Michel, an austere and studious young man pulls himself away from the history of the Classical world long enough to get married, mostly to please his father who—dying—worried about leaving his son alone in the world. Michel barely knows Marceline, but he respects her and feels some affection for her. It is only when they are embarked on their honeymoon that he discovers she has a life and a mind of her own. A greater surprise is to come when, still traveling in North Africa, Michel, already frail, nearly dies of tuberculosis, only surviving through Marceline's tender and competent care.
He is deeply changed by this experience. Having decided, at his lowest moment, that he wants to live, he devotes himself to life with all the selfish strength of the invalid, demanding certain foods and, as he regains his strength, brushing off Marceline's company to walk out alone.
This is a brief novel, the simplicity of the prose masking the subtle changes Michel undergoes as he struggles to discover what, in his new self-absorption, he actually wants.
To a man whom death's wing has touched, what once seemed important is so no longer; and other things become so which once did not seem important or which he did not even know existed. The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there.
He learns to live in the present, indulging himself, following his obsessions. Then, when Marceline becomes pregnant, he begins to imagine a future. It is this investigation into time—its malleability, its deceptiveness, its betrayal—that most interested me. Reading this right after Nabokov’s Speak, Memory seemed a continuation of that conversation. I was reminded too of Rilke's poem, one I always think of at this time of year:
Already the ripening barberries are red,
and the old asters barely breathe in their beds.
The man who is not rich now as summer goes
will wait and wait and never be himself.
The other aspect of the novel which fascinated me was the more obvious theme of selfishness versus generosity, balancing what we owe to others with what we owe to ourselves. Gide brilliantly works that theme through Michel's story, with Marceline and other characters providing alternate possibilities. I highly recommend this short but powerful novel. It will set you thinking.