Michel’s entire life up until his young adulthood has been influenced and directed by his father. From his earliest years he is groomed to be a classicist and archaeologist and is immersed in ancient history and cares for nothing that doesn’t deal with the past. Michel is a docile, emotionless, physically weak and disciplined man. When his father dies, he marries Marceline, not because he loves her, but because that’s what his father wanted.
While on their honeymoon in Africa, Michel becomes very ill with tuberculosis. His fevers, bad health and brush with death awaken in him thoughts, emotions, longing and senses he has never experienced before. He falls in love with his wife and becomes extremely devoted to her. And he also develops a sensual longing for the African boys that visit and interact with them. When he recovers and returns to France, he tries to reestablish his career by giving a series of lectures on Athalaric, an obscure Gothic king who died young from heaving drinking and leading an excessively sensual life:
But, I must admit, the figure of the young king Athalaric was what attracted me most to the subject. I imagined this fifteen-year-old, covertly spurred on by the Goths, rebelling against his mother Amalaswintha, balking at his Latin education, rejecting culture like a stallion restive in harness and, preferring the company of the tumultuous Goths to that of the old and over-prudent Cassiodorus, enjoying for a few years with unruly favorites his own age a violent, voluptuous, unbridled life, dying at eighteen, utterly corrupted, glutted with debauchery. I recognized in this tragic thirst for a wilder and unspoiled existence something of what Marceline used to call, with a smile, my “attack.” I sought relief by applying to it at leas my mind, since my body was no longer concerned, and I did my best to convince myself there was a lesson to be read in Athalaric’s hideous death.
I would argue that the lesson Michel learns is that we can’t let ourselves get too weighed down by the past; we must move forward, take risks in life. And even though these risks may cause us pain and heartache, it is always worth taking a chance.
Gide was a perfect read for my post-Proust reading funk. I’ve also decided to finish Schmidt’s book on poets and immerse myself in poetry for a while.