Monday, July 29, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“CHAOS AND NIGHT” (“Le Chaos et la Nuit”) by Henry de Montherlant (first published 1963; Terence Kilmartin’s English translation first published 1964)

            One day, when I have the time and patience, I will set out on this blog my reactions to one of the greatest, and at the same time one of the most repellent, sequences of novels in modern literature. I refer to Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy usually known as Les Jeunes Filles (“The Girls” or “The Young Girls”) after the first novel in the sequence; but just as widely remembered as Pitie Pour Les Femmes (“Pity for Women”) after the second novel in the sequence.

As de Montherlant’s critics never tired of pointing out, it is a sequence of novels about the battle of the sexes as seen by a bitter, misogynistic, phallocentric, egotistical, heterosexual man, for whom women are at one and the same time necessities and complete nuisances. Much here to arouse the wrath not only of doctrinaire feminist critics, but also of anyone with a more balanced view of the sexes. And yet, as the merest dabbler in literature should know, it is not necessarily admirable or sympathetic viewpoints which make great literature. In fact lack of balance, maybe even mild craziness, seems almost a necessary part of literary greatness. And Les Jeunes Filles is still essential reading.

            Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) certainly was an odd human being, and not solely for the fact that his first name was spelt English-style (“Henry”) rather than French-style (Henri”). In spite of the heterosexual persona adopted in many of his novels – including his great tetralogy – he was homosexual by inclination and, as was gleefully made public after his death, he appears also to have been a paedophile. His views were right wing and reactionary. His ancestors were minor French aristocracy and he carried a heavy baggage of inherited prejudice. He has been accused of being a collaborator at the time of the German occupation during the Second World War, but in this particular he appears to have been no more guilty than three-quarters of French intellectuals. Sometimes, too, the term “Catholic” has been attached to him; but despite his Catholic family background, and the Catholic institutional settings of some of his novels based on his childhood, it is hard to find anything specifically Catholic in his outlook. Indeed the way his characters live their lives, and the way de Montherlant depicts them, is quite contrary to any church teaching. My own suggestion is that the term “Catholic” is often applied rather lazily to any French writers of his generation who were not specifically socialist or otherwise left wing.

            In spite of all this, de Montherlant had admirers in France (where he was as well known for his plays as his novels) from all quarters of the political compass. He was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1960. By fellow writers like the communist Louis Aragon, the existentialist Albert Camus or the conservative Catholic Georges Bernanos, he was recognised as a master, whatever they might have thought of his views. He may have been perverse, but he could write and was a brilliant stylist in the classic French tradition.

Which, after all this throat-clearing, brings me at last to the novel I’ve chosen as this week’s “Something Old”. Chaos and Night came late in de Montherlant’s career and shows the writer at his most merciless. Its chief issues are not sexual but political, and it has at least something in it to offend just about every political ideology.

The story is set specifically in 1959, exactly twenty years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Celestino Marcilla is an old Spanish anarchist, living in exile in Paris with his daughter Pasqualita. He despises the French and their bourgeois democracy. He despises his fellow Spanish exiles, who seem to him a futile bunch. He deliberately breaks off contact with his best friends Marcial Pineda and Ruiz.  Their talk has become the tiresome self-justifications of the defeated, as when:

Ruiz used to claim that a moment always came when wars and revolutions turned into sombre farces, and that he was glad that the Left had been defeated in Spain, because it would have been corrupted by victory, whereas now it was a potentiality and therefore something pure and good.” (Chapter 2)

Being an anarchist, Celestino hates equally the church and all forms of Marxism. He regards himself as a complete individualist, musing that “Nobody really understands the human condition unless he realizes that apart from one or two persons, there is not one soul who is interested in whether he lives or dies.” (Chapter 2)

Constantly he thinks of Spain and of the bullfights, sometimes playing at being matador to the passing Parisian traffic.

The first part of the novel is as comic as it is serious: the portrait of an uncompromisingly cranky old man who repeatedly bites the hand that feeds him and clearly has an inflated idea of what his importance was in the civil war. This is reflected in the political articles he keeps writing, which nobody ever publishes.

Then the story becomes much darker in tone. From Madrid he receives news from his (middle-class and Francoist) brother-in-law Vicente, telling him that he has come into an inheritance, which he can collect if he goes to Madrid. His daughter Pasqualita, quite clearly indifferent to politics, wants to go back to the homeland.

