“Truly, it is a terrible thing to make a book,” André Gide wrote in the afterword to his first novella, Marshlands. By that point, he had already written five, including memoirs, poetry collections, and adventure stories, and he was on the cusp of publishing The Fruits of the Earth, a combination of all of these forms that would set him on the path toward his 1947 Nobel Prize. Marshlands, which was published in the spring of 1895, was in its second edition before Gide was 26 years old. Terrible as the vocation may be, he seemed interested in little else.
At just under 100 pages, Marshlands is an odd book, audaciously experimental for its time and uncommonly well suited to ours. In it, an unnamed protagonist tries to write a book called Marshlands, all the while arguing with friends over what it’s really about. NYRB Classics, which reissued the work in January with a new translation by Damion Searls, calls Gide “the inventor of modern metafiction and autofiction”; and while books-within-books have been around since at least Cervantes’s second Quixote, emphasis here is on the word “modern.”
As any glance at the Times Book Review over the past few years can tell you, highbrow bestsellers are lately packed with characters who resemble their authors and endure a series of hardships that culminate in writing the story of their lives — a strategy epitomized in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti are just the latest names to know in a string of authors whose protagonists’ journeys end with the intimation of a prominent publishing deal.
This technique is alluring, authoritative, and often in earnest — “write what you know” is usually considered rule number one of the craft — but it rests on a few concerning assumptions. The first assumption is that catharsis is supposed to come in the form of a Big Four publishing contract with a remunerative advance — that “success is the best revenge,” as they say in motivational seminars. The second derives from the fact that these autofictional protagonists spend shockingly little time actually working on their writing, furthering a precept that if your life is sad and interesting enough, its placement on the page will work itself out.
For instance, both of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed novels, Normal People (2018) and Conversations with Friends (2017), end with a main character’s literary breakthrough, despite the fact that her lovelorn adolescents are rarely seen agonizing over their sentence structures, or even reading much to begin with. The act of writing takes place outside the books they have supposedly penned.
Anyone attracted to or repelled by this literary trend would do well to turn to Marshlands, autofiction’s progenitor and irreverent masterwork. Intended as a satire of the Parisian Symbolist milieu, Gide’s slim book is a sendup of writing itself, encompassing the futility, arrogance, and alienation that make up the strange impulse to see one’s thoughts in print.
In contrast to latter-day dilettantes, Gide’s character-author struggles endlessly with his compositions, often stopping himself in the middle of the street to write notes for Marshlands, and annoying those around him with off-the-cuff rhymes about gray, sodden terrain. The grand joke of the novel is that none of this work is very good, as most of his friends readily let him know. The character-author is unable, in this version, to translate his life into prose.
The only son of a rich Protestant family, as a child Gide was given an erudite education in a smothering household. Often sick, he was tutored at home. By age 21, when he started attending literary salons and publishing his journals under a pseudonym, he was one of those overeducated, sickly people who wish to write without having much experience to draw on.
The joy of good writing, of course, is that an author’s conviction can make anything interesting; Marshlands, Gide’s first published attempt at fiction, is about the search for that conviction. Its urbane humor comes from the misalignment of this thrust — Gide’s overeducated, sickly narrator clearly finds his own life unbearably monotonous, and is hoping a writing project will spice things up. Throughout the novella he is obsessive, pedantic, self-absorbed, and unfailingly miserable — just like any author still in search of a story to tell.
“My word! Sometimes I no longer understand a thing, neither what I am nor whom I want to slap in the face. I feel like I’m fighting my own shadow […] It’s as though every idea, as soon as you touch it, avenges itself upon you.” This is heady stuff. It takes a pretty unique sensibility to feel oppressed by ideas simply because you have not yet done them justice — a sensibility that perhaps best explains how strange the authorial impulse can be.
Gide, in the afterword to Marshlands, says that he was only able to write The Fruits of the Earth after passing through this anguished purgatory, a testament to the kind of torment many writers and poets feel when they are in the first stages of a new project and have to mentally banish their critics and editors, plus the friends and acquaintances one feels the need to impress, until the quintessence of the original idea is worn out. These are the demons one must exorcise in order to create. In writing about them instead, Gide kicked off the journey of autofiction, mischievously fusing process to product in ways that later authors would rather elide.
As is often the case with great satire, Marshlands ends by affirming the very existence of the thing it makes fun of. The absurd struggle of Gide’s narrator culminates, of course, in a work of art that wouldn’t exist without it — the book you hold in your hands. Gide takes another step toward the meta-textual by including, at the end of it, a “Table of the Most Remarkable Sentences in Marshlands,” with two entries already added, neither of them very remarkable at all. Below these is blank space for readers to fill in their own favorites.
This is Gide’s best joke in the book, a celebration of the arbitrariness of taste, which drives literature to be read just as much as it forces it to be written. For the author to give himself over to such irrationalities, after torturing himself (and us) with the phantasm of “good writing,” is an act of grand acceptance, and an acknowledgement that, if everyone likes things differently, one can only produce for oneself. “Always and everywhere, we await the revelation of things; from the public, we await the revelation of our own works.”