Montherlant, Henri de (Vol. 19)
Montherlant, Henri de 1896–1972
A French novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Montherlant extolled Spartan virtue, virility, and stoicism in his writings. Viewed by many as a "right-wing" novelist and falsely accused of collaborating with the Germans, Montherlant suffered a diminished literary reputation as a result. Interesting parallels exist between Montherlant and Hemingway. Both writers have been called egotists and both appear to exalt violence. Furthermore, both wrote about bullfighting: Montherlant quite authentically, since he actually had experience in the ring. Finally, both men shot themselves—Hemingway because he was physically ill and because he feared going insane, Montherlant because he was threatened by blindness. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
M. de Montherlant's novel ["The Bullfighters"] is the first I know to raise bullfighting beyond either mere spectacle or mere study, and to put it in an absolute world of its own, with its own sensations of beauty and mysticism, terror and strength…. [To] read "The Bullfighters" is to drop out of life, to become bullfighter and bull and nothing else, to see Time drop away and immemorial ceremonies dominate and fire the blood. Here is not only the face of the bull and the mind of the bullfighter; here is the soul of bullfighting….
Having lived throughout the book in a merely technical and professional world of bullfighting, one suddenly sees into the soul of the spectacle, into the history of the...
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In France, where the intelligent novel goes far, these books about women (women in love) [Montherlant's Les Jeunes Filles] have been widely enough read to rouse excitement and anger. Montherlant has been, I understand, accused of indecency on a rather subtle plane. He gets nearer the nerve of a matter—in fact, "our women"—than people, even in France, like. Now that translation is to widen his English public, what, I wonder, will be the reactions to him here? Very mixed: in some quarters, possibly, hostile. He is likely to displease women, to unnerve men. He has a ruthless touch on a good many illusions. But his drive, his clarity, his magnetic style are unlikely to be forgotten….
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Montherlant belongs to the long tradition of males who have adopted as their own the proud Manichaeism of Pythagoras. Following Nietzsche, he holds that only epochs marked by weakness have exalted the Eternal Feminine and that the hero should rise in revolt against the Magna Mater. A specialist in heroism, he undertakes to dethrone her. Woman—she is night, disorder, immanence…. According to him, it is the stupidity and the baseness of the men of today that have lent an air of positive worth to feminine deficiencies: we hear about women's instinct, their intuition, their divination, when it is in order to denounce their lack of logic, their obstinate ignorance, their inability to grasp reality. They are in fact...
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["The Bachelors"] has no plot, no content, little characterization, only style and avid irony. Montherlant's hatred for these members of his aristocratic class is not relieved by pity; but it moves the reader, for it only half disguises the author's hatred of himself. Behind his Stendhalian technique of intervening in his descriptions and in his narrative and of commenting upon his sad weaklings for the reader's sake, one detects Montherlant's fundamental isolation and shyness. These pathetic noblemen reduced to insignificance might have been members of his family, or what he would himself have become, a misogynist bachelor, if he had not been saved by vitality, by talent and by a boundless and arrogant faith in...
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Henry de Montherlant is a moralist, this is to say a writer whose principal concern is how man ought to live. His essays, plays, and novels serve this inquiry; they record and analyze Montherlant's observation of human behavior; they are dialectical and rhetorical exercises in support of an essentially psychological interpretation of life.
For Montherlant, men are isolated creatures, responding to psychological imperatives. These are often at variance with the patterns of behavior sanctioned by society, which is in itself no more than an uneasy collective of individual consciousnesses…. (p. 704)
According to Montherlant, it is man's nature to be attracted by opposites; it is his...
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Throughout Montherlant's dramatic production, there exists a striking similarity of thematic content. Virtually each play stresses the drive for self-realization and the resultant heroic stature achieved by the protagonist, as well as his final recognition that, as his destiny differs from that of common humanity, he is condemned to solitude and exile. Each dénouement reveals to the hero the vanity of all things, including his own achievements. In his anguish at the absurdity of man's existence. Montherlant's hero longs for death and oblivion.
This pessimism and nihilism in Montherlant's theatrical production are a logical outcome of his theory of alternation, a doctrine which has guided him...
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Chaos and Night is concerned with a relic of the war, a Spanish anarchist, now sixty-seven, who has been exiled in Paris for twenty years. The old anecdote tells us that, when a Frenchman was asked by his grandchild what he had done during the Revolution, he replied, "I survived." In effect, Montherlant examines this answer for his hero: to find out what survived and why and whether it was worth the effort. (p. 20)
Two themes run through this austere but rich novel, one explicit, one manifested through the book's shape and sum: the realities of political belief, and God's last laugh. As for the former, it becomes increasingly clear to Celestino that seemingly immutable principles are a matter...
