André Gide: La Symphonie pastorale (English title: The Pastoral Symphony) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ ISBN 978-207-035687-4 How I loathed this book at school! How I loved this book when I read it a second time some 30 years later! The simplicity of the story. The beauty of the language. The multi-layered message it contains. What bore me to death when I was young (too young for this book!), amazes me now. I was surprised myself by the pleasure I took in reading this novel, published for the first time in 1919. The bonus material added in this specific French edition for the benefit of students was very interesting too as it sets the novel in a historic and biographical context.
Here’s the plot: A married Protestant priest takes care of a blind orphan, Gertrude. He draws her soul out of its seclusion and offers the girl a way to discover the word if not through her eyes, but through her other senses and her intellect. A key moment is the evening when Gertrude hears in the company of the priest Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major “Pastorale” (Op. 68). She seems to grasp for the first time the beauty of the world by listening to this piece of music. The priest takes care to hide anything evil from Gertrude as he wants to preserve her innocence. He feels a deep commitment to protect the girl, a commitment borne out of his faith. However he fails to realize that he falls in love with the girl at some point.
To do the right thing…
I will not spoil your pleasure by going into the details of the troubles the priest runs into. What’s more important here is the question the priest is confronted with: What is my exact motivation to do something? To do what seemed to be the right thing? How do I not fool myself about my feelings, my motives, my actions? How much can you bent the word of the Gospel to align it with your behaviour and how high is the price you are willing to pay while trying to justify your behaviour.
Gide (1869 – 1951) succeeds in packing wisdom and beauty in a very short novel, written in an admirable style – a philosophical miniature. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 “for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight”. The novel “La Symphonie pastorale” is a first class example of Gide’s talent. Even if the author set the story in the late 19th century, the moral questions reflected in the novel are relevant today. Seeing through one’s own intention – that’s about the biggest challenge for a human being considering his natural inclination to live in denial – be it in the context of politics or the position one takes in the #metoo discussion.
And since Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 plays such an important part in this novel, enjoy a moment of exceptional musical beauty: