It is a truth universally acknowledged that the market for literary fiction revolves around women, which is why even airport newsstands carry Pride and Prejudice. This demographic is evidently less keen on stories about men who do not want a wife: Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy, Les Jeunes Filles, or The Girls (1936–39), which tells of a successful writer’s efforts to elude “the Hippogriff,” or monster of marriage, has been out of print in America for decades. Things might have been a little different had Simone de Beauvoir not denounced Montherlant in The Second Sex (1949) as a pompous, woman-hating hack. She was no friend of the Hippogriff either, as the rest of her book attests, but there you are; when feminists are denouncing marriage, the last thing they want is a happy bachelor chiming in. Beauvoir was especially contemptuous of the way Montherlant likens Costals, the womanizing hero of the Girls tetralogy, to a lion. How many Americans ever found out that Montherlant also likened Costals to a hyena? By the time Terence Kilmartin’s superb translation of the tetralogy appeared in 1968, a whole generation of reviewers was waiting to do it in.
Granted, the story is not your typical romcom trajectory. Famous writer seduces young beauty, reluctantly agrees to marry her, then changes his mind at the last minute, finally escaping to Morocco for some restorative debauchery. All the while he receives, and occasionally deigns to answer, long and passionate letters from a provincial bluestocking. Beauvoir calls this lady stupid for no other apparent reason than that she loves an appalling man—as if she herself had not been a great thinker on the one hand, and Sartre’s harem-enabling girlfriend on the other. In fact, Montherlant draws both of his female characters with sympathy and respect. The letter-writer, for example, gets off some of the most memorable lines in the tetralogy’s first, eponymous volume, whether cutting the hero down to size, or describing her loneliness in a few heartrending words: “No one, anywhere, wants to see my face.”
This is not to deny that Costals is indeed an appalling man. He claims that his only quarrel is with “the idolatry of woman,” but it is one thing to want to take la femme off her pedestal—assuming she was still on it in the 1930s—and another to assert that when lying on her back during sex she looks “ridiculous … froglike.” The intention to give offense is obvious. So is a certain something else, the complaint being one that no completely straight man would make. (There are many other hints of Costals’s bisexuality.) For the most part, however, the tetralogy’s first volume, The Girls, is a lighter-hearted affair than Beauvoir made it out to be. In the following passage, Costals tells a girlfriend the biblical story of Sisera, a general who seeks shelter with the wife, Jael, of an allied king.
He goes into her tent, and lies down, exhausted, and she covers him with a cloak. And he asks for a little water, for he is dying of thirst. The Bible actually says “a little water”, and when I think of the modesty of this request, I weep a tiny bit … Sisera falls asleep, and Jael, taking a tent-peg and a mallet, nails his head to the ground from temple to temple … His fate would be mine if I ever took refuge with a woman: she would reduce my brain to pulp, because women always hate men’s brains, and there’s a remark of Mme Tolstoy’s about her husband, so revealing of the female attitude and so profound in both its terms that it is worthy of holy writ: “I cannot abide him, because he never suffers, and because he writes.”
Costals presents his point entertainingly enough to make male readers forget that it is as old as misogyny itself. They might even forget that their sex is the only one that goes around demolishing the other one’s schools—more than 100 last year in Pakistan alone. The female reader, on the other hand, will hate the jauntiness, the teasing smile implicit in “I weep a tiny bit,” more than anything; it is better to be opposed in earnest. Reading out excerpts from The Girls to my wife, I found that the same aspersion annoyed her much less as a sententia—“When one goes out with a woman, it does not matter whether a thing is good or bad, but only that it should cost a great deal of money”—than as an aside: “We all know how expensive women are.”
But Costals’s dealings with his lovers are far more respectful and tender than his talk of their kind in general. He lends them his favorite books, a clear sign that he does not consider them as inferior as all that. Nor does he use the crude epithets for women that women themselves now use without batting an eye. Most important, he is always honest, apprising each lover of his commitment to a life of sensual pleasure. This aspect of the book retains the power to shock readers, because it is still no more acceptable for a man to live for sex than for a woman to do so. At the very least we expect him to present his libido as something freakish, either by boasting of a mind-boggling number of conquests or by seeking help for his “addiction.” Costals will have none of this. His urges, he says, are those of every healthy male, and he will indulge them no matter what. Is it his fault if no one believes him? The fellow’s refusal to play the conventional games is at times downright stirring.
I have heard it said that one loses a woman by loving her too much, that an affectation of coldness, from time to time, brings better results. And so on. I shall play no such tricks with you … Let love be truly love—that is, let it be peace—or let it not exist at all.
Love, for Costals, is not romantic love, which he considers a hoax, but an inherently transient mixture of affection and desire. Still, how beautiful those last words are, and how much more respectful of women, than “You complete me,” to quote the sort of line that movie audiences sniffle over. Speaking of movies, I doubt whether The Girls is any more misogynist than those British “kitchen-sink” narratives of the 1950s and 1960s, still touted for their social consciousness, in which the working-class bride turns into a dragon overnight. At least The Girls ends with Costals’s predictions of marital hell unfulfilled. We must also keep in mind that, in contrast to authors like Kingsley Amis, Montherlant wrote equally harshly of both sexes. Had a female novelist paraded all the revolting men that one encounters in Les Célibataires (The Bachelors, 1934)—“his greasy, dandruff-spattered head … exuding a powerful odour of ill-kept male”—she would have been accused of man-hating. Or maybe not. When it comes to slandering the opposite sex, women get away with much more; the relative obscurity of the word misandry speaks for itself.