The protagonist of Marshlands is a writer who is writing Marshlands, which is about a reclusive character who lives all alone in a stone tower. The narrator, by contrast, is anything but a recluse: He is an indefatigable social butterfly, flitting about the Paris literary world and always talking about, what else, the wonderful book he is writing-Marshlands.
Difficult and diffuse it certainly is, for it is not easy to group the diverse elements of his literary production into a coherent structure. It is also, for all its diversity, a curiously narrow work. Yet within the limited area it stakes out for itself, it is genuinely revealing ... He is not concerned with the moment of complete inner self-realization, but rather with the moment at which he reaches out for other people, in a gesture prompted by a combination of curiosity and interest. Drama in his life as well as in his work originates in conflicts between the incompatible responses awakened by his involvements with other people. He has himself interpreted his entire destiny as determined by his relationship with his wife, not however in the sense that an authentic relationship would have determined his outlook, but in the very different sense that this relationship, by its very inadequacy, always drew him outside of himself, oriented him forever towards other people and society and made his entire experience an interpersonal one ... From the point of view of the writer, this all-consuming curiosity directed towards other human beings is by no means a weakness ... For the early Gide—and this remained true throughout his career—no real conflict exists between an aesthetic and a moral commitment. Both are united by the same overriding attraction towards other people or society.
... an eminently readable translation ... the authors contend with the inadequacies of their literary forms at conveying a sort of hidden truth. Marshlands is ultimately the author’s failed attempt at expressing this hidden truth, this single idea that becomes so all-consuming that its elucidation becomes his raison d’être. The deft, playful novel is rightly considered one of the first examples of modern metafiction, and arguably of postmodernism, because like Barthes’ autobiography, it rebels against traditional narrative, while ironizing the methods of its form ... What is unique about Gide’s work is the degree of obsession the narrator has for his novel and its completion. He thinks and talks almost exclusively about his novel and its central idea, which is that we are ignorant of the fact we live the same days over and over again ... Ultimately, Marshlands is a novel about a man who wrestles with his faith in a single essential idea. Eventually, the narrator realizes that the release or the 'end' of this idea might occur with the completion of his novel.
That he was writing to entertain there is no doubt, and as a satire of the self-important aesthete the book is witty and frequently hilarious ... this sarcastic ode to stagnation is foremost a comedy of ideas, a superb example of the genre the Hungarian author Antal Szerb dubbed 'neo-frivolity.' The translator Damion Searls has kept the language jokey and loose, emphasizing the mood of casual absurdity.