"The Counterfeiters" (1926), by Andre Gide (1869-1951) is a fascinating chronicle of life in Paris before World War I. It begins as two high school friends, Bernard Profitendieu and Olivier Molinier, prepare for the bacchalaureat, their final exam. Bernard finds some letters hidden at home which show he is illegitimate, and runs away from home, thus setting in motion a rich set of adventures among a cast of mind-boggling proportions. From Bernard, Olivier and their parents, the story quickly grows to include Olivier's younger brother George, his uncle Edouard, Edouard's friend Laura, Olivier's older brother Vincent, Vincent's friend Robert Count Passavant, Passavant's lover Lady Griffith, Edouard's old schoolmate Victor Strouvilhou, Victor's nephew Gheri, Laura's father Vedel, Edouard's old piano teacher Perouse, and Perouse's grandson Boris, among many others. As this prodigious cast assembles itself, the fireworks really begin!
The reader will be amazed by all the ways these characters interconnect with each other. For example, at the beginning of the book, Edouard is traveling from London to Paris to visit and advise Laura, who is trying to extricate herself from an extra-marital affair, but only upon arriving will he learn Laura's paramour is actually his nephew Vincent. Many similar connections between most of the characters will be revealed during the course of this motivating story. "The Counterfeiters" is less a plotted novel than a finely-woven tapestry. Every character interacts with almost every other. The chapters are brief, only a dozen pages or so, but most focus on one of these interactions in particular, making for a compelling narrative. It was notably experimental for its time, but extremely readable, and still fresh today.
The title describes a counterfeiting ring which uses children, like something from Dickens's "Oliver Twist", to pass off gold-plated glass disks for coins. Gide's broader theme, however, is that of falsehood in general, like that popular theme of 19th-century French literature, namely hypocrisy. Beside the counterfeiting ring itself, Gide describes fathers with illegitimate children, adults with hidden affairs, and people generally searching for truth among the artifice of life.
Gide's characters are brilliantly conceived, executed on a par with his predecessor Balzac, whom Gide himself called "possibly our greatest novelist" (as published in the invaluable reference in the appendix of this book, the illuminating journal Gide himself kept while writing "The Counterfeiters"). There is something of Balzac's Goriot in Gide's Perouse, something of Rastignac in Bernard, and perhaps even a little Vautrin in Passavant. But Gide's literary style is markedly different. Where Balzac told self-contained stories, usually ones with social morals attached (as did most 19th-century French authors), Gide tells us he is "fond of sudden endings," and "it is an insult to explain what the attentive reader has understood" (both also paraphrased from this book's appendix).
Gide weaves dozens of strands of the story, intersecting every character with every other character, drawing lines to question the moral behavior of each interaction, an experimental gambit for its time. But I'm pleased to say Gide's experiment worked. The complete book is a brilliant success. His "novelist's novel" is perhaps one of the most important literary results of the early twentieth century, crafting a compelling story of interesting characters, maintaining great intellectual interest throughout. This novel is recommendable to anyone who enjoys fine literature.
Note: Other reviews invariably paint this book in shocking shades of homosexual or hedonistic material, but this is misleading at best. It's true, a homosexual and hedonistic tone appears at places, Count Passavant being the worst offender, but Gide is not a pornographer, he is a moralist. Homosexual himself, Gide was also Protestant (Huguenot), and like his brilliant work "The Immoralist", he believes in showing a moral lesson through human action.
Finally, two small quibbles: An emotional incident at the end of the book, based on a newspaper article Gide clipped, seems incongruous with the rest. It doesn't detract from the book, but it seems tacked on for special effect. Also, while excellent for the most part, the translation insists on leaving some expressions in the French original, such as "chef d'oeuvre" instead of "masterpiece", or "entr'acte" instead of "intermission".