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What interests Montherlant in Le Maître de Santiago is not the hero's struggle or relationship with God but the inner mechanism of the psychological phenomenon of faith, that phenomenon combined with intransigence, and the ambiguity of abnegation and pride…. [Montherlant] at no time treats the supernatural as such but describes an emotional and intellectual attitude toward it.
Another of Montherlant's concerns … is that of "the imitation of life." By that he means that no rule of composition, no pre-established principle of what a dramatic character must be, should turn the playwright away from the faithful reproduction of psychological flux, its surprises, even its incoherence…. For...
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Henry de Montherlant, that haughty aristocrat of French letters …, is at his best when he diverts psychological tension into a rather grand, sporty, occasionally risky farce. The hero of The Girls [Les Jeunes Filles] scores a point against the book's major villain (the villain is the institution of marriage) by making himself even more of a fool than he is. (p. 22)
There are many funny scenes in Montherlant's novel; I recommend it for its comedy. Unfortunately, The Girls … has a rather … banal thesis to push. Montherlant is—tirelessly, interminably—out to attack the myth of "the eternal feminine," the idealization of women and marriage, the "love-court" notion of relations...
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Many have seen Montherlant's first play, L'Exil, as the key to his following theatrical works. It is true that Montherlant's tragic heroes are continually in a state of exile, but it is Pasiphaë who best illustrates the exile they must endure. Because of their desire they are in exile from others, from nature, and often from the deepest part of themselves. Like Pasiphaë his tragic heroes are constantly thirsting, though the waters that will fulfill their desire are always beyond this world. And thus like Pasiphaë they must affirm themselves in their exile as they affirm their desire…. Like Kierkegaard's Abraham, Pasiphaë can find no mediation through an ethical universal. For her the tragedy of eros is to...
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Most of [Montherlant's] dramatic heroes aspire to act in ways that are above those usually found at the common level of humanity. They believe in cultivating what they regard as the better or deeper part of their beings. But they are usually supermen with a flaw, and Montherlant makes drama out of their struggles to promote their ideals in the face of opposition not only from others but from themselves.
For Montherlant, just as there are two kinds of men, the ordinary and the extraordinary, so there are two kinds of happiness, one for the majority and the other for the minority élite. Happiness for most people is again love, the happiness of one individual in love with another and allowed to be with...
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Montherlant, Henri de (Vol. 8)
Montherlant, Henri de 1896–1972
French novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Montherlant, an aristocrat in attitude, extolled Spartan virtue, virility, and stoicism in his writings. Viewed by many as a "right wing" novelist and falsely accused of collaborating with the Germans, Montherlant has suffered a diminished literary reputation as a result. Interesting parallels exist between Montherlant and Hemingway. Both writers have been called egotists and both appear to exalt violence. Furthermore, both wrote about bullfighting, Montherlant more authentically, since he actually had experience in the ring. Finally, both men shot themselves—Hemingway because he was physically ill and because he feared going insane; Montherlant because he was threatened by blindness. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)
In the 1920s and 1930s Montherlant's literary reputation rested mainly on some distinctive novels—Les Bestiaires, Le Songe, Les Célibataires, Les Jeunes filles—and several collections of essays which confirmed his markedly individual qualities of mind and sensibility. From 1942 onwards, with the success of La Reine morte, he established and then confirmed a new reputation as a major dramatist…. During the 1960s, however, Montherlant has … returned to the novel. In 1963 he published the widely praised Le Chaos et la nuit and in 1968 the complete version of La Rose de sable. He has now written an outstanding new novel, Les Garçons—outstanding in its imaginative sweep, its intellectual power, and its quality of sheer writing. Some readers will be irritated by Montherlant's use of footnotes—particularly since some of them are unnecessarily patronizing, as when explains a reference to Oedipus Rex and adds: 'Nous croyons devoir l'éclairer, personne aujourd'hui en France ne sachant qu'il y a un inceste dans Oedipe roi'—but these are minor blemishes in the lively dialogue with his readers which he maintains in connexion with all his writings….
Purity, selflessness, idealism all play important roles [in Les Garçons], and Montherlant's treatment of the whole phenomenon has an authenticity and a delicacy (accurate rather than squeamish) which contrast strongly with a novel such as Peyrefitte's Les Amitiés particulières….
