize Bernard's development through the book and score an easy moral point. The beginning of the following chapter shows that the idea was to show that Bernard is growing up:

Bernard was grave. His struggle with the angel had matured him. He no longer resembled the careless youth who had stolen the suitcase and who thought that all that is needed in this world is to be daring. He was beginning to understand that boldness is often achieved at the expense of other people's happiness. (325)

This is indeed good, sound middle-aged wisdom, but it is not quite what one might have hoped for from either the audacious Bernard who picked up Edouard's cloak room ticket or the emotional one who had wept with Laura. After Edouard tells Bernard to do whatever he wants so long as it leads him uphill a couple pages later Bernard vanishes from the stage.

The stage is being cleared for the tragic death of little Boris, the dénouement. Here Gide the novelist and philosopher shows us something about the operation of freedom in a crowded, connected world. The idea he was working out is expressed quite clearly in the second notebook:

No doubt there are very few crimes of which the responsibility cannot be shared, to the success of which several did not contribute- albeit without their knowledge or will. The sources of our slightest acts are as diverse and remote as those of the Nile. (410-411)

The responsibility for the death of Boris is general. The decisions of the other characters, and especially the "good" ones, contribute to this appalling catastrophe. Bernard is responsible. It is his job to watch over Boris, but he becomes too self-absorbed and too preoccupied with losing his virginity to Sarah Vedel, the carnal version of Laura. Even as he is wrestling with the angel Bernard is neglecting the boy in his hour of greatest need; Boris has just learned of the death of Bronja, his angel:

Boris dimly perceived that Bernard was struggling. He thought it was his way of praying and took care not to disturb him. And yet he would have liked to speak to him, for his unhappiness was very great. (324)

Edouard's novelist's delight in predestinating is irresistible. He is guilty of the idiocy of sending Boris to the Azaïs-Vedel school. He is pleased to think he has killed four birds with one stone, arranging things nicely for La Pérouse, Rachel, Boris, and Bernard, and so disregards what he knows of the school. After all, the source of the counterfeiting in the novel is less the cynical Strouvilhou than the idealistic Azaïs, who forces everyone to pretend to dance his tune. "I rely on the atmosphere of Azaïs's school to turn Boris into a worker" (194). Surely Edouard should have known better.

La Pérouse at least acknowledges his responsibility in Boris's death, though he speedily passes it along to God. He had loaded, failed to use, and kept his pistol; his very presence at the school had embarrassed Boris, making him easy prey for the Strong Men as well as providing them with the murder weapon.

Monsieur Profitendieu is likewise responsible. He covers up for the young delinquents, allowing the evil to sink deeper, simply because they are all from good families. Azaïs, blind to reality, misinterprets the secret society of young boys as a kind of Protestant Morality and Virtue League. Sophroniska is guilty for deceiving herself into believing Boris has been cured, driving the evil of his neurosis deeper by her therapy, mixing her Catholic faith up with her science, and actually placing Boris's talisman into the hands of Strouvilhou. Even the angelic Bronja is responsible: by dying, she drives the poor boy to despair.

Edouard also ends up by disappointing. While he is not Gide, of course, Edouard begins as an exemplary artist, a more than worthy rival of Passavant for the allegiance of the young, concerned that his work should honestly portray what reality dictates. And yet, we last see him taking his first step toward becoming a false artist, a counterfeiter, when, on grounds of personal vanity and moral irresponsibility, he decides to exclude from his novel the only irremediable reality he has been given:

...I shall not make use of little Boris's suicide for my Counterfeiters; I have too much difficulty in understanding it. And then I dislike police court items. There is something peremptory, irrefutable, brutal, and outrageously real about them... Boris's suicide seems to me an indecency, for I was not expecting it. (363)

