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Chibiabos83

Henry de Montherlant

The first thread I started on the MSN board was about Montherlant and nobody replied, so I am fully prepared for the same again. Forgive me in advance for going on and on about myself as usual. In fact, just ignore this post entirely Smile

Several of the cultural influences of my early teens continue to be an inspiration to me, my love of them guiding and influencing my choice of things to read, watch and listen to. Stephen Fry's volume of autobiography, Moab is my Washpot, for instance - to which, excitingly, there is going to be a sequel before too long - has directed me to countless novels I now love and would not have encountered otherwise, and helped to breed in me a passion for Wodehouse, Vivian Stanshall and many others.

Perhaps the only experience around that time of an importance comparable to that of reading Fry's book was watching Louis Malle's Le Souffle au Coeur at the age of thirteen or fourteen, which opened other avenues - principally the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (and to a lesser extent Sidney Bechet), whom I continue to idolise, but also a number of books. It was this film that persuaded me to read Camus' Le Mythe de Sisyphe (which I abandoned 30 pages in, but the spirit was willing) and first aroused my interest in many other writers - Bataille, Corneille, Crevel, Proust, Vian, and perhaps most of all Henry de Montherlant, whose tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles the film's hero, Laurent, confesses to having stolen. One of the first things I ever bought on eBay was a lovely two-volume edition of the English translation. Having finally decided to read Montherlant, I went in the event not for Les Jeunes Filles but for Les Garçons, known as The Boys in the translation I have just read.

I approached the book knowing little about Montherlant except that Les Jeunes Filles sometimes faces accusations of misogyny and that he had a reputation for being rather disagreeably right-wing. His criticisms of the Third Republic during the Second World War led some to accuse him of acting as an apologist for Nazism. The impression this information gives might seem at odds with the humanity that pervades Les Garçons - but then the importance of not judging things at face value and the non-black-and-whiteness of everything are among the many things that I will take away from the book.

Les Garçons is the final book (though the middle one chronologically) of a trilogy of novels featuring a young man, Alban de Bricoule. The first two books (Le Songe, concerning Alban's experiences fighting in World War I, and Les Bestiaires, about a summer spent in Spain during Alban's own early teens) were written in the 1920s, but the third book is a work of Montherlant's maturity, not written until the late 1960s. It has its roots in a play Montherlant wrote in 1951, La Ville dont le Prince est un Enfant, and indeed, in the middle of the book there are fifteen pages of the play in place of a narrative description of the action. This novel, set mostly during 1912 and 1913, sees the adolescent Alban as a day pupil attending the Catholic boarding school of Notre Dame du Parc in Paris. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Alban's unusually intense relationship with a younger boy, Serge Souplier, and the jealousy that one of the priests feels for their closeness. Montherlant, though not ostensibly gay during his adulthood - and certainly not openly so - was himself expelled from school in 1912 for a relationship with another pupil that had been deemed inappropriate, and the basics of the plot are as autobiographical as might reasonably be expected.

Alban is a superb hero, the essence of his heroism lying, I think, in his stoicism, in which respect he is ever so slightly like an embryonic Gabriel Oak. His good nature, his seeming inability to bear grudges or harbour bitterness towards those who might be supposed to have wronged him, his acceptance of his lot and his lack of self-pity endeared him to me enormously.

It would be impossible to write about this book without mentioning Montherlant's treatment of Christianity. His perspective is that of a non-believer who is nevertheless fascinated with the religion, and with the idea of a priest who is himself an atheist (represented in the book by the character of Father de Pradts). He writes in his introduction: "I may say of the novel ... that it is a book from which the reader should emerge more Christian if he is a Christian, and more sympathetic towards Christianity if he is not, as I emerged from reading Sainte-Beuve's Port-Royal. The book was not, of course, written with this intention." I think this was the case with me. The depiction of the different reasons of the characters for accepting or rejecting Christianity did evoke sympathy for the people and for their religion, however misguidedly they interpret its teachings, and it is with subtlety that Montherlant shows the unconscious conflict between well-meaning and self-interest, the self-delusion in the motivation for their actions, not just in the priests but in all of the characters.