Les Garçons fulfils two further ambitions on Montherlant's part. On and off for the past forty years he had meditated on the possibility of portraying a priest (such as he himself had met) who carries out all his duties, punctiliously, yet is in fact an atheist. In his novel, Abbé de Pradts is the prêtre-athée, and he gives Montherlant the opportunity of creating a character of formidable intellectual power and intense psychological complexity. However, quite the most challenging task which Montherlant sets himself is to show the priest's final conversion to the faith at a period (the beginning of the Second World War) much later than that during which the other main events of the novel take place. Montherlant does this with remarkable skill, triumphantly avoids the clichés of a deathbed conversion, and steers clear of all maudlin attitudes. His final comment as the priest dies is typical: 'Dieu rappelait à lui l'abbé de Pradts juste à temps pour qu'il ne fût pas collaborateur.'
The third ambition fulfilled by Les Garçons is its analysis of two different kinds of reformist movement and of the way in which each fails….
One of the lessons which emerges is that genuine selflessness and highmindedness are dismissed as incredible—and therefore become suspect as covers for selfishness and impurity—by the group which, both individually and collectively, fails to believe that certain individuals can genuinely live at such a high ethical altitude. The elitist assumptions implied by Montherlant's analysis of these two failed attempts at reform will no doubt prove anathema to champions of a blind, unquestioning egalitarianism. Within the terms of this particular novel, however, they have both historical and psychological justification.
In the course of giving fictional form to his three ambitions Montherlant creates a gallery of wonderfully observed characters. Particularly welcome is the fact that these characters are allowed to behave with spontaneity (to the point of self-contradiction and 'uncharacteristic' behaviour) admirably free from the imposition of prior psychological or sociological conditioning of a systematic, doctrinaire kind….
Montherlant writes out of an astonishing abundance of imaginative and intellectual resource; indeed, as he approaches his mid-seventies his creative powers seem to increase. One has throughout this novel the sense of a thoroughly equipped mind working in conjunction with a rich and abundant humanity….
[The] combination of intellectual power and an ability to convey the rich and subtle texture of lived experience makes Les Garçons an outstanding novel. To read it is to have one's subsequent attitude to people and events imperceptibly changed for the better.
"The Stoic of the Upper Sixth," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 23, 1969, p. 1226.
To emphasize the presence of pattern and purpose in Montherlant's life and writings (as he himself did) is to hold a sometimes difficult balance between impressions of external "fate" and of conscious contrivance on his own part. He committed suicide on September 21 1972 and we know that L'Équinoxe de septembre—the title of a collection of essays published in 1938—had a special place in his private mythology. The act of suicide, too, was in itself a "Roman" gesture about which he had frequently written with admiration and approval (most recently and at most length in Le treizième César of 1970).
On the other hand, it was obviously not his choice, yet also a significant fact, that he was born on April 21 (in 1896), the traditional date of the founding of Rome—as he himself tells us. This date gives additional shape to his life—a "Roman" birth and a "Roman" death. Again, there is an appropriateness which comes close to conscious planning in the titles of the first and last works which he published during his lifetime: La Relève du matin (1920) and La Marée du soir (1972). But it was patterning beyond his personal control which ordained that he should be wounded, during the Second World War, at a place less than forty miles from where he had also been wounded, and invalided out of the army, during the First World War. These are only a few of many possible examples. They suggest that his life had a significance distinctively and curiously compounded of both spontaneity and volition.
Montherlant was, above all, a man of contrasts and even paradoxes. Not the least important aspect of his life and thought has to do with the contrast between the presence and cultivation of those private patterns just touched on, and his strong sense of lack of meaning or purpose in the general human predicament….
He used his life and writings as a means of keeping the void at bay. In the end, his defence was to prove fragile and vulnerable. (p. 571)
The "équivalence affreuse" to which Montherlant refers is probably the ultimate basis of his doctrine of alternance and the source of many of his apparently paradoxical positions. His sense of the final nullity of everything encouraged him to explore the contrasting faiths by which men live—hedonism and asceticism, instinct and rationality, Roman pride and Christian humility—with that curiously dispassionate intensity which distinguished him among his contemporaries. In a world of increasing intellectual monism, Montherlant was an aggressive dualist—even a Manichaean…. When his fellow-writers of the interwar period moved closer to a single ideological position—fascism or communism—he exercised an often corrosive intelligence in the service of non-commitment. (pp. 571-72)
[His] sense of the multiplicity of truth, and of its contradictory nature, was succinctly put in L'Équinoxe de septembre where he insisted that two opposing doctrines are simply deviations from a common truth. He saw confirmation of this view in the fact that the orthodoxy of one century has so often grown out of the heresy of the century which preceded it….
[Montherlant's] imaginative sympathy with those whose views he does not necessarily share goes a long way towards explaining [his] capacity for presenting apparently contradictory positions with equal persuasiveness. It explains much of the intellectual—and poetic—power inherent in the great "debating scenes" of some of his best plays. (p. 572)
"To Keep the Void at Bay," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 25, 1973, pp. 571-73.