Books March 2010

Monster of Marriage

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

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.

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?

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