For Gide, finality is the enemy of freedom, which requires change. A virtue practiced too constantly easily turns into something else. Herein lies Gide's sympathy with young characters like Bernard, who may move uphill so long as he keeps moving. For Gide, development is good only if it is natural, generated from the inside. The changes in Bernard arise from his own nature and so are portrayed as generally positive. The changes in Olivier, however, are forced upon him by Passavant, abetted by jealousy and self-disgust, and so they nearly cost him his life. What is wrong with most of the other characters in the book-wrong for Gide-is that they don't change at all, that they adhere to attitudes that limit and pervert their freedom. For Passavant it is his vanity, with Lillian emotional frigidity, Bernard's brother has his fascism, Strouvilhou his misanthropy, La Pérouse his universal chord, Rachel her endless capacity for self-sacrifice, Sarah her deliberate recklessness, Armand his self-hatred, Azaïs and Vedel their moralistic and religious absolutes, Molinier and Profitendieu their propriety and prejudices. These postures arrest development and make those who hold to them potentially "counterfeit." What is melancholy about the novel is the degree to which these attitudes prevail.

Sad too is Gide's treatment of his females, particularly with respect to his theme of freedom. Only one, Sophroniska, has the independence of a profession, and she is a peripheral character. One might be inclined to think that Gide was making fun of Edouard when he has him say that the terribly self-sacrificing Rachel Vedel possesses "the most beautiful woman's nature" he knows (218). But Gide does not offer many alternatives to her "abnegation." One does not need to be a radical feminist to note that the "woman's nature" of which Rachel is the paragon is that most likely to be abused by men. Gide appears to be ambivalent about the women in his book. Here, as later in his School for Wives (1929), he portrays women who are vastly superior to their fathers and husbands, but whose goodness is expressed in covering up for unworthy men. This is true of Pauline Molinier, Rachel Vedel, and Laura Douviers, the "good women" of The Counterfeiters . It would seem that for Gide women are good in so far as they make good wives and mothers, and yet this goodness is always presented negatively, as willful submissiveness.

There is nothing remotely maternal about Lillian Griffiths-at least not since she saw that meat cleaver on the lifeboat at the age of eighteen-and so she is condemned. Indeed, whenever a female character acts outside the confines of social norms she is either condemned or quickly punished. Gide damns Bernard's mother by ignoring her. Laura's extra-marital affair with Vincent is a disaster which she barely survives. She implies to Bernard that her only alternative is to return to her husband and that she will be doing so "worsted." Sarah Vedel had the potential to bloom into a female Bernard, for she too is independent and has even better reasons for her rebelliousness than Bernard. Yet Sarah winds up tipsy on Passavant's lap, rejected as promiscuous, and is packed off out of the novel, exiled to darkest England.

Gide's send-up of Oscar Molinier through his own words would warm any feminist's heart, and yet Pauline's superiority to this worthless husband is expressed in her forgiving him, just as Rachel willingly slaves for her feckless parents, and Laura goes back to a spouse whose mediocrity will undoubtedly lead him to think that he is being noble in accepting her. With the women in the novel, then, freedom and disappointment are not alternatives but concomitants. For them, the music may be lively, yet the tune is sad.


4. Music in The Counterfeiters

In the final chapter of the first part of the novel, Edouard visits his old piano teacher La Pérouse. The two have a disagreeable conversation in which music functions as a metaphor for the conflict of values that is the overall theme of the novel. A second musical moment comes in the passage Forster calls the nearest thing to the center of the book. To explain his novel Edouard projects the formal idea of The Counterfeiters in musical terms.

During his second visit to La Pérouse the old man tells Edouard about attending a performance of Victor Hugo's romantic drama Hernani. La Pérouse is indignant that children should be allowed to see such a play and that the state should subsidize a theater that presents it. Amused by these misplaced scruples, Edouard points out that there could be no drama without the passions. To this La Pérouse gives the Calvinist retort that a "portrayal of the passions must necessarily be an undesirable example" (150). It is Edouard who brings the conversation around to music, which he believes the old man will better understand, by comparing the drama's depiction of the emotions to "the effect of letting loose the brass instruments in an orchestra."

