What is J.R. Patterson Reading?
On a recent journey through Morocco, I read André Gide’s short novel Strait is the Gate. The story of two adolescents, Jerome and Alissa, on the Normandy coast falling in love and failing to court one another was at odds with my surroundings—dirty souks, rattling trains, the call of the muezzin. The discord was comforting; it was an escape, and anytime I wanted, I could slip into that distant world of manners and witness two people agonize over their love.
North Africa was the other pole of Gide’s sensibility. While he made several travels to Alegria, Morocco, and Chad, one doesn’t read his account of those travels (Amyntas, Le retour de Tchad) for the description—Gide wasn’t much of a documentarian. In his works about Africa and France, one finds far more of the interior world than the exterior. And yet, without the temperate French spring in my mind, would the chill of the Rif Mountains have sunk so deep into my bones? Without the thought of demure Christmas parties, would the vendors of Marrakesh have been so bothersome, or the tagines so sweet?
The question of values—what they are, why we have them, how to live up to them—formed the core of all Gide’s writing. Strait is the Gate depicts the conflict between desire and duty. Jerome and Alissa are ultimately damned by their attempts at ultimate virtuousness. Their desire for perfection scuppers their chance to be happy; they value their purity too much.
For writers, this conflict between desire and duty presents itself when we must choose between writing what happened and the message of what happened. Writers have a certain duty to the truth. We witness an event—a “fact”—and feel compelled to record it along with our feelings. What is more true: what I saw or what I felt? The event or the message of the event? When does fact become story?
We strive for veracity without questioning the nature of truth. Truth can be petty. True is true, we tell ourselves, convinced a pointed finger negates a shrug. Often when demanding truth, we disregard that we cannot recall things that we deal with on the daily, which falls to us alone to know: the cookies in the oven, where we put our car keys, the colour of the underwear we have on. Meanwhile, more universal truths become secondary: the need for kindness, the ability to put things in perspective, the importance of the benefit of the doubt. Our desire for perfection scuppers our chance to be happy; we value our purity too much.
Gide reminds us that everything we do contains a greater question of who we are. Is it true? we ask the writer, forgetting it all washes away in the end. The writer asks rather: Is it true for me? Or better, What is true for me?
J.R. Patterson was born on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. His work has appeared in a variety of international publications, including National Geographic, The Walrus, and the Literary Review of Canada.