Monday, February 14, 2011
book review: The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide
This book might perhaps suffer in terms of pace in the first half but once it gets going it moves towards an end which seems to come almost abruptly when it does arrive.
The main theme of the counterfeiters which comes from the title of the book that the writer Edouard is writing also plays out in real life with a ring of boys being used to palm off counterfeit coins through Paris. But the sense of fraudulent feelings and actions pervades the book. Some characters come across as so prepared to hide behind a facade that you never really get to know them.
But intertwined with the sense of fraud is the theme of coming of age. This is both in the practical sense with Bernard and Olivier leaving school and becoming men but also in the way that even some of the oldest characters are clearly still learning who they are and adapting to circumstances.
The story starts with Bernard discovering that he is illegitimate after he breaks into his mother's bureau and discovers letters not intended to be seen. That idea of damaging secrets that is introduced in that moment remains throughout the book. Grandfather's secretly writing to their grandsons, barristers carrying around letters from their mistress and in the most extreme case a woman, Laura hiding her pregnancy by Olivier's brother Vincent from her husband.
In one sense this is about two families and two particular sons from each family - Bernard and Olivier - charting them as they take their first strides into adulthood. They dream and aspire to great things but have great vulnerability that allows others to help or exploit them. They fall in love easily, bruise easily but by the end of the tale learn that home can often be a comfort rather than a prison.
Throughout the book there are questions about writing that are thrown up as Edouard struggles to get to grips with The Counterfeiters. He faces his arch enemy, the celebrated writer of the moment Comte de Passavant, who seems to treat writing as a hobby and success as a given. The differences between them highlights the danger with feeling too much and not feeling anywhere near enough with Passavant left with an inflated reputation but little in the way of friendship and love.
Gide also uses an Eric Morecambe style voice to the reader revealing that he has struggled to like some of his cast of characters and giving the signpost to the second half of the book. That voice is at first slightly unusual but becomes increasingly familiar and as a device works fairly well.
There were moments when you wondered where this was going but by the end there is a sense that although the counterfeiters don't always get caught they suffer justice in the form of loneliness, guilt and in the case of Vincent the man who left Laura pregnant and fled overseas, it can leave them without much of a sane mind left.