Marshlands was French writer, André Gide's third book — or a sotie, as he had referred to it. The French title Paludes is derived from the French word, paludes which was a neologism, a play on the Latin word, palus meaning marsh. Additionally, the title of this work of short fiction is adapted from the caliginous first part of Virgil's Eclogues.
The book is a cacophony of literary formats: a memoir, poetry, novella and theatrical work. Its characteristically personal and abstract style is a deliberate modus operandi – as he states in the afterword – as the book subjects the reader to the process behind that of the book's writing process and the novella's subject.
It is very much a book about writing a book, a work of self-divulgence and a mechanism for the discussion of philosophical and literary theories. One might think that it is written with profundity and gravitas, but Gide delineates throughout the book with sharp humour and irony. However, the former is still present along with a tinge of existentialism.
In essence, Marshlands is a philosophical story of metafiction about whether or not a person is seeking.
The narrator of Marshlands is a writer who is writing a book called Marshlands, detailing the life of a reclusive character who resides in solitude within a stone tower. In contrast to this, the narrator is an unremitting social butterfly of the Parisian literary sphere, one who is disgusted by the status quo and tirelessly expounds to his friends and confrères about his books and the virtues of it.
Whilst sounding pleasant to some and banal to others, the very concept's banality is the problem for the narrator, who wishes to explore the Virgilian themes he was originally inspired by. However, he cannot even heed his own counsel and injunctions and is weighed down by asinine and pompous contradictions like others in the same bourgeois Parisian circles that he inhabits.
The narrator cannot lead a life of action, one full of self-made decisions, without submitting that life to a dampening series of self-controls. The result is not a duty but the sentiment of duty, not action but the illusion of action.
Gide has great fun with this premise – his approach is both playful and ironic, for as profound and earnest as the narrator desires and strives to be, he cannot overcome his own basic lack of seriousness. And as an appropriate conclusion to the Marshlands, the narrator sets out on his next work, which he determines will be aptly named Polderlands.
In the book's afterword, Gide notes:
"Marshlands is the story of an idea, more than of anything else; it is the story of the spiritual malaise that that idea causes. Is an idea an aspect of life? No, it is part of a fever, part of a semblance of life. It is a succubus, feeding on us, while we exist merely to give it life. I could have made any other idea my subject in a book like this, it wouldn't matter."
In essence, Marshlands is a philosophical story of metafiction about whether or not a person is seeking. The book is accessible because of its short length, and the prose are beautifully and succinctly translated from the original French source by Damion Searls. But it can prove frustrating with its abject nature and constant narrative asides, although that's kind of the point.
It is the story of a writer – of a 19th-century French flâneur – who struggles and frets finding any and all reasons to put off completion of one's work whilst attempting to depict a different public persona. It's through Marshlands that we understand Gide's talent of his impregnable perfection of dialectic and invention that has allowed his work to survive long after he passed from this world.