In John McCormick's book Bullfighting, where he writes in some detail of Les Bestiaires, he observes that Montherlant's characters are "always difficult, quirky, inconsistent, even perverse". I think that is part of what makes this book so special. Little is straightforward, and the characters who in another writer's work might have been two-dimensional (particularly Father de Pradts and Mme de Bricoule, an often irritating presence but an utterly convincing creation) are anything but. Reflecting on it now, I felt similarly when reading Madame Bovary. I don't think a comparison between Flaubert and Montherlant is hideously inappropriate. Montherlant seems to me a writer of great intelligence and understanding of humanity, and the richness of this book lies partly in the truth and believability of the actions of its characters. He also has a wry sense of humour - first apparent in the introduction, where he self-deprecatingly notes the flaws of the novel - that helps to move things along. The scene of the Mass of the Resurrection, which concentrates primarily on the emotional turmoil of the Father Superior, who finds his faith failing to provide comfort to him as he contemplates the distressing task before him of having to expel a large number of pupils, is lightened by moments of unexpected high comedy, or maybe even intensified by the juxtaposition of the two extremes.

The image of the moving patches of coloured light cast inside the chapel by the sun shining through its stained glass windows is a memorable one, and one that seems to permeate the scenes set in school. Perhaps it is because of my own nostalgia for school that it felt like a kind of paradisical dream-world to me. The scene of Alban's lonely final departure from school, where, having been shunned by his friends, a boy he doesn't know approaches him to shake his hand and say goodbye, is one of the most beautiful depictions of divine grace working through humans, of the simplicity of reaching out to another person to offer comfort, that I can remember having read, and brought to mind similar passages in Hardy. I have read descriptions of Montherlant's dispassionate, even cruel attitude to his creations, which is an element I cannot see at all in this book - he seems most merciful.

A final word about Montherlant's prose, which I found sumptuous (albeit at one remove - I must try reading the original), even physically pleasurable. The translator of this edition is Terence Kilmartin, whose name was most familiar to me from his revision of the C.K. Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust. I imagine Kilmartin must have been a very considerable prose stylist in his own right to have produced a translation of such quality. It's very sad that this novel, which came out in 1974 in Britain and is now out of print, should be so difficult to get hold of, and I feel very grateful to have access to a library that holds such books. I don't think Montherlant is read much in the English-speaking world - I hope he is in France - but I am very eager to read more of him.
Evie

Chibiabos, I won't leave this thread unanswered this time!  Thanks so much for that marvellous review - he is an author I ought to explore.  I do struggle a bit with books about adolescent boys (even sometimes with ones about adolescent girls!  Adolescence is generally not a time I enjoy reading about, with some exceptions), but you have convinced me that his writing is worth putting aside this particular prejudice for (sorry, very poor sentence, can't be bothered to rewrite!).

Thanks again for this review, full of riches really - I suddenly want to read all sorts of things!  And despite my prejudice against memoirs, and my suspicion (!) that Moab was pretty self-indulgent, I shall certainly read the Blessed Stephen's next instalment.
Chibiabos83

Thank you for being merciful and posting something  Very Happy

It's no secret that I read a lot of books about adolescent boys, but it's just by chance that I happened to choose as my first Montherlant this one, which seems to be the only one he wrote about boys (the rest of the trilogy excepted, though Le Songe, which is the book I'm most interested to read next, is about Alban's young adulthood).

One of the small number of his books still in print is Chaos and Night, which is available in one of those attractive NYRB editions: http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=8775. I think it looks rather good. So there are books by him not about childhood or adolescence, if you can only track them down!
county_lady

Re: Henry de Montherlant

Chibiabos83 wrote:
The first thread I started on the MSN board was about Montherlant and nobody replied, so I am fully prepared for the same again. Forgive me in advance for going on and on about myself as usual. In fact, just ignore this post entirely Smile



Embarassed Ooh we are awful. Do carry on with the reviews they are wonderful reading.
Chibiabos83

No, no one's awful! It's just that some threads fail to capture the collective mood. (I had thought havisham might post something at the time, but that didn't happen.)
MikeAlx

I also read your review with interest, Gareth - but I'm afraid, since it's an author I have no other knowledge of whatsoever, it's hard to contribute anything very constructive. But keep 'em coming!  Smile
Chibiabos83

Before returning to Montherlant's novels, as I intend to do presently, I thought I'd try out his 1951 play La Ville dont le Prince est un Enfant, whose story forms the basis of Les Garçons, the novel I read last year. The play's title, incidentally, is from Ecclesiastes 10:16: "Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child".

The child in question is the 14-year-old Serge Sandrier. (Names are confusing in the various incarnations of this story - in some versions of the play and in the novel Sandrier is called Souplier, in the novel Sevrais has become Montherlant's occasional alter ego Alban de Bricoule, and if memory serves the novel features a different character called Sevrais). Sandrier has a close friendship with 16-year-old André Sevrais, a friendship of which the Abbé de Pradts is jealous. He encourages their relationship in the hope that Sevrais, whose conduct has been hitherto impeccable, will overstep the mark sufficiently for de Pradts to be able to expel him. The eventual outcome proves favourable to no one.

