Every spring my school would put out a book recommendation list. Students and teachers would submit their favorite books, with a brief synopsis, and a little booklet would be distributed in the library. Some books were familiar to me, other unknown ones were discovered on those pages. It was here I found The Master and Margarita, one of my greatest and enduring loves. But what I remember most clearly is how one of the teachers - she was not my teacher, but I knew her well; she was tall and beautiful and English, and I adored her - wrote about Gide. Try to read it in French, if you can, she said, because the language is so beautiful. La Porte ètroite, or Strait is the Gate, by André Gide. I took note of the title, the author, thought it sounded beautiful and mysterious, the way French novels always do, and promised myself that I would wait and learn French before I read it.
A year, perhaps two, went by, and I was in college. Instead of learning French and reading Camus and Gide and Sartre in their original language I found myself learning Russian and reading Bulgakov and Lermontov and Pushkin in their original language. I found myself wandering along the canals of St. Petersburg instead of the boulevards of Paris. But rather suddenly I found I could read French fairly well (after years of Spanish and some Italian, now all forgotten, not to mention a longtime love of French cinema), a little more than menu French but not quite enough to tackle Gide. Saint-Exupéry, perhaps, but not Gide. Never mind. It was time to begin. In those days I would buy piles of books I meant to read on the internet, from used bookshops. It gave me a thrill to see a package slip in my mailbox, walk across the snowy campus with my brown cardboard box in hand, eager to rip it open in the warmth of my dorm room.
Quite soon I found myself with a whole pile of books by Gide, which I made my way through slowly. (Hindered by the fact that my dad would borrow them and not return them, in which case I had to mount a rescue mission, but then I was always doing the same with his books). Strait is the Gate is possibly the most well-known of Gide's works, and it was the one recommended so long ago by my teacher, so it was there I began. I have two copies, nearly identical except for one appears to have been nibbled away by a rat in one corner, and the other is rather more yellowed around the edges, its spine more worn. I think they date from the 1950's, a time when paperback novels cost $1.10 (copy one) or perhaps $1.25 (copy two).
Gide is like music, very French music. It whispers in my ears and sends a shiver down my spine; each word is cool on my skin, like a kiss.