Henri de Montherlant Montherlant, Henri de (Vol. 8) - Essay

Montherlant, Henri de (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.