|Schematic of the character relationships in Gide's The Counterfeiters|
by André Gide
Any attempt to understand The Counterfeiters needs to start with the chart above. That chart shows you the interrelationships between the characters in The Counterfeiters, and it should be enough to make your head spin. Truly the 1920s are when we can add a "degree of difficulty" to more familiar descriptive terms like "readability" when describing specific works of literature. Books by James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust and of course Gide all require a greater mental effort than what is required to enjoy an Edith Wharton or Dashiell Hammett. The Counterfeiters represents another front in the developing war of experimental Modernism vs. the readable Victorian novel.
Does that make these books more interesting and worthwhile than their more readable, enjoyably contemporaries? I would argue NOT. I would argue that the experimental Modernism of the early 20th century in literature was a mistake, since it by necessity advances the idea of art without audience. The audience-less masterpiece is a staple of 20th century literature and my sense is the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. Oliver, Edouards nephew AND love and Bernard,
The Counterfeiters is many things, but none of those things is a conventionally plotted novel. The 10-15 major character intersect in a variety of ways: family, lovers, friends, employees. The title of the novel, The Counterfeiters, also refers to the name of a novel that Edouard is writing during the course of the novel. It also references an actual counterfeiting ring involving Olivier and Bernard. Gide switches between the use of omniscient third person narrator and journal entries recounting current events. Plots appear and disappear. Focusing on any single relationship or development is difficult.
Gide writes conventionall enough in terms of prose style and puntucation, and he eschews radical stream-of-consciousness narration, making The Counterfeiters easy enough to read, but difficult to really understand. By that I mean "difficult to understand what is actually going on." Any deeper appreciation about the themes of homosexuality and youthful ennui that run underneath the convoluted plot require first understanding the plot itself. So again, take a look at that chart above if you are planning to tackle The Counterfeiters, and don't make the mistake of treating it as a light read.