It does not seem, however, that what is being disputed is the role of the trombone section in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony but dissonance in general-the dissonance of modern art and of the modern world. La Pérouse's complaint is about modernism:

"Why do you want to make me admire what disturbs me?... Have you observed that the whole effect of modern music is to make bearable, and even agreeable, certain harmonies which we used to consider discords?" (151)

These modern "discords" La Pérouse equates with sin: "Sensibility is blunted; purity is tarnished; reactions are less vivid; one tolerates; one accepts. . . ." He longs for "the uncompromising spirit of [his] youth," for an ascetic spirit fortified against any discord or temptation of the flesh. Half humoring his old teacher, Edouard observes that if music were restricted to "the mere expression of serenity" a single chord would do, one "perfect and continuous chord."

Gide is taking another opportunity to confront the rigid moralism of his own upbringing; but, beyond this, he is working out a general contrast between tradition and modernity, the shift from a condition of high security and low freedom to the low security and high freedom that characterizes the modern West and which is more to Gide's taste. La Pérouse is fixated on pre-modern absolutes. Actually, it is the old man's sense of the failure of these absolutes that makes him more interesting and sympathetic than, say, Azaïs: ". . . our whole universe is a prey to discord," he laments.

The pursuit of purity, the yearning for a single chord which everyone must echo back, the insistence on consonance without dissonance-these are the effects of those values Gide burlesques in the novel: religion, tradition, authority, fixed ideas, absolutism, repression, rigidity, an absence of freedom, change, struggle, and variety. Dissonance, on the other hand, stands not only for passion and contention, but also for pluralism, liberation, tolerance, and openness to life: on one side a Gregorian chant or a Schütz motet, on the other a quartet of Bartok's or an aria by Alban Berg. To Gide, the single puritanical chord is deathly, reducing society to an anthill, freezing history and abolishing personality.

In a technical sense, though, the opposite of a single continuous harmony isn't dissonance but polyphony. Perhaps this is why, when he comes to state his theory of the novel, Edouard talks about fugues:

What I should like to do is something like the art of fugue writing. And I can't see why what was possible in music should be impossible in literature . . . . (175)

A fugue is a form of contrapuntal music written in from two to as many as six voices. Fugues may be written for single instruments, combinations of instruments, or for singers. The parts in which fugues are composed are called voices because they correspond to those of vocal music: soprano, alto, bass. The complexity of the fugue makes some of them sound like intellectual exercises; however, in the hands of a master like J. S. Bach, the fugue provides an emotional rollercoaster ride that generates tremendous power.

The psychoanalyst Sophroniska argues that polyphonic music is "mathematical" and that Bach banished "all pathos and all humanity," achieving "an abstract chef d'oeuvre of boredom." Laura concurs, but Edouard, notably, defends The Art of the Fugue as "admirable."

So the question is whether The Counterfeiters resembles a fugue and, if so, in what ways.

Fugues are conventionally written in ternary form, with an exposition, development, and conclusion. The Counterfeiters is also divided into three carefully balanced sections, and it is easy to see the first as an exposition of characters and themes, the second comprising a development section as Olivier and Bernard go off for the summer to be improved or spoiled, the third furnishing the novel's conclusion or dénouement. We can be even more precise than this, in fact. The exposition section of a fugue begins with a statement of the principal theme in one voice and in the dominant key of the composition. In the novel the initial subject is Bernard, whose departure from home announces the liberation theme and sets the upbeat key of the novel. In a fugue the second theme is sometimes called "the answer." This is presented by a second voice and a second key. In the novel, this would be Olivier, to whom Bernard goes upon leaving home. In the fugue, while the answer is being delivered, the first voice states a counter-subject. In the novel, this would be the tangle of Vincent, Passavant, Lillian, and Laura, or it might be Edouard's struggle to turn life into art. After stating its subjects, the fugue rapidly progresses in complexity, as do the number of characters and their complicated relations in Part One of the novel. In the fugue the initial theme returns in a third voice and the answer in a fourth voice, and so on. New counter-subjects may be stated-in the novel, these correspond to Georges, the Vedels, all the minor characters caught up in what Forster called plot-fragments.