My feelings on reading the play are very similar to those I had on reading the novel, that this is a rich, intelligent and rewarding work worthy of further investigation. Montherlant is acutely perceptive in his depiction of the self-delusion of de Pradts and the naïveté of Sevrais. The final showdown between de Pradts and the Supérieur, with its searching discussion of de Pradts' selfishness, ungodliness and misplaced love, is electric - or should be, in a good production. It is a scene that Montherlant did not attempt to 'novelise' in Les Garçons, but simply transplanted as playscript into the novel.

There are some aspects of the play that don't make it into the novel, for instance, that Sevrais is in the process of rehearsing the part of Pyrrhus in Racine's Andromaque, which I'm sure raises all kinds of fascinating parallels between the two characters. It makes me keen to read Racine, anyway. I felt that the motives of de Pradts were somehow more suspicious here than in the novel, and less open to interpretation. I think it should be important not to view this character as a pervert, but as someone who is simply (not that Montherlant's treatment of his material is remotely simplistic) deluded about the nature of his affection. If the play feels a little more dangerous than the novel, it may be because de Pradts comes across as a more devious character, though no less rounded.

It should be a profoundly moving play in production. The scene where de Pradts suggests to Sevrais that in a few years he will be able to look back on the trauma and laugh, to which Sevrais replies, "Non, je n'en sourirai jamais", feels especially gutting when one considers the basis of the play in fact. Montherlant must have been haunted for many years by the similar incident in his own childhood, and it is not difficult to imagine swathes of the play's dialogue taken from real life. I also found deeply moving the incident related here by the Supérieur, which I mentioned in my review of the novel:

Quote:
Je viens de croiser ce malheureux garçon, et dans un moment assez curieux. Il était tellement embarrassé de ses livres qu'il les avait posés, le temps de se reprendre, sur un des bancs du hall. Soudain le petit Thévenot -- vous le connaissez? c'est un cinquième -- est passé, et, au passage, lui a saisi et serré le main, avec un «Bonjour, Sevrais», sans s'arrêter, et a disparu. Sevrais ne connaissait sûrement pas Thévenot; cela se voyait à son visage; il a eu l'air surpris. Ainsi il a quitté à jamais cette Maison, bousculé par nous, sans un adieu ni à son ami, ni à ses camarades, ni à ses maîtres. Mais il y a ce petit inconnu qui lui a serré la main furtivement, sans raison apparente, sinon peut-être pour que cette sombre rupture ait été éclairée, malgré tout, d'une lueur de gentillesse humaine. Le bon Dieu inspire souvent les plus jeunes, cela est bien connu, et c'est à se demander si cet innocent n'a pas été l'instrument d'une charité supérieure... Mais je rêve sans doute.

It wasn't until I'd started reading the play that I realised there exists an English translation by Vivian Cox and Bernard Miles, published under the title The Fire that Consumes. The play was first produced in England in 1977 at the Windmill Theatre and it won that year's Olivier Award for Best New Play, for all that the original was already fairly old by then. The part of de Pradts in that production was taken by Nigel Hawthorne, who strikes me as the perfect actor for the role, and the part of Sandrier/Souplier by Dai (David) Bradley, who must have been a bit old to play 14-year-olds by then, having made Kes eight years previously. There are some reviews of the production here, including one from the Sunday Times that identifies many of the things that make the play so impressive: http://www.yessirnigel.com/fire1.html

It's unsurprisingly difficult to find Montherlant in English translations nowadays, but happily he remains valued in France, where many of his works are still published by Gallimard, Folio et al. Next I will be reading his war novel Le Songe.
Hector

Interesting post Gareth. I can't say that I am aware of these novels or plays.

Your standard of French is clearly much better than mine. I did enjoy reading the passage though and surprisingly understood a good proportion (I think!). Is there any particular reason that you are so proficient at French? Have you ever lived over there?

As for French literature, other than four or five Camus and some Dumas (Count of M C), all in the translation, I can't think of many other French writers that I have read. I'm sure there are others though.

