January 15, 2016 | by Matthew Neill Null
Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.
Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.
Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes,
Montherlant’s generation had hailed him principally as a moralist, but the postwar generation turned to writers like André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who had been actively engaged in the struggle for freedom. They were indifferent to the counsel of a man who had been unable to accord his own life to his principles. Montherlant had said in L’Equinoxe de septembre that France would be saved by those of her sons who possessed the courage “to refuse to play the game, the courage to say no, the courage to be severe, the courage to be unpopular.” When these sons finally appeared in the ranks of the Resistance, Montherlant was not there.
Montherlant’s father was a royalist of tenuous nobility, without wealth or distinction, who wouldn’t allow electricity or the telephone into the house, who scorned the post–Dreyfus Affair army as toothless and subservient. In high school, Montherlant was expelled for an affair with another male student. Only the Great War brought him new life and fame. Today he is chiefly remembered for the aphorism “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page.” Montherlant’s ink, by contrast, is pitch black.
Literary history has made its truce with Pound and Céline, but Montherlant has been consigned to its worst perdition: he is not much read in France, and even more rarely in America, where only one of his novels is in print. (Thankfully it’s one of his best, Le chaos et la nuit, or Chaos and Night, reissued in 2009.) Les célibataires (The Bachelors), his greatest achievement, is not in print, despite its translation into English by the estimable Terence Kilmartin, translator of Proust and Malraux. The novel was rereleased in 1985 by Quartet Encounters, which as far as I can tell no longer exists.
If you haven’t encountered Montherlant’s work, Les célibataires is the place to begin. It is the story of impoverished petty nobility, the Count Léon de Coantré and his uncle the Baron Élie de Coëtquidan. They’re losing their home on the Rue de Arago as Léon realizes the amount of debt levied against his late mother’s estate, meager as it is:
Mme de Coantré had spent twenty years flapping her wings like a frightened bird over which the hawks are hovering. The hawks were her creditors. She grew pale when the doorbell rang, and put letters away unopened in a drawer for days … She had known ill-shaven lawyers who spoke to her with cigarettes dangling from their lips; all that frightful legal gibberish, a disgrace to a civilized nation; solicitors’ bills demanding up to forty francs for “correspondence charges” and fifty francs for “stationary,” whereas the “findings” and the “settlements” only cost a franc or two; lawyer relations who look after you gratis for three years and then in the fourth year, dissatisfied with the imitation Sèvres you have sent them as a token of gratitude, leave you in the lurch with your affairs in hopeless and inextricable tangle; “opinions” requested from arch-pettifoggers in the hope that they will support you in the course you have already taken, and when they advise against it you nonetheless continue on this course out of reluctance to start again from scratch; decisions on which your whole livelihood depends that have to be taken in a quarter of an hour … All this she had known, as well as the Calvary of being continually on the verge of bankruptcy, the indifference and appalling frivolity, comparable only to that of the medical profession …
Though the plot inevitably spirals the household into this financial abyss, Les Célibataires is also a remarkably funny book, mainly in the relationship between Léon and Élie—there’s an endless war in which the Léon turns down the coal furnace each night to save a few sous, and the stealthy uncle slips down and cranks it back up—but also in the way the uncle and nephew interact with “normal” people, who respond with a mixture of amusement, mystification, and horror. An event as simple as the unexpected appearance of a five-year-old boy (the housemaid’s son) in the garden leaves them panic-stricken; they dissect it over dinner. The pilgrimages to Élie’s brother, the wealthy and thoroughly “modern” banker Octave, to beg for support are little masterpieces of discomfort. In Montherlant, “modern” and “up-to-date” are signifiers of the crass and the terrifying; the self-made-man Octave has conveniently forgotten that he’s attained his wealth and station only through his schoolmate’s father, but so it goes. The moment of crisis comes when Léon discovers that they cannot maintain the house at Rue Arago. He and his uncle must part ways. The narrative clock is set to ticking.
When Montherlant’s father died, he was sent off to live with his grandmother and two doddering, bachelor uncles of Picard nobility. You can sense their influence in the way the jobless Léon passes his days: gardening, puttering around the Rue Arago, wearing ugly suits decades out of style, and volunteering at a military hospital until he’s encouraged to leave for his incompetence and his rudeness to the nurses. Upon learning he’ll lose the house, his elation and fear oscillate like a sine curve, as will happen to a person faced with all-encompassing change. Élie, for his part, loves stray cats. He reads soiled newspapers, gathers bits of string and bread and rescues used stamps from the garbage. The aged Élie is a carbon of his father, who also lived to ripe old age:
It was malevolence that kept him alive, for malevolence, like alcohol, is a preservative. After a certain age, every biting word uttered, every anonymous letter posted, every calumny spread abroad wins you another few months from the tomb, because it stimulates your vitality. This can also be seen among animals: a particularly cruel hen, a stubborn horse or a vicious dog will live long than its fellows. M. de Coëtquidan was extremely pretentious; the way he said “people like us” was enough to make you want to guillotine him on the spot.
Anyone who’s had seeming immortal elderly neighbors like this—I’ve known at least four, and I’m only thirty-one—will recognize the precision of Montherlant’s eye. He’s been characterized as the ultimate cynic, but underneath it all, I find a grudging humanism, a willingness to expose foibles and forgive them. Look at his characters. They are the mumbling men and women you pass on the street, the detritus of history, the malign, the incompetent, the ill-dressed, the politically unsavory, who are ground into nothing by the courts, the bureaucracies, the bill-collectors, the police. Terrifying letters appear for Léon: new creditors who make claims, chopping his inheritance down to twelve-thousand francs, then six-thousand, then two thousand. “The tragic thing about anxious people,” Montherlant writes, “is that they always have cause for anxiety.”
Montherlant has been called a pederast, a fascist, a misogynist. Perhaps he was all of these. It’s hard to imagine a fascist with tenderness for such people, or even the patience to deal with them with literary acuity: another of Monthlerant’s contrarian streaks. However uncharitable he could be, he was a perfect expression of his moment: the poisoned atmosphere of the 1930s, the Popular Front years in France, the Spanish Civil War, the financial chaos, the head-spinning rise of fascism. It was an age that brought out the worst in those like Montherlant, who chose one side over the other, grew into its vile expressions, and excused great sins while braying about their ideals. Chaos and Night traces the long aftermath of a political survivor of the losing side. The protagonist, Don Celestino, is an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, having fought for the losing Republican faction, and has lived out decades as a miserable refugee in Paris, with an unsteady grasp of French and a marked disinterest in his adopted country. I’m not the first to see in Don Celestino a left-wing reflection of Montherlant.
Yes, he wrote a few wretched books. Les jeunes filles has been rightfully excoriated for its easy misogyny, famously dismantled by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. But The Bachelors and Chaos and Night are as paradoxical as his life: acerbic and gentle, hilarious and terrifying, generous in sympathy and generous in scorn. He’s a perfect writer for our confused age.
Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a winner of the O. Henry Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize. His debut novel, Honey from the Lion, was published last year. His story collection, Allegheny Front, is forthcoming in May.