So they go to Franco’s Spain.

At first, some of the tone of cranky comedy persists amidst the growing darkness. Celestino constantly imagines that Fascists are about to pounce on him and arrest him. In fact, somewhat offending his amour propre, what he discovers in Spain is complete indifference to him. Nobody cares. The country under Franco is not depicted in glowing terms, but it is presented as a place of relative material prosperity, where life goes on with no consciousness of the slogans and ideals Celestino held so dear in the civil war twenty years previously.

Celestino realizes he is now an old man, an anomaly and an anachronism. His epiphany comes when he goes to a bullfight (described graphically in Chapter 7) and at last realizes that it is the bull which is his representative – not the nimble matador he imagined himself to be in Paris. The bull is a beast worn down by the spikes of the picadors and the deceits of the matadors and fated to die. Mortality is our common destiny, not the flashy tricks of the matador. Life is chaos – a series of delusive shows – followed by night – complete oblivion.

Celestino goes back to his hotel room and dies in the realization that death is stronger than all slogans and all political creeds. Before his death, his rambling and often nihilistic thoughts set the final power of death against the ultimate triviality of politics:

“… it was he who had so often repeated Trotsky’s words: ‘If human life is sacred, we must abandon the revolution.’ The fall of Franco, the conquest of the world by Communism, the outbreak of world war, the blowing up of the planet by the hydrogen bomb – all these were as nothing compared to this single fact; that he was going to die, that there was no hope and that it was immanent…. Then he saw that Franco was Stalin. Contrary to what he had always imagined, there was no ‘yes’ and ‘no’; everything was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time…. In discovering that Franco was Stalin he had discovered the promised land, he had discovered everything. A hallowed but godless atmosphere now surrounded him.” (Chapter 8)

This is a novel that transcends politics. Whatever de Montherlant’s politics may have been at the time of the Spanish Civil War (as a right-wing reactionary he favoured the Franco side), the novel promotes no political ideology. The left-wing Spanish exiles are shown as an ineffectual bunch, living off obsolete slogans, their brains fixated on a conflict that is long over. (In this particular, some of the novel anticipates the mood of Alain Resnais’s famous film about Spanish exiles, La Guerre est Finie, which appeared four years after this novel was published.) On the other hand, though it seems to be materially thriving, Franco’s Spain is clearly a police state. There is an odd little sting in the tail to the novel where, after Celestino’s death, the Civil Guard really do crash into his hotel room with the intention of arresting him as a political troublemaker.

I admit at once that the ultimate political outlook of Chaos and Night is despairing. There is no programme to cling to. There is no character who neatly articulates a means of bettering the world. This could outrage many readers, just as de Montherlant’s sexual politics in his other novels outrage many readers. Again, I find myself circling about the term “nihilistic”. Please note, too, that there is no religious salvation – death, in an atmosphere that is “hallowed but godless”, promises only oblivion. So much for the notion that de Montherlant was a Catholic.

In part, this is a brutal novel. Chapter 6 gives us the following happy anecdote: “Narvaez, a Spanish general of the nineteenth century, asked on his death bed if he forgave his enemies, replied ‘I have no enemies. I’ve had them all shot.’ ” Like much in the novel, this is indicative of the extremes of the Spanish character as interpreted by de Montherlant – leading to the civil war’s mutual destructiveness of anarchism/communism on the one hand and fascism on the other. It is reflected, too, in the central image of bullfighting.

In an article, which I have not been able to trace, Malcolm Muggeridge once interpreted de Montherlant (who wrote other works, like Les Bestiaires, centring on bullfighting) as one of those weak men – like Ernest Hemingway – who were obsessed with their own virility and found vicarious compensation in the extreme macho image that bullfighting provided. There may be some truth to this. And there is certainly throughout Chaos and Night the sense of dying male potency. In effect, chaos is what descends as the old man’s penis fails to function and he ceases to have a purpose in life. Like Hemingway, de Montherlant eventually took his own life, both impotent matadors falling on their own swords.

But once we have taken all the nihilism, all the political quietism and all the rancid machismo on board, this is still a novel that conveys powerfully the finality of death. It is raw, shocking, despairing and real. As I said, great literature rarely emerges from a neat and rational philosophical balance; and de Montherlant’s horrible novel is a memorable one.

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