Regards

Hector
Chibiabos83

I wouldn't expect you or indeed anyone to be aware of them. I've come to Montherlant via a fairly circuitous route myself, and am lucky to have access to Cambridge University Library, which has translations of lots of his novels that I can work my way through. As for French, I'm not nearly as proficient as I used to be, and my reading level is higher than my speaking level. I like to read books in French or German every so often just to stave off the inevitable day when I find I have forgotten everything I used to know. I used to love languages at school, and watched lots of foreign films (particularly French) in my teens, but gave up studying them after A-levels. I don't think I've read much French literature myself - 1 Voltaire, 1 Verne, 1 Zola, 2 Camus, 2 Flaubert, 2 Montherlant and that's about it. But I may be forgetting someone vital. I've never lived in France, or even spent any prolonged period of time there. About five weeks in total, I think. Love the language (and food) though I do, I'm not sure I'd want to. I'm too attached to home.
Evie

Yes, I do sometimes think about whether I would like to move to Beaune in Burgundy, and France is probably the only country I would consider emigrating to (well, maybe the US if the right job came up), but I too feel too attached to the UK as home.

Thanks for your review, Chibiabos, very interesting - have not read Montherlant at all, but also like to read something in French from time to time, and haven't in aeons (my degree was in French, yet my French is still poor - as you say, it's amazing how easy it is to forget everything!).
TheRejectAmidHair

Despite my wife hailing from France, my French is nowhere near good enough to enable me to read in the language. But I do enjoy looking up passages from Flaubert (my favourite French writer) in the original, and struggling through them with the aid of a few translations. Flaubert was, after all, an undisputed master of prose, and his writing does demand to be encountered in the original, if at all possible. I must admit that Montherlant was a new name to me till this thread started.
Mikeharvey

Hello Gareth,
As you might predict, I saw that production of 'The Fire That Consumes' but can remember almost nothing about it except that Nigel Hawthornwe was in it.
You say that it was at the Windmill Theatre. Hardly.  The Windmill is a theatre near Piccadilly Circus, and once famous for nude shows and strippers.  (see the film 'Mrs Henderson Presents' with Judi Dench and Will Young). The play was at the Mermaid Theatre which was under the artistic direction of Bernard Miles, who as you say was co-author.
Michael
Chibiabos83

Goodness! Of course I meant the Mermaid, and I am familiar with the Windmill's reputation. Not sure where that came from... I suppose they're both quite evocative names for theatres, aren't they.
Mikeharvey

I wonder was there a subconscious association between the ladies of the Windmill and mermaids. You know, bare bosoms and all that.
Michael
TheRejectAmidHair

Mikeharvey wrote:
I wonder was there a subconscious association between the ladies of the Windmill and mermaids.


Seems a bit fishy to me.
Chibiabos83

I have now finished Le Songe (The Dream), Montherlant's first novel, published in 1922 when he was in his mid twenties. It's the last novel chronologically of three he wrote featuring the central character of Alban de Bricoule, a young man growing up in the early years of the twentieth century. This novel documents Alban's time serving in the army during the First World War, and draws on Montherlant's own wartime experiences.

It's an impressive novel for such a young man to have written, if not without its flaws. I thought the start was inauspicious. Montherlant's prose is beautiful throughout, much of the credit for which must go to his translator Terence Kilmartin, but the character of Alban, at least to begin with, is deeply annoying. He sees himself as a grand romantic hero, with all of the arrogance of youth and none of the sweetness apparent in Les Garçons, which depicts him as a teenager. I didn't relish spending the next 200-odd pages in his company.

But Alban does turn into a hero of sorts, at the points when he stops thinking about his own heroism and gets on with living. His vulnerabilities are exposed first of all when his colleague Prinet is wounded and then shortly after when Alban commits an act that severs the bond of friendship between them. His fear that Prinet will die and his quest to find him again to attempt a reconciliation display a spirit that is only hinted at in Alban's pretentious visions of himself. There is a very moving scene where Alban stays by the side of a mortally wounded German soldier that points up some of the absurdities of war and allows Montherlant's humanity, which is quite well concealed for much of the book, to break through.

And yet...this is a problematic book for one reason above others, namely Montherlant's misogyny. I hadn't encountered it in the other books I have read of his, simply because they happen to be works in which women feature little if at all, and never as objects of romantic interest. Alban has two women in his life, the enigmatic Douce and the more palpable Dominique. The climax of the novel consists, it seemed to me, of an escalating series of instances of Alban's subjugation/humiliation of Dominique. Peter Quennell in his introduction suggests that Alban objects to Dominique's "spurious blend of passion and sentiment", which seems to me a very harsh assessment. Dominique appears at least as emotionally honest as Alban, and his own treatment of her is difficult to excuse. Throughout the novel I had problems divining whether Montherlant's relation of attitudes and actions that seem to me inexcusable amounted to a condonement of them. Just because a novel features an unnecessarily macho protagonist, does that make it morally questionable? Not necessarily, I think, but in this instance it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. This misogynistic streak is meant to be strongest in Montherlant's tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles, which is nevertheless acclaimed by many as a great achievement. I think I'll wait a while before I give it a go.

