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...
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