“Marshlands will never bore anyone as much as it bored me.”
I did not expect to find André Gide’s novel Marshlands witty and entertaining, but mix together a dilettante writer, an unhappy girlfriend, and a budding novel that sounds awful, and the result is a Metafictional romp. Marshlands is narrated by a young writer who explains his novel, Marshlands is:
inspired by two lines from Virgil: There’s a shepherd talking to another shepherd, and he tells him his field may be stony and swampy but it’s good enough for him, and being satisfied with it makes him very happy. Marshlands, then, is the story of someone who cannot travel. I shall name him Tityrus, after Virgil. Marshlands is the story of a man, who, possessing the field of Tityrus, does not strive to leave it, but rather contents himself with it.
Reminds me of Rasselas. …. So in other words, Tityrus is content with his lot–even though that ‘lot’ isn’t perfect. The narrator, at several points in the novel, says “I am Tityrus,” and states that what he’s “trying to express is the emotion I get from my life: boredom, vanity, monotony.” But Virgil’s Tityrus is happy with his lot. He apparently doesn’t experience boredom or monotony. So the narrator is a bit of a puzzle; on one hand he’s writing a novel about a man who’s content with his life, and yet even though he identifies with Tityrus, the narrator/author is far from content with his lot.
Marshlands depicts a life of frustration with our narrator believing only he can see how awful, boring and monotonous life is with everyone else in a state of blindness or delusion. On the very first page, the writer is visited by a friend, Hubert, and the novel, Marshlands immediately comes up for discussion. Hubert, a trapped audience, is subjected to a tedious synopsis of the plot. While it’s clear that Marshlands bores Hubert, he tells the narrator “you certainly know how to write.” And when the narrator reads sections of his budding novel to his friends, he’s told it’s boring (it is) and “both useless and unpleasant.”
Angela, the narrator’s girlfriend attempts to encourage her lover with his novel, and asks him to read some to her. He peevishly agrees:
“If you insist. I have precisely four or five pages of it here in my pocket.” Taking them out, I read to her as listlessly and monotonously as I could.
Angela declares the novel “might be the least little bit boring,” and the narrator blithely tells Angela:
And as for you and me. Angela, I promise you, our own prospects are even duller and more mediocre.”
“That’s not how I feel about it,” Angela said. “That’s because you don’t think about it. Precisely the subject of my book! Tityrus is not unhappy with his life, he likes contemplating the marshes, the changes in the weather impart to them a pleasant variety. But look at yourself, look at your own story! How much variety do you find there? How long have you lived in this apartment? I know, low rent. Low rent!-And it’s not just you! These windows, looking out on the street, or on backyards, and looking out you see walls or other people looking back at you … Must I go on? Your dresses, must I make you ashamed of them, too? And do you think we have ever really loved each other?”
“Nine o’clock,” she said. “I have to go. Hubert is giving his reading tonight.”
“What is he reading?” I asked, in spite of myself.
“Not Marshlands, that’s for sure!” And she left.
According to the narrator, Angela is not unhappy because she is “unaware of her condition,” and if her were to “open her eyes,” she “would no longer be satisfied.” If she became “aware” and then unhappy as a consequence of her new knowledge, then the narrator thinks “that would be much more interesting.”
The narrator’s fussiness, mostly seen through his journal entries and notes for his novel, add to the fun. He writes in his ‘daily planner,’ he admits, “a week in advance, so that I have time to forget what I wrote; surprises are always lying in wait, which are indispensable, given my of life.” In one section, he writes what he’s “going to do,” and then another section is devoted to what he actually did. Along the way he writes notes such as “devastate Hubert, (important),” “go explain to Magloire why I think he’s such as jerk,” and “be stunned at not having received a letter from Jules.” Deciding his life with Angela is lacking adventure, he declares that they take a spontaneous trip. Yet the trip is prefaced by the narrator’s “resolution” not to get up before 11, and then the trip is cut short when he hustles back to attend church. So much for spontaneity. There’s a sliver of Dostoevsky here in the narrator’s neurotic nature.
Translated by Damion Searls