Monday, March 31, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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.
“LES JEUNES FILLES”/ “PITIE POUR LES FEMMES” (“The Girls” / “Pity for Women”) a tetralogy of novels by Henry de Montherlant (first published in French 1936-39; English translation of the first two novels, 1937; Terence Kilmartin’s new translation of the whole tetralogy 1968)
Some time ago on this blog, I promised that I would one day get around to dealing with Henry de Montherlant’s simultaneously great and repellent tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles. [Look up my comments on de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night on the index.]
I now have the time to do so.
A while back, I read a recent novel, and wrote a review of it that greatly displeased the novelist in question. Among other things, I had made negative comments about the novel’s social judgments, condescending attitude towards people in general and other implicit values. In high dudgeon, the novelist wrote to me, telling me what a brilliant piece of work the novel was and saying as an ultimate put-down “You’re not a critic – you’re a moralist!”
I took this to mean that I should have concentrated on aesthetic matters only - the novel’s style and structure and quality of prose - and left aside matters of values and morality.
Now in an odd sort of way, I have some sympathy for this view. I resist vigorously the notion that fiction should be praised or blamed solely in terms of the values it expresses. The sort of criticism that concentrates on morality and values alone will rapidly become the sort of criticism that is really promoting propaganda. I am a socialist or feminist or agnostic or Christian. Therefore I endorse literature that advances the cause of socialism or feminism or agnosticism or Christianity. Should I adopt this approach, I will end up praising the second-rate because it confirms those values which I already profess; and decrying much worthwhile work because it does not share my world view. I sometimes think of this approach to literature as the high school approach, because the main emphasis of many high school English teachers is to give their classes novels that will promote healthy attitudes, “improving” novels that teach tolerance and gender equity and justice and so forth. A good scheme for advancing a peaceable society, perhaps, but a very bad way to approach literature if you have got beyond the classroom.
You can see an example of this approach in Jim Flynn’s The Torchlight List (Awa Press, 2010), in which he recommends a list of books, which he thinks will broaden young people’s minds. Result? He produces a book promoting good, right-thinking middlebrow fiction and steering clear of anything more challenging in a literary way. It’s the propaganda approach, even if the man’s heart is in the right place.
And yet, having said all this, I am as wary of the approach which concentrates solely on aesthetics. Let us look at Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s dense prose, let us consider how he piles detail on detail, let us analyse his fascinating mixture of classical and demotic phraseology – oh, and let’s just not happen to notice his nihilism, the frankly loopy ideas he endorses and his rampant anti-Semitism. If the values-fixated approach to criticism leads to the endorsement of propaganda, the aesthetics-fixated approach leads to a sterile art-for-art’s-sake mindset, which detaches literature from the world around it. It is the talent, skill or genius of the writer as a writer that makes the writing competent, very good or brilliant. We should always be responding to, and judging, the words on the page. But what the writer is promoting, advancing, criticising, in sympathy with or satirising in fiction also has to be considered.
As a critic or reviewer, I should be able to say sometimes that, while I approve of a novel’s outlook, it is nevertheless a very bad piece of writing. Conversely, I might sometimes have to say that something is outstandingly good as a piece of writing, but that its implicit moral values are defective. The fact is that both the moral (in the broadest sense of the word) and the aesthetic have to be taken into account, or criticism becomes very unbalanced. (I should note, by the way, that one very familiar dodge of academic critics is to harp on a novel’s aesthetic defects when it is really the novelist’s values that they can’t stand.)
I have now tried your patience for far too long and if you have bothered to read this far you are wondering why I’ve given this tedious prologue to a consideration of de Montherlant’s tetralogy.
Elementary. I am rubbing in the fact that I regard de Montherlant as an outstandingly good writer. Concurrently, I regard his worldview in the tetralogy as repellent to the point of being disgusting. This is the challenge of literature, isn’t it? At its best, it can make us consider things in a way we are reluctant to consider them.
Some facts first. Three versions of de Montherlant’s tetralogy sit on my shelves. I have four Livre de Poche paperbacks in the original French, which I ploughed through some years back: Les Jeunes Filles (1936), Pitie Pour Les Femmes (1936), Le Demon du Bien (1937) and Les Lepreuses (1939). Next to them sits, in one volume, an anonymous English translation of the first two novels, published under the title Pity for Women in 1937. And then there is a very fat one-volume translation by Terence Kilmartin of all four novels, under the title The Girls, which was published in 1968. It is this version that I have read most recently.
