Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630
One year after André Gide published Corydon (1924; English translation, 1950), which provoked a literary furor, he completed The Counterfeiters together with its complementary Le Journal des “Faux-monnayeurs” (1926; Journal of “The Counterfeiters,” 1951). Both books had taken six years to write. The idea for the novel, however, came to the author at least as early as 1906, when he cut out from the September 16 issue of the newspaper Le Figaro an article concerning a case of counterfeiting in which several children from respectable families had been involved. He also had on file a report of the suicide of Neny, a young student at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal. Furthermore, in 1907, news of a gang of anarchist counterfeiters was widely publicized. By 1919, Gide began a tentative draft of the novel, which he continued intermittently while he was writing his critical study Dostoïevsky (1923) and completing his sexual research. The Counterfeiters, a culmination of such long and careful thought, is generally regarded as Gide’s masterpiece, although he preferred the more scandalous Corydon.
In a sense, The Counterfeiters summarizes the major ideas that Gide had presented up to that point in his career. Later, he would publish other major books—Si le grain ne meurt (1926; If I Die . . . , 1935), L’École des femmes (1929; The School for Wives, 1929), for example—but they would not break new ground. With The Counterfeiters, Gide’s high place in European literature was assured. While its roots are in the tradition of the nineteenth century social novel and novel of ideas—for example, Gustave Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898) and Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy(1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913; also known as The Devils)—its influence, both in matters of style and in philosophy, is unmistakable in such important twentieth century novels as Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928) and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1962). Like these books, The Counterfeiters is at once a novel of ideas, of artistic development, and of psychological realism.
Gide’s title, which is partly ironic, was the projected title of a yet unfinished—and, according to The Journal of the Counterfeiters, never-to-be-completed—novel by Édouard. Throughout the book, Édouard talks about his novel, describes its theme, and, at one point, allows George Molinier to read a selection from it; George not only fails to understand the meaning of the passage but also scorns the name of the protagonist. On reflection, Édouard agrees with his critic. Édouard is never satisfied with the direction that his writing takes. At first, he insists that his book has no subject, that it is a mere slice of life. Later, he catches sight of its “deep-lying subject,” which is “the rivalry between the real world and the representation of it which we make to ourselves.” That subject is expressed in the symbolism of a counterfeit coin. In the important chapter “Édouard Explains His Theory of the Novel,” he shows Bernard Profitendieu a counterfeit ten-franc piece. If Bernard were to understand that the coin is not genuine, he would naturally despise it; if he were deluded into thinking that it is real, he would value it beyond its worth. Value, therefore, depends upon perception, but perception has nothing to do with reality. Later, the reader learns that the coin is more than a symbol of counterfeit values. George is suspected of passing counterfeit money.
Gide’s trick upon the reader is characteristic of his artistic method, which is one of ironic contrast, of allowing his protagonists to play games that prove finally to be serious, or to turn their serious problems into farcical games. The Counterfeiters presents a wide diversity of ideas, exposes their absurdities, yet sometimes salvages their values. On one level, the book explores the risks along with the liberating energies of criminality. Bernard, who comes upon Édouard’s checkroom ticket, takes the writer’s bag, which contains money, a literary journal, and a letter from Laura Douviers. He keeps the money, at least for a while, excusing himself with the rationalization that he is not a thief, reads the confidential journal, and uses the letter as a pretext to involve himself in Laura’s life as her protector. Thus, he commits a “gratuitous act,” outrageous in its casual, motiveless interference in the lives of others. Yet the consequences, both for Bernard and for those concerned, are not as crass as the reader might expect. By exercising his total capacity for freedom, he has broken into life, enjoyed a more exciting and richer life experience than he might otherwise have known. To be sure, the ultimate consequences of his act are dangerous, and he learns that one’s boldness may often cause other people unhappiness, but the lesson is not entirely cautionary. By the end of the book, more liberated than at the outset, Bernard makes his peace with his stepfather and returns to his family as a more responsible young man.