I'm loath to end on such a negative note, and would like to make a more happy observation of the aptness of the book's title. There is a dreamlike sheen that hangs over it, an effect increased by the sense of unreality provided by the wartime setting. The tragic reality, when things happen to shake Alban out of his fantasy world and the dream breaks, are vividly depicted. At least it's not a book to leave one unmoved.
Chibiabos83

*POSSIBLE SPOILERS HERE*

I don't know what it is at the moment with me reading books in whose subject matter I have next to no interest. First baseball, now bullfighting. But this one I felt almost compelled to try, given that it completes the trilogy of novels Montherlant wrote about his creation (some would say his alter ego) Alban de Bricoule. The book is Les Bestiaires (The Bullfighters), and the edition I read was the 1928 translation by Edwin Gile Rich. It's next to impossible to buy nowadays, even second-hand, and I had a panicky day or so this week when I thought I'd lost the copy belonging to the University Library and would therefore have had not only to pay a fine for losing a library book (an ignominy I have yet to suffer) but also perhaps even to make a trip to the British Library to find out what happened to Alban in the end. But happily it turned up and so I was able to finish it yesterday, following my dalliance with James M. Cain.

I'm a bit mixed up in terms of the chronology of the books. This was the second written of the three, published in 1926, and I had thought prior to reading it that it was the earliest in terms of the chronology of the narrative, but I now think it must be the middle one (with the first written book being latest, showing Alban as a young soldier, and the last written book being earliest, showing Alban at school). Howsomever it may be, this one's about Alban, seventeen years old, going to Spain to live out his dreams of being a bullfighter. An acquaintance of this writer might enable the reader to guess what happens to him - spiritual growth and maturity through the assertion of his manhood. More of that later.

When I was about seventeen years old I went on a French exchange to the Landes, near the Spanish border, staying with a lovely family in Anglet (the Bergognons) and working in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Bayonne (a town Alban passes through near the start of the book). I didn't stay with the family of my exchange student, because he was a boarder studying chauffage central or some such thing at a lycée technique, but that was OK. He was called Mathieu, he came from Dax and he was very good at archery. When he spent a couple of weeks with my family in Somerset, he talked of his love for the corrida. We understood the words well enough, but not the sentiments. Bullfighting seems such a foreign culture to the British, but reading this novel helped me to understand it a little better, if not to appreciate it. The gore of the bullfighting sequences in the book is upsetting at times.

Shortly after arriving in Spain, Alban meets the proud, aristocratic Soledad, a girl of about the same age, with whom he forms a kind of bond. She later asks him to perform the ultimate sacrifice of risking his life to kill a bull in her honour, which prompts him to realise that she's not worth his attention. The book ends with Montherlant extolling the virtues of friendship between men, and denigrating relationships between men and women. It's a disagreeably misogynistic end to a book that, compared with Le Songe, is relatively free of the male chauvinism that dogs Montherlant's reputation.

I'm surprised it's taken me so long to make a connection between Montherlant and Hemingway (the two were close contemporaries, though I have no idea if either knew the other's work), but I observed some strong links between them here. The protracted bullfighting sequence towards the end of the book, which develops into a mesmeric battle of attrition between Alban and a particular bull, has a psychological intensity reminiscent of The Old Man and the Sea. The two writers also share a glory in the assertion of masculinity through violence that I sometimes find it difficult to sympathise with.

I still find the character of Alban an impressive creation, pompous and high-minded yet fallible. His lofty ideals cannot be sustained, and when they collapse one sees his more sympathetic aspect. There are some pleasing comparisons to be made with Leo, the boyhood hero of The Go-Between, particularly in passages that show Alban's naïve but noble fatalism, his trust in the zodiac and in mythology and his linking of his own life with their characters and emblems.

This is a book written when Montherlant was still only about 30, and in places may betray a certain youthful lack of sophistication. By the time he wrote Les Garçons in the 1960s his understanding of humanity - and his own humanity, too - had deepened, and I think it is the most interesting and rewarding of the three books. But Les Bestiaires is certainly not without merit. I don't think it's the kind of book likely to appeal to many people on this board, nor one I would recommend particularly strongly other than to devotees of the author, but I'm very glad to have read it, and not only for the sake of completism.

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