André Gide, The Forgers
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2000
Sometimes you don’t see the wood for the trees. Then it might be helpful to step back, change perspective. That is what Andé Gide did, in his 1926 “The Counterfeiters”. In it he asks for nothing less than “reality”, and, as a help to distinguish between real and fake in life, uses money as an economic metaphor.
As a young man, André Gide (1869-1951) was free to pursue an unprofitable career as a writer, for his family background relieved him of all financial worries. That was necessary, because for ten years he had to finance his tentative steps in the literature business himself. At first Gide’s writings were influenced by avant-garde symbolism. As critical as he was of colleagues, Gide also applied high standards to his own work. After numerous publications, he only accepted the label ‘novel’ for his “Counterfeiters”, as he believed the work to be sufficiently complex.
The plot is confusing indeed and captivates mainly on a theoretical level, because Gide constructed the book like a Russian matryoshka. The narrator Edouard describes how he writes a novel. But Edouard himself is guided by a superior narrator. A novel about the making of a novel! We stroll through the corridors of an early 20th century residence school for boys; we witness the boys try to emancipate themselves from their upper middle-class families. And all the time we get entangled in existential questions about authentic and fake, true values and traditional ethics. The disciples strive to replace parental morality with their own. But how can this be accomplished in this constricting corset into which they are forced by society? Suddenly they and their families are being blackmailed; a story about counterfeit money circulating among the high school students. One of them is also struggling with the finding that his father, a respected citizen, is not his natural begetter. Gide consistently centers on questions of appearance and reality, authenticity and deception in different spheres of life. And Gide transfers the metaphor of (fake) money to everything, even to language, when he lets an imposter writer enter the stage. Language is like money: prone to crises and unreliable. That makes non-writers think. Flipping the picture, we might better understand our monetary economy when we think of manipulation through language, linguistic lapses, the beauty of words: then money is just as prone to crises and unreliable as language.
One critic remarked that the same applies to Gide’s “Counterfeiters” as what was said about Musil’s “Man without Qualities”: “The plot of this novel comes down the fact that the story that it is supposed to be told is not being told.” Gide competes with the greatest of his time: Joyce, Musil, Proust and Faulkner; he puts the narrator at the center of the story, cuts the storyline to pieces, crisscrosses plotlines, and is rightly considered a co-founder of modern European literature. But it is precisely his “Counterfeiters” that gives us something to reflect on, our lives, the truths we believe in, and the alternatives that we perhaps should not reject without thinking twice.
Translated by Annika Backe