Bernard, though perhaps the most extraordinary example of this, is not the only character in the novel who asserts his philosophies by living them. Just as Bernard’s fortunes rise because of his impetuosity, Vincent Molinier’s decline. The seducer of Laura, whom he callously abandons, Vincent himself is destroyed by Lady Griffith. Her sensuality is greater and more destructive than his. Still other characters temporize, frozen in will, and allow the world to come to them. Gide’s method is to provide brief scenes presenting encounters between characters, usually two characters at a time. The personalities express their ideas, sometimes debate, and at other times agree. Yet matched with a different partner, a different encounter, the characters change their minds, often subtly and without understanding the results of their actions. Thus, the sense of reality shifts, just as the circumstances appear to turn one direction or another. Reality is not absolute. The author, who is himself a voice in the novel, is not above suspicion of error. Surely Gide’s major spokesman, the writer Édouard, is at times wise, at times foolish.
More than a complex novel of ideas that explores the limitations of perceiving reality, The Counterfeiters is an aesthetic novel that treats the development of the artist. To be sure, there are two novelists in the book. Édouard, the more important figure, is discreetly gay, stoic, troubled by problems of moral ambiguity, but generous, open-natured, and, like Gide, insistent that sincerity is his chief resource as an artist. His rival is Comte Robert de Passavant, also gay, more successful as a writer but more devious as a human being. The comte is also Édouard’s rival for the affections of Olivier Molinier. As Édouard develops—through constantly changing and refining—his aesthetic, it becomes clear that his rivalry with Passavant is never far from the springs of his invention. Édouard explains his theory of art both in dialogues—or encounters—with other characters or, more fully, to himself in his journals. Like Gide’s famous literary journals, Édouard’s notebooks examine the philosophy and strategies of composition, relate anecdotes, puzzle over problems of structure, and attempt to analyze the writer’s own motives. As an exploration both of art and of himself, the journals are filled with undigested, often contradictory, but urgent material for further investigation. It is a measure of Gide’s excellence as an artist that he never exhausts but generally augments the subject he treats.
His understanding of the craft of fiction carries over to an interest in the artist’s psychology. Perhaps this concern of Gide’s novel is less satisfactory for most readers, because the writer’s gay bias allows for only a partial, inadequate view of the subject. One theme of The Counterfeiters is the psychosexual development of the two university friends, Bernard and Olivier. At the beginning of the novel, both prepare for their bachot, the baccalaureate examinations at the Sorbonne. By the end, both pass. Similarly, they undergo a sensual education that results in a certain homosexual orientation for Olivier and a very nearly certain one for Bernard. Olivier is clearly disposed to homosexuality when he first encounters Bernard (and they share a bed), but he discovers, first through de Passavant and later through Édouard, that the relationship he prefers involves the companionship of an older patron. As for Édouard, a genteel and delicate pederast, the arrangement is ideal. Having achieved the satisfaction he has always craved from the love of Olivier, he is prepared to resume work on his novel.
Bernard’s sexuality is more ambiguous, but without doubt it is mainly homoerotic. His sexual encounter with Sarah Vedel is almost farcical. Sarah, the aggressor throughout, is—incredible to say—assisted by her brother Armand, who bolts the bedroom door to make sure that the couple perform the act of love. As soon as Bernard wakes up, he runs from Sarah’s chamber, never wishing to see her again. Bernard is capable only of veneration for women, as he idolizes Laura and admires Rachel, her sister, but feels for them nothing akin to desire. He is more finely attracted to Olivier. Yet, following Gide’s homosexual fantasy, he bows out of the picture so that Édouard has the youth to himself. To complete the fantasy, Gide allows Olivier’s mother, Pauline, in a ludicrous scene, to bestow her blessings on the union. Curious though the scene is from the standpoint of heterosexual psychology, it is perfectly satisfactory in the context of the author’s purpose in the novel. The description of the meeting, after all, is part of Édouard’s journal. How much of it is imagined and how much real? Indeed, to what extent are the actions of the characters real or pretended? Gide, master of disguises, makes his characters speak their parts, cleverly or stupidly as may be, but withholds his own moral judgments.