“André Gide” by Arthur Cravan
The following is my original translation of “André Gide” by Arthur Cravan, which first appeared in the literary revue Maintenant, No. 2, of which M. Cravan was the editor and sole contributor, in July 1913. (The original French text can be found here.) Following my translation are excerpts from a few other sources to provide context, along with links to the original French. Descriptions of the brief, spectactular life of M. Cravan can be found in English here and here.
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As I was dreaming feverishly, after a long period of the worst kinds of laziness, of becoming very rich (my God! how often I dreamed of that!); as I was at the stage of eternal projects, and I was regularly encouraging myself with the thought of dishonestly attaining my fortune, in an unexpected manner, through poetry—I’ve always tried to consider art as a means and not an end—I told myself gaily, “I should go see Gide, he’s a millionaire. Hey, what a laugh, I’m gonna roll that old hack!”
Soon enough — doesn’t it suffice to get excited? — I was granting myself the gift of a prodigious success. I was writing a note to Gide, recommending myself as a relative of Oscar Wilde; Gide was receiving me. I was stunning him with my size, my shoulders, my beauty, my eccentricities, my words. Gide was mad about me, thanks to my good looks. Already we were dashing off to Algeria — he was redoing the trip from Biskra and I was going to take him along as far as the Somalian coast. I soon had a head tanned in gold, because I’ve always been a bit ashamed of being white. And Gide was paying for the first-class coaches, the noble steeds, the palaces, the lovers. I was finally giving substance to some of my thousands of souls. Gide was paying, paying, always paying; and I dare to hope that he won’t seek damages and interest from me if I swear to him that in the shameless extravagance of my galloping imagination, he’d sold even his solid farm in Normandy to satisfy my last caprices as a modern child!
Ah! I see myself once again as I was painting myself then, legs stretched on the divans of the Mediterranean shore, spouting illogical nonsense to entertain my grand patron.
You might say of me that I have the morals of an Androgide. Will you say it?
As it happens, I succeeded so pitifully in my little project of exploitation that I’m going to avenge myself. I will add, so as not to unduly alarm our provincial readers, that I took a dislike to M. Gide only on the day when, as I make plain above, I came to understand that I would never get ten cents from him, and that, furthermore, that worn-out old fairy permits himself to put down, for reasons of excellence, the naked cherub we call Théophile Gautier.
So, I went to see M. Gide. It comes back to me now that I didn’t have a frock coat in those days, and I regret it still, because it would have been easy for me to dazzle him. As I got close to his villa, I went over the sensational phrases that I wanted to let drop over the course of our conversation. A moment later I rang. A maid opened to me (M. Gide doesn’t have a butler). She took me up to the second floor, and had me wait in a sort of little cell that opened onto a corridor that turned at a right angle. As I passed, I cast a curious glance into various rooms, hoping to glean some information in advance concerning the guest rooms. Now, I was seated in my little corner. Some stained-glass windows, that I found tacky, let daylight fall on a writing desk where pages were spread whose ink was still moist. Naturally, I didn’t abstain from committing the small indiscretion you may imagine. That is how I can inform you that M. Gide tortures his thought terribly — it must be impossible for him to send the typographer anything less than a fourth draft.
The maid came to get me again, and conducted me to the first floor. At the moment I came into the salon, some yappy little dogs were barking noisily. Was this going to lack dignity? But M. Gide would soon be here. Nevertheless, I had plenty of time to look around. Undistinguished modern furniture in a spacious room: no paintings, bare walls (a simple intent, or an intent a bit simple?) and above all, a very Protestant obsession with order and cleanliness. I even broke out, for a moment, in a disagreeable sweat at the thought that I might have soiled the carpet. I would have probably pushed my curiosity a bit further, or even succumbed to the exquisite temptation of putting some small trinket in my pocket, if I could have rid myself of the very clear sensation that M. Gide was spying through some small, secret hole in the wallpaper. If I’m wrong about that, I beg M. Gide to accept the public and ready apology I owe to his dignity.
Finally the man showed up. (What struck me the most from that moment on, is that he offered me absolutely nothing, other than a chair, even though at four in the afternoon a glass of tea, if one is being frugal, or better still some liqueurs and Oriental tobacco work nicely, in European society, to create that indispensable attitude that allows it to be sometimes astonishing.)
“Monsieur Gide,” I began, “I’ve taken the liberty of coming to you, and yet I believe I must tell you from the get-go that I prefer, for example, boxing a great deal more than I do literature.”
“Yet literature is the only point where we might meet,” my interlocutor replied rather drily.
I was thinking: What a flair for life!
So we spoke about literature, and since he asked me that question that must be particularly dear to him, “What have you read of mine?” I answered without raising my eyebrows, and putting the greatest possible loyalty into my gaze, “I’m afraid to read you.” I imagine that M. Gide must have raised his eyebrows spectacularly.
