Books March 2010

Monster of Marriage

Henry de Montherlant’s work displays the charms of a black-hearted misogynist.

What earned Montherlant so much admiration from Gide and other contemporaries was his complete sincerity, his readiness to say exactly what he wanted. “Grind your teeth, dear respectable friends!”—a line from his nonfiction writings—can stand for his work as a whole. Unlike the Dadaists and Surrealists, whose efforts to bait the middle class have aged so terribly, Montherlant attacks comforting notions of love to which the bourgeois and the bohemian are equally wedded. In one of Montherlant’s novels, the hero spots his teenage mistress playing with her friends, whereupon the narrator comments, “How happy and carefree are the ones we love when they are not in our company.” The remark has the force to stop the reader in his tracks. Perhaps the only writer to rival Montherlant for honesty in the discussion of emotional life was his contemporary Marcel Jouhandeau, whose chronicle of a nightmarish marriage—also out of print in English, natch—picks up where the Girls tetralogy leaves off.

Montherlant’s fiction can be enjoyed for the axioms alone, which are numerous enough to merit a book in their own right. Many of them deal with the sheer awfulness of mankind. “One can be generous towards the dead since they will get no pleasure from it.” Or: “When you do someone a favour you must never do it by half measures; you must go the whole hog or not at all, otherwise you will make an enemy.” This misanthropic insolence has a glorious tradition in France. We Americans, being more indebted to egalitarian myth, and less sure of our places in society, are more afraid of giving offense, of implying a superiority over others. Where else would idiotic phrases like in my humble opinion and with all due respect be used often enough to earn their own acronyms? Our journalists pay such deference to the man in the street, despite all the damage he has done, that when Montherlant disparages him, I feel as if I were reading something seditious. One novel makes passing mention of “your ordinary, asinine Frenchman.” The casual tone’s the thing. To say “your ordinary, asinine American,” our own writers would have to work themselves up into an ironic rant, lest anyone think they actually meant it. And we call the French pussyfooters.

Although Montherlant prided himself on his intellectual inconsistencies, he held to the same basic philosophy of life right up to his suicide in 1972. He summed it up once while explaining his love for the book of Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing new under the sun; everything has been said before—all is vanity apart from physical enjoyment—inaction is praiseworthy—reason and virtue are a source of pain—there is no punishment post mortem … None of it (and I have missed a lot out) is lacking in incoherence and repetitiveness and over it all floats a weird God, whose name is mentioned here and there, but whom, I think[,] it is quite easy to avoid, as I hasten to do. All very Montherlant …

Indeed, except that the ancient sage does not lay quite as much emphasis on the physical-enjoyment part. And no other writer ever argued as zealously as Montherlant that happiness is the only point of life. I am still not convinced, nor am I sure he was either; there is something telling in the way he wrote more of bad times than good ones. Living for pleasure can be a very boring business, as the autobiographies of prominent erotomaniacs make all too clear. (Klaus Kinski’s effort should be read out to high-school boys; a few chapters, and they’d be clamoring for their abstinence bracelets.) Besides, one cannot maintain a commitment to hedonism without, paradoxically enough, having to do a lot of unpleasant things. Montherlant himself found it necessary to collaborate with the Nazis to preserve his cherished freedom. He even fired his secretary for refusing to type an article she considered treasonous to France. (How trivial his brand of courage—a merely literary courage—looks next to her real-world kind.) It is difficult to believe that such an intelligent man, who was always so disdainful of anti-Semitism, did not feel thoroughly ashamed of himself when the war ended.

Then again, perhaps it was a desire to justify his wartime conduct that prompted Montherlant in later life to write Chaos and Night (1963), a cautionary novel about the futility of political convictions. Celestino, an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, lives in cantankerous old age in Paris, complaining to his daughter about their host country, yet not daring to return home for fear of Francoist reprisal. Finally he decides to take her with him on a trip to Madrid. In large part it is his yearning to see another bull-killing that overcomes his caution.

Our own Hemingway wrote so much grandiose nonsense about this so-called sport that the reader feels a certain dread as the climactic spectacle approaches—a dread heightened by the awareness that Montherlant was a matador in his teenage years. But there is a wonderful sentence in The Girls that runs, “As a novelist he was too accustomed to putting himself in other people’s skins not to realize how much she must have suffered,” and the same empathy seems to have extended, in Montherlant’s creative maturity, to animals as well. We are shown the corrida in all its sordidness and cruelty. The bull, out of its mind with terror and pain, loses control of its bowels; the crowd laughs. At last the old anarchist understands that the spectators “came to see, in safety and respectability, what they would have liked to do to other men.”

The matador in green was executing a pass. But the bull did not react. Motionless, it simply bellowed, and its bellowing seemed to say: “Why are you tormenting me like this? What have I done to you?” … For the first time [Celestino] realized that it was not the bull that hated the man, but the man who hated the bull.

Disillusioned not only with the pastime of his youth but with Spain itself, Celestino realizes that his political struggles have merely cheated him out of pleasure, the only thing that counts. To put his thoughts in the style of Ecclesiastes: As it happeneth to the right-winger, so it happeneth even to me. Why then was I more left?

Unfortunately, Celestino comes alive far too late in the story. For most of it, he is such a one-sided character that his creator seems, as in none of his other works, to be constantly repeating himself. One Hollywoodish scene has the old man, gabardine in hand, playing the matador with passing cars. Even the bulk of the novel that is undeniably well written—Terence Kilmartin translated this novel too, and with his usual verve—seems far from fresh. The Bachelors, written some 30 years earlier, delivers much the same warning against wasting one’s life. There the enemy is not politics but shyness, a subject on which Montherlant writes far more convincingly.

New York Review Books has so far done an excellent job of putting out older European novels that deserve our attention, its recent publication of Stefan Zweig’s thrilling The Post-Office Girl being a case in point. Alas, American readers are now so obsessed with the contemporary that a dead writer may return only with a formal recommendation from a living one. Gary Indiana does the honors here. I make a point of skipping all front matter, if not actually slicing it out, as I did recently when I found Paul Auster dithering around in my Knut Hamsun. This time I was curious about something: Why did the publisher choose to launch a Montherlant revival with such an innocuous novel? The Girls would have shown this unique writer to far greater advantage. Marketed boldly as an antidote to chick lit, it would have sold better too. Indiana’s introduction confirmed my suspicion that Chaos and Night was given the nod because it is less likely to offend anyone. One may freely admit, as Indiana does, that Montherlant was a pederast, and even shrug off his collaboration with the Nazis as a matter of being “snagged in the gearworks of history.” What one may not do, it seems, is differ with the orthodoxy that the tetralogy is “a poisonously misogynistic work.” Indiana goes so far as to dismiss Costals as a “mediocre” novelist. There is nothing in the novels, least of all any excerpts from Costals’s fiction, to support such a judgment. Are we to assume that such an unpleasant man could not possibly write well? And if so, what are to we make of Montherlant’s own work?

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B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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