All four novels concern a novelist, Pierre Costals. All four, though written in the mid-1930s, are set in the late 1920s. Costals is represented as being in his mid-30s, just as de Montherlant (1895-1972) would have been in the late 1920s. The narrative voice is generally third-person-limited, meaning that things are seen from Costals’ viewpoint but de Montherlant does not entirely identify with him. There are also many exchanges of letters between characters in some of the novels, meaning that the narrative technique sometimes goes epistolary. This is important. Costals is such a self-absorbed egotist, that it would be hard for us to hear the viewpoints of other characters unless they were expressed explicitly in letters.
The central concept of the tetralogy is very simple. It is about the relationship of men and women – the “battle of the sexes”.
Costals is a very successful novelist. He is unmarried. He is besieged by female fans, some of whom write to him passionately, imagining that they could be his soul-mate. One such fan is Therese Pantevin, who believes her attachment to Costals’ writing amounts to a religious experience. Costals is a rake – a libertine (in his introduction to the Kilmartin translation, Peter Quennell aptly alludes to Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereueses, and to the memoirs of Casanova). He has had many affairs with many women. A number of cast-off mistresses are mentioned in passing in the course of the tetralogy (such as his old pal Rachel Guigui, who occasionally writes to him, expecting nothing in return). Costals has few male friends (an amiable chap, Armand Pathes, occasionally crosses his path) but he does have an illegitimate teenage son, Philippe (nicknamed ‘Brunet’) who appears to be the only other human being with whom he feels a real fellowship. In the last volume of the Tetralogy he becomes involved intimately with a teenage mistress Rhadidja ben Ali, whom he meets in the Atlas Mountains while visiting North Africa.
However, throughout most of the novel sequence, Costals is poised between two women.
On the one hand, there is the intellectual woman, Andree Harquebaut, who sees herself as Costals’ equal because her wit is as quick as Costals and, she believes, she would be just the person to support him and share culture with him when he is writing highbrows novels. (Rather quaintly, Peter Quennell refers to Andree Harquebaut as a “bluestocking” – and there is a strong sense that de Montherlant is ridiculing the pretensions of intellectual women just as Moliere did in Les Femmes Savantes). On the other hand, there is the good Catholic middle-class girl, from a wealthy family, Solange Dandillot. She is far more sexually attractive than Andree, but she is determined to have a family.
So will Costals go for intellectual companionship in a woman? Or will he go for sexual satisfaction, wealth and domestic comfort?
Of course the dice are loaded by de Monthelant from the very beginning. We have known him for only a few pages when we are aware that the caustic Costals will not submit easily to either of these temptations. We might also find ourselves asking why there has to be such a dichotomy in the first place. Why can’t the intellectual woman also be sexually attractive and a comfortable bourgeoise? Why can’t the sexually-attractive bourgeoise also be an intellectual?
This is the way it plays out.
In Les Jeunes Filles / The Girls (1936), Costals basically disengages from the annoying Therese Pantevin by telling her to consult a priest and stop bothering him. (In the second novel we hear that she has succumbed to religious mania and gone insane.) He is mainly concerned with the intellectual Andree. She comes to Paris from the provinces, hoping to woo him. He doesn’t mind her intellectual company, even if she clearly isn’t his intellectual equal, but he doesn’t feel any sexual attraction for her. All the while Andree is upset that Costals is able to give his sexual favours to less ‘worthy’ women than she. She finally says she’d be happy to have a sexual experience with him, even if he doesn’t love her. Costals cruelly puts her off by describing in detail the sexual experience he has already had with other women, and showing that she simply wouldn’t fit the bill. Meanwhile, he is able to win the attention of the pretty, young, naïve, wealthy non-intellectual Solange Dandillot. The novel ends with nothing resolved.