In this way I managed little by little to let drop the famous phrases that I’d been practicing not long before, thinking that the novelist would know how to use me, the nephew, as he’d done with the uncle. First, I tossed off negligently, “The Bible is the greatest bestseller.” A moment later, as he’d been good enough to interest himself in my parents, “My mother and I,” I said wittily, “weren’t born to understand each other.” Literature being once again the order of business, I took the opportunity to speak badly of at least two hundred living authors, Jewish writers, and Charles-Henri Hirsch in particular, and to add: “Heine is the Christ of modern Jewish writers.” From time to time I cast discreet and malicious glances at my host, who repaid me in stifled laughter, but who, I must say, remained quite far behind me, contenting himself, it seems, with recording, because he probably had nothing prepared.
At a certain point, interrupting a philosophical conversation, making myself resemble a Buddha who had unsealed his lips for the first time in ten thousand years: “The Great Jest is in the Absolute,” I murmured. As I was about to leave, in a very tired and ancient tone, I asked, “Monsieur Gide, where are we with the time?” Learning that it was a quarter to six, I got up, shook the artist’s hand affectionately and left, carrying off in my head the portrait of one of our most notable contemporaries, a portrait that I will sketch here, if my dear readers will lend me once more, for a moment, their kindly attention.
M. Gide doesn’t have the look of a love child, nor of an elephant, nor of several men: he has the look of an artist; and I will pay him this one compliment, which is neverthelsss nasty, that his slight variety comes from the fact that he could be very easily be taken for a show-off. His bone structure has nothing exceptional about it; his hands are those of an idler, very white, my god! All in all, he has a very small nature — M. Gide must weigh about 120 pounds and measure around 5 feet 5 inches. His walk betrays a prose writer who could never write verse. Along with that, the artist has a sickly face, from which are falling, near the temples, bits of skin larger than dandruff, a disadvantage which people explain vulgarly by saying of someone, “He’s peeling.”
And yet the artist has none of the noble excesses of a prodigy who squanders his fortune and his health. No, a hundred times no: the artist seems to prove to the contrary that he takes meticulous care of himself, that he is hygenic and quite far from a Verlaine who wore his syphillis as a languor, and I believe, at least until he denies it, that I don’t risk much in affirming that he frequents neither young ladies nor unsavory establishments; and it’s due to these signs that we are happy to note once again, as we’ve often had the occasion to do, that he is prudent.
I saw M. Gide only once on the street: he was coming out of my building: he had only a few steps to go before turning the corner and disappearing from view; and I saw him stop in front of a bookstore: and yet there was a store selling surgical instruments, and a candy shop….
Since that time M. Gide wrote me once* and I never saw him again.
I’ve shown you the man, and now I would have willingly shown you the work if, on a single point, I had to say it differently.
*M. Gide’s handwritten letter may be removed from our offices for the price of 0 Fr. 15.
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Philippe Sollers, “Portrait of a Rebel,” Le Monde, May 24, 1996:
- “The high point of the second issue [of Maintenant] is the story of a visit to André Gide. Of course, it’s a matter of avenging [Arthur Cravan’s uncle Oscar] Wilde, who died in misery, by demonstrating that there can be official, orderly, profitable, Nobel-worthy homosexuality and that, therefore, that isn’t the question here. Cravan’s irony, in these few pages, is devastating. He emphasizes Gide’s stinginess, the absence of taste in his home, his lack of humor, his Protestant parsimony, his lack of a metaphysical ear, his mechanical and sickly appearance. Gide, for his part, must have thought he was dealing with a crazy man. How to respond to a big lunk of a 25-year-old who tells you all of a sudden, ‘The Great Jest is in the Absolute?’ What to murmur, if not what time it is (a quarter to six) to a maniac who asks you in a very tired voice, ‘Monsieur Gide, where are we with the time?’ The misunderstanding is hilarious and total. ‘His walk,’ Cravan writes, ‘betrays a prose writer who could never write verse.’ That’s excellent literary criticism.”
- “Cravan’s visit gave Gide the inspiration for the character of Lafcadio in The Vatican Cellars. At least, that’s what Jean Cocteau wrote in Journal of a Nobody: ‘Cravan was a gentle giant. He visited me, stretched out, lounged about, his feet higher than his head. He’d entrusted me with the pages where he described a visit by Gide to his attic room, a visit strongly reminiscient of that of Julius de Baraglioul [to his half-brother Lafcadio in The Vatican Cellars]. But Gide, as was his custom, made the most of those pages and that visit.'”
- “In him, the desire of Rimbaud is achieved without compromise: ‘We must be absolutely modern.'”
- “If I write, it is to enrage my colleagues, get talked about, and try to make a name for myself.”