The Local Lens: Andre Gide, France’s Great Crime Writer
Writing about crime and criminals is not something that all writers do well, but since we live in a world interested in both, most people pay special attention to these stories.
One great French writer who wrote about crime and criminals was Andre Gide (1869-1951). Born to a wealthy family, as a young writer Gide had no financial worries and could afford to be experimental in his writing. Many critics view Gide as the greatest journalist of the 20th century, but Gide himself believed that he was preparing for a “much greater work.”
One of these greater works may be Gide’s slim book, “Judge Not”, which is really a testament to Gide’s fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment. In novels such as “Lafcadio’s Adventures”, Gide often explored the criminal mentality as well as the criminal’s place in society. In “Judge Not”, Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror. He wrote about the cases in depth, examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality.
Many of the cases in “Judge Not” involved murder with adolescents as the accused and one can imagine Gide using them as the raw material for his fiction. Although Gide declared that his writings on judicial cases were not “literature,” they are nevertheless artful journalism in which Gide often saw facts that judges and jurors overlooked. Although some critics have deemed “Judge Not” too graphic in its descriptions of violent crime, such charges appear illogical given the book’s subject matter.
Gide used criminals in his fiction to explore human psychology. He himself was often considered an outcast or criminal because of his open defense of homosexuality. Despite his lifelong love of the Bible, he had a persistent wish to escape conventional morality and explore the sensual life. Writing about his youth in his journal in March 1893, he wrote: “I have lived until the age of 23 completely virgin and utterly depraved; crazed to such a point that eventually I came to look everywhere for some bit of flesh on which to press my lips.”
Although he married in 1895, the marriage ended once he announced his homosexuality. No longer content to live life according to values that were not his own, Gide advocated in “Fruits of the Earth” (1897) that one should partake of life’s sensual pleasures rather than think of everything in terms of “sin.”
Gide was almost sixty when he wrote “Judge Not”. Gide never turned down jury duty and he even advised other writers to take time to do likewise. Now, the jury system in France differs from the American system. For example, jurors may speak out and ask the court to put certain questions to a defendant or witness. With this rule in mind, Gide wondered, “Did I dare use this prerogative? It’s hard to imagine how unsettling it is to rise up and speak in front of the court. If I ever had to testify, I would surely lose my composure and what would I feel in the defendant’s box?”
“Does an innocent man sound more eloquent and less disturbed than a guilty one? Nonsense!” Gide wrote. “As soon as he feels that he isn’t believed, he might be even more disturbed since he is less guilty. He’ll overdo his statements, his protests will seem more and more disagreeable, and he will be out of his depth.” Gide was definitely in his depth as he took notes on case after case. What upset him most, he confessed, was the tendency among jurors, during serious cases when it was clear that the defendant was not guilty, to opt to punish the defendant anyway. “To these jurors some punishment is necessary,” wrote Gide, “so just in case, let’s punish the man, since he’s the one offered to us as a victim. But since we’re not sure, let’s at any rate not punish him too much.”
But that does not seem to have been the case, as recorded in “Judge Not”. Gide was often appointed foreman, which is the head juror in French courts, because of his professional literary stature and patrician manner, and when he spoke to the president he did so eloquently and without much fanfare.
Gide’s attention to detail allowed him to see pertinent facts to which other jurors were blind. Consider the case of Charles, a 34-year old coachman, who allegedly stabbed his mistress, Juliette, to death. As witnessed by Juliette’s landlady, the killing would appear to be a simple case of murder. And this was what the jury saw, despite the defense attorney’s claim that Charles’ act “was done without the idea of killing being quite specified in his mind.” Gide considered the attorney’s claim that the proof of this lay in the distribution of stab wounds and then posited: “Why didn’t the defense attorney go further and say that, not only had Charles not wanted to kill, but that he dimly tried, while mutilating his victim, not to kill her and that, doubtless so as not to kill her, he had grabbed the knife just next to the blade, which is the only way that the stabbing could have been so intense yet cause such shallow wounds?” Fed up with the appalling incompetence of jurors, Gide recorded how the jurors later changed their minds after a sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor was handed down. Stunned by the severity of the sentence, the jury chose to take another look at the case and obtained a reprieve.
Then there was the case of a teenager named Cordier, who got involved with two other young men in the killing of a sailor after a foiled robbery attempt. Here the jury only saw one thing, Cordier’s prior offenses. “No sooner were we in the jury room than a tall, thin, white haired foreman pulled from his pocket a paper on which he had written all the charges against Cordier and, most important, his previous convictions. In truth these would dominate and determine this latest verdict. That’s how difficult it is for a juror to not consider a previous conviction as an indictment and to judge a defendant outside the shadows that a previous conviction cast on him,” Gide wrote.
Gide took his job as juror very seriously. In some cases he took notes during trials; at other times he took it upon himself to visit the families of convicted felons. In the Redureau case, a teenage servant, Marcel Redureau, hacked to death the family of his employer. It seems Marcel was set off by the father calling him a “lazybones” and telling the boy that he hadn’t been at all happy with the boy’s work for some time. “At this remark,” Gide wrote, “the irked Redureau stepped down from the winepress, armed himself with a wooden hammer, a kind of fifty-centimeter-long bludgeon that was within his reach, and struck several blows at the head of his master, who sank down groaning, letting go of the bar. Then, seeing that he was still alive, Redureau grabbed a huge chopper that the country folk call a grape bullock, which is used not on vines but rather to separate bunches of grapes that are pulled in the winepress….Redureau opened the throat of his master, who was in his final agony and soon gave his last gasp.” Redureau then butchered the three children, the grandmother, the mother, and the housemaid.
“In no way do I presume to lessen the atrocity of Redureau’s crime, but when a case is this serious, we have the right to expect that even the prosecution will be resolved to present for justice’s sake all appurtenances, even those that might be favorable to the defendant—above all when he is an impoverished child, with no help other than a public defender.”
Further testimony revealed that Redureau may have been affected by fumes from the winepress, but this theory was discounted when it was learned that the youth had worked primarily in the open air. Gide, finally, quoted the pathologist on the case: “Specialists who work on pubescent psychology have noticed that in schools the largest number of cases of subjects liable for punishment for bad behavior, disputes, and assault and battery occur in the fifteenth year, because on reaching that age, young people have minimal control of their primary impulses.”
As a writer, Gide was entirely dedicated to his art, using every personal experience as fodder for his novels, which some critics maintained were nothing more than Gides’ thinly veiled life experiences.
Gide recorded in his journals that a number of his friends dropped him after his book Corydon appeared in 1911. Corydon was the author’s defense of homosexuality as expressed in the “homosexual models” of ancient Greece. “Homosexual periods in history,” Gide wrote, “are in no way periods of decadence. On the contrary, they were great periods when art flourished—the Greeks at the time of Pericles, the Romans in the century of Augustus, the English at the time of Shakespeare, the Italians at the time of the Renaissance…” Gide believed that “periods and countries without homosexuality were periods and countries without art.”
Gide felt his public image succumbing to tabloid oversimplification. “The legend is gaining credit little by little,” he confided in his journal. “The public knows nothing of me but the caricature… Even if some people have the curiosity to read me, they do so with such a mass of prejudices that the real meaning of my writings eludes them. They will end up seeing in them what they have been told is there, and not see anything else.” But more than sixty years after his death, Gide’s reputation as a writer continues to rise, while taboos against discussing sexual matters, including non-normative sex, have collapsed, revealing just how far ahead of his time Andre Gide really was. •