The fugue's development section works out variations of the already-stated themes in a series of what are called "episodes." In the same way, the novel thickens and the characters of Bernard and Olivier are developed by their experiences in Switzerland and Corsica. In the fugue's development section entirely new material may be introduced, in much the same way the characters of Sophroniska, Boris, and Bronja are in the novel.

The conclusion of a fugue is also a recapitulation in that it returns to the original key, rather as the novel returns to Paris. Here the principal theme and other material from the exposition are repeated, although not precisely in their original form. For example, subject and counter-subject may overlap. In the same way, in Part Three the transformed Bernard and transmogrified Olivier encounter each other in the examination scene. The fugue ends with a climax in which the musical thought of the whole piece is driven home like a sound argument. This would correspond to the death of Boris in the novel.

As stated in his journal, Gide's plan for how he wished the novel to end, for how he wanted the ending to feel, also sounds like what happens in a fugue. Here is the passage describing his intention:

This novel will end sharply, not through exhaustion of the subject, which must give the impression of inexhaustibility, but on the contrary through its expansion and by a sort of blurring of its outline. It must not be neatly rounded off, but rather disperse, disintegrate... (415)

In contrast to the Calvinist plainsong of La Pérouse, Gide's novel revels in serving up a multitude of voices and keys, an overlapping of plots and fates. But the novel is not mere cacophony; it is a genuine polyphony, an organized confusion not at all unlike the disorienting thrill-ride of a Bach fugue. Organization and confusion are of equal importance. The former makes The Counterfeiters the admirable work of art it is, while the latter provides its distinctive ventilation, the refreshing air of freedom that makes the book "grow" and "open out," just as E. M. Forster said.

The Counterfeiters is not really a novel that aspires, in Walter Pater's sense, "to the condition of music." Gide is less intent on "purifying" the genre than is Edouard. Certainly, he experimented with a new formulation of the novel, but the result is not a revolution in abstract form, in narrative theory. What Gide achieved was a new way of projecting character and plot into space, a greatly expanded space, not every inch of which is visible but all of which can be sensed behind the action, just as the story is centered on the Rive Droit but extends as far west as San Francisco and as far south as Africa. If much of what happens remains in shadow or occurs offstage, outside the frame, this is because Gide chose to focus his light on the most crucial surfaces. As he said, he was studying the source of light, not trying to poke a torch into every cranny, which is what he thought the novels of James and Meredith had done. Gide also rejects the sustained flow so highly valued by traditional novelists. As he put it in his journal:

The difficulty arises from the fact that I must start anew with each chapter. Never take advantage of momentum -such is the rule of my game. (406)

It can be argued that Gide's masterpiece has had a greater influence on the literature of our century than many more radical experiments. This is not only because he is so candid about what he is up to, but because The Counterfeiters demonstrates a method for refreshing the ordinary novel: freeing its characters and readers, prying open the centripetal form of the detective story with the centrifugal one of the picaresque. His obvious departures from realism are not many, and some were cut as he revised, nor are those he left always successful, as in the chapters "Bernard and the Angel" and "The Author Reviews His Characters."

Coincidence, impudence, surprise, wit, energy, and velocity are the novel's finest qualities. In addition, there is the appeal of Gide's characteristically unmoralistic moralism. In Switzerland Bernard says to Laura, "I should like all my life long, at the very smallest shock, to ring true, with a pure authentic sound" (185). The source of the counterfeit in Gide's cosmos is the pursuit of total harmony. Such a sound can only exist by ruling out the dissonance of a world in which everybody is free to ring with his or her own "pure authentic sound."



Works Cited:

E. M. Forster, Aspects of The Novel, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1927.

André Gide, The Counterfeiters, trans. Dorothy Bussy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927.

Quotations from the "Journal of The Counterfeiters " are drawn from the Modern Library edition.


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.


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