Just Friends

Conversations with Andre Gide

by Claude Mauriac, translated by Michael Lebeck
Braziller, 256 pp., $5.00

Were I to describe this book in the kind of language into which it has been “translated,” I should say that it is of a comic quite extraordinary. Think then! André Gide, that man so unbelieving, is in his late years the friend of Claude, son of that so Catholic writer, François Mauriac. That son, on his side, intuits the genius of those two giants of French letters and has no desire dearer than to effectuate their conjunction in the Mauriac property of Malagar, in the environs penetrated by the odor of pine of Bordeaux. Down there, before a view the most magnificent in the world, and in an adorable sunlight, those two mâitres are quite off their guards and speak the one to the other with open heart. How droll that moment when Gide, with his deep voice with many trills, reads aloud to Mauriac that passage of the Old Testament where it is a question of the Angels of the Lord who risk to be sodomized by the Sodomites! Claude consigns in writing many of those exchanges…and any reader who knows French well enough to put the text back into the original will be able to guess the meaning in those many places where it has disappeared through the linguistic cracks.

Robert Phelps’s Introduction, although it contains five mistakes in French, intended no doubt to keep it in harmony with the waywardness of the “translation,” gives a good description of the self-consciousness of French writers, who take themselves very seriously as public figures and tend to be always analyzing the finer shades of their relationships both with themselves and with their contemporaries. They usually have a sense of irony but are often devoid of what, in the Anglo-American context, we would call humor. For all their gifts, André Gide and François Mauriac appear in this book rather like two elderly coquettes doing a complicated modesty display dance for each other’s benefit, with Claude running from one to the other and keeping the score. Claude himself is a mysterious case. There are so many well told, funny episodes in the book that one might suspect him of having written it all with his tongue in his cheek. But like Eckermann or Boswell, he seems at once profoundly convinced of the greatness of his great man and yet puts things in such a way that the human foibles of his subject are brought out with particular clarity. In the following passage, for instance, Claude Mauriac’s ambiguity of tone, Mr. Lebeck’s aberrant use of language, and the peculiarities of André Gide’s temperament combine to produce a quite hilarious effect (the italics render Gide’s eccentric habit of emphasis, which any interested person can study from the phonograph records of his voice):

So he [Gide] too has had some encounters in this life which he alone would be able to appreciate. Witness this marvel which he relates—with the greatest simplicity: a shepherd in the Pyrenees …

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Letters

He Never Had a Mistress February 17, 1966