In Pitie Pour Les Femmes / Pity for Women (1936) Costals really puts the boot into Andree. When she comes to Paris yet again he sits her down and confronts her with all her weaknesses, telling her that all he feels for her is pity (hence the novel’s title), and pity is a trap for men and the road to illusion. Andree flounces back to the provinces. When she next writes to Costals, it is to say that she has figured out why he has rejected her advances – Costals must be homosexual! Meanwhile, we are given a more detailed account of Solange Dandillot’s bourgeois Catholic family. Costals finds to his surprise that he has some sympathy for Solange’s old and dying father – the poor old beggar has clearly been destroyed by his life-long commitment to domestic duty. Costals is now extremely attracted to Solange and a long-term commitment to her, and is she ready to accept him…. But by the end of the novel, he is still writing to an old mistress arranging a one-night stand.
Le Demon du Bien / The Hippogriff (1937) is in some respects the cruellest book in the sequence. Despite her conventionally Catholic and bourgeois values, Solange’s doting mother proves to be a formidably astute woman as Costals begins to negotiate what form a marriage to Solange should take. De Montherlant briefly acknowledges (even if Costals doesn’t) that there might be something to be said for protective mother-love after all. But when he discusses with Solange how they should be married, Costals lays down some basic ground rules – they are to have no children, complete freedom of action, a yearly “holiday” from each other, and instantaneous, uncontested divorce should he so desire it. Reluctantly, Solange agrees, and she follows Costals to Genoa, whither he has fled when the intensity of Solange’s attachment to him became too much. In Genoa, Costals gives her the same line that he gave Andree – if he were to marry her, it would be out of pity. But the sexual attraction between them is so strong that they at last make love – whereupon Costals tries to get Solange to agree that she will have an abortion if she gets pregnant. She leaves for Paris. He at once, being a novelist, goes into a creative frenzy, writing a novel is which he writes Solange out of his system by turning her into three or four different women.
Les Lepreuses / The Lepers (1939) has Costals back in Paris, once again besiegedwith letters from Andree who says she just wants to “be friends”. He hears that Solange has sunk into deep depression since their split. He resumes contact with her and outings, feeling some responsibility. Again there is talk of marriage. But that demon Pity rears its head again. She will weaken him. He flees to North Africa, and takes up with the teenage mistress Rhadidja ben Ali. For a while, she satisfies all his sensual desires. She isn’t an intellectual. She doesn’t expect domestic commitment. In other words, she is an attractive, nubile young woman whom he can fuck without afterthought. The snare is that she has contracted leprosy. Has he contracted it too? After consulting a doctor he discovers that he might have the disease. When he returns to Paris, Solange has such strong feelings for him that she agrees she might marry a man who is a leper. But when she tries to combine her sensual appeal with intrusions into Costals’ intellectual life he ditches her for once and for all. He doesn’t want a woman who is both a “bluestocking” and domestically clingy.
The whole novel sequence ends on a note of farce. Andree attempts to renew her liaison with Costals. They make a rendezvous but both fail to keep it. Goodbye intellectual companionship with women. Goodbye romanticism. Solange ends up marrying a perfectly respectable bourgeois chap. Costals writes to her to say that at least her existence was justified by allowing him an invigorating sensual experience. Goodbye domesticity. Costals ends up walking the streets of Paris cursing the inadequacies of humanity, and yet desiring to sleep with all women.
Like Tolstoy at the end of War and Peace, de Montherlant ends his tetralogy with an essay spelling out some of his themes – although de Montherlant pretends the essay is written by Costals. The essay spits out contempt for the Western habit of putting women on a pedestal and hence deforming the upbringing of men by getting men to look up to women. De Montherlant / Costals expresses admiration for the Oriental habit of strictly subordinating women. Mingled with this, there is a desire for women too to be freed from romanticism. But there is a final irony. This essay of Costals is being read by yet another of Costals’ mistresses. In reading it, she laughs at different things from the things that make Costals laugh. The final implication is that the minds of men and women can never meet.
Having given you this fairly exhaustive summary, do I (as a monogamous, heterosexual, married, philoprogenitive male) have to spell out that I find de Montherlant’s world view repellent in many ways?
I could, if I wished to adopt the purely “propagandist” approach to literature, point out many defects in the sequence’s worldview. I could note the element of masculine fantasy there is in it. After all, isn’t it the daydream of many men to be successful novelists, besieged with fan mail from female admirers, having independent means permitting frequent travel (Paris, Genoa, North Africa etc.) and able to pick up mistresses when and as desired?
I could note the sequence’s dated map of sexual politics. De Montherlant / Costals basically sees women as either tiresome would-be intellectuals or dreaded domesticating agents who drag men down, by trying to commit them to conventional marriage and child-rearing. What he wants is sensuality (i.e. sex), friendship and complete “freedom” – that is, the ethics of the casual affair. But eighty years on, and after the huge impact of easy contraception, how much is this now a map of available heterosexual relationships? In fact, isn’t de Montherlant’s desired state now the norm for many people of both sexes who screw around without material consequences? Perhaps (just perhaps) de Montherlant’s perceptions of the wide gap between men’s and women’s views of sexuality are still valid. But I do have the sense that some elements of the sexual battleground are not as permanent as de Montherlant might have imagined.
To condemn the novel’s values, I could also draw on de Montherlant’s own biography (which is another way of belittling writers when their values offend us). De Montherlant never married, so he viewed the married state strictly from the outside. (As did the more benign Henry James, who saw marriage as an “avoidable catastrophe”.) More to the point, not only was de Montherlant homosexual by inclination, but for much of his life (as posthumous biographies of him made clear) he was an active paedophile. (This apparently was one of the reasons he was beaten up in the streets in 1968, at the age of 73). How much, I ask, is this dyspeptic, negative and essentially destructive view of women in fact the revenge of a man who never felt any sexual desire for women anyway, and who hid behind the persona of a world-weary heterosexual rake to express his contempt for women? How much does it express the frustrations of a homosexual in an age when there were social pressures for all men to marry? When Andree, in the second volume, suggests that Costals is homosexual, is this in fact de Montherlant trying to ridicule, and hence deflect, a truthful criticism of both himself and Costals? (Side issue, which I won’t pursue – it has often been argued that men who have many brief affairs with women are probably homosexual by inclination – the Byron/Don Juan phenomenon.)
Finally, I could argue that the sequence is defective because there is not enough distance between the author de Montherlant and the central figure Costals. Admittedly de Montherlant has both the subtlety and intelligence to suggest sometimes a distance and imply the defectiveness of Costals’ views. There is an early scene in Les Jeunes Filles where Costals is making negative and patronising judgements on war veterans who are drawing their pensions, before he realizes that one man whom he has mentally criticised is lacking an arm. He admits that he has assumed too much. Some of Andree’s criticisms of Costals are right on the button; and Solange’s mother is not the bourgeoise nitwit that Costals at first takes her for. The author is therefore noting the psychological and perceptual defects of his main character. Even so, much of the sequence’s raw energy comes from the very fact that de Montherlant himself heartily endorses Costals’ condemnation of women. When Costals eventually walks the Paris streets raging against humanity, it is hard not to feel that the author himself is talking.
At this point, I should note that more than one feminist has ripped shreds off de Montherlant. Most notoriously, in her The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir made a detailed and angry attack on The Girls / Pity for Women, singling it out as representing everything that was belittling and defective in the way male writers regarded women. (She was angered at least in part by the fact that the tetralogy had been a big bestseller and still was at the time she was writing.) There are actually parts of de Beauvoir’s critique with which I can easily agree, much as I hate to range myself on the side of the jeune fille derangee whose own worldview was at least as destructive and limited as de Montherlant’s. (For a very good defence of de Montherlant, with some incidental well-aimed slaps at de Beauvoir, look up on line B.R.Myers’ article “Monster of Marriage” from The Atlantic.)
So you can see, a purely propagandist critique of de Montherlant’s tetralogy would cast it on the dust-heap and advise readers to steer clear of it.
BUT…. The tetralogy is extremely well written by a master stylist.
Unless you are a complete dullard, you will appreciate the classical precision of de Montherlant’s style. The novels deliberately confine themselves to the matter of men and women and their relationships, leaving out much contingent detail. Who hears how other characters earn a living or who the other significant people in their lives are? Does it matter? In this respect de Montherlant is the heir to that French tradition which insisted on the classical unities in tragedies (Corneille, Racine) and which produced precise, analytical tales of love rather than rambling romances (Mme de Lafayette, Constant, Radiguet etc.)
Notice de Monterlant’s symbolic use of setting – the many aimless walks through the streets, which Costals has with Andree in Les Jeunes Filles, suggesting a relationship that will go nowhere. Conversely, the crucial scene set in a kitchen in Pitie Pour Les Femmes, suggesