Bob Dylan refused to attend the 2016 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, so did Alice Munro in 2013. In 1958, Soviet dissident poet Boris Pasternak refused the Nobel Prize he was awarded for his popular novel Doctor Zhivago. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre declined his prize, stating: “… a writer must refuse being transformed into an institution, even if it happens in the most honorable form“.
French writer André Gide (1867 – 1951) was the first openly gay man to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1947, at 78 years old, Gide was too ill to travel to Stockholm to receive his prize. Although he was a controversial literary figure his entire life, Gide was honored for his novels, essays, travel diaries and commentaries on contemporary events when his award was placed in the hands of the French Ambassador. The prize committee named him: “…the venerable master of French literature whose genius has so profoundly influenced our time”.
It was quite the journey for Gide. It started with the publishing of his novella The Notebooks Of André Walter (1891) when Gide was 22 years old, and he reached artistic peaks with The Immoralist (1902), followed by Strait Is The Gate (1909), and Lafcadio’s Adventures (1914); and then he experienced the rejection of the reading public after the publication of Corydon (1920), his nonfiction book about the joys of being gay. He shocked certain segments of the public again with his memoir If It Die (1926) with his warm memories of teenage masturbating with the concierge’s son under the dining room table and salacious details of his lovemaking with an Arab youth on a sand dune in Algeria.
While in North Africa, Gide became buddies with Oscar Wilde and his boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas. His friendship with Wilde influenced Gide’s writings, which exalted honesty, openness and sincerity. Gide was one of the few people willing to defend Wilde’s literary reputation in the years after the great writer’s death.
In 1927, Gide published Travels In The Congo, his influential criticism of French colonialism. That trip to Africa marked the end of his 11-year relationship with Marc Allégret, who had eloped with him when he was 16 and Gide was 47. Allégret’s father was best man at Gide’s never-consummated wedding to Madeleine Rondeaux; he wasn’t bothered at all by their affair. Gide’s wife, however, didn’t like it one bit and she burned all their letters. Later, Allégret had a thing with Jean Cocteau, who Gide feared would “corrupt” him.
In 1923, he had a daughter, Catherine, by Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, a woman much younger than he. She was the daughter of his close friend, Maria Monnom, the wife of his friend the Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe. This caused the only riff in the long relationship between Allégret and Gide and damaged his relation with van Rysselberghe. This was probably Gide’s only sexual liaison with a woman, and it was very brief.
Catherine became his only descendant by blood. Elisabeth left her husband to move to Paris and manage the practical aspects of Gide’s life. They had adjoining apartments. She worshiped him, but they had only the single sexual union.
Allégret filmed the trip with Gide to Africa and afterward he pursued a career as a filmmaker. They remained close friends until Gide’s death. Allégret went on to a long career writing and directed more than 50 films, receiving much acclaim for his second film, Fanny (1939). Allégret discovered and/or developed the raw acting talent named Jean-Paul Belmondo, he gave Louis Jourdan his first break, and mentored Roger Vadim who would become his directing assistant. Allégret’s final credits rolled in 1973.
As a distinguished writer sympathizing with the cause of communism, Gide was invited to tour Russia as a guest of the Soviet Union of Writers. Gide:
“My faith in communism is like my faith in religion: it is a promise of salvation for mankind. If I have to lay my life down that it may succeed, I would do so without hesitation.”
The tour of the USSR disillusioned him, however, and he became quite critical of Soviet-style Communism. Gide:
“It is impermissible under any circumstances for morals to sink as low as communism has done. No one can begin to imagine the tragedy of humanity, of morality, of religion and of freedoms in the land of communism, where man has been debased beyond belief.”
After spending the war and post-war years in Tunis, Gide returned to Paris where he died in 1951, gone at 82 years old. The next year, the Catholic church put all of his works on their Index of Forbidden Books.
Try The Immoralist, where narrative events are being told by the protagonist Michel to his three friends. Important points in Michel’s story are his attraction towards the estate caretaker’s son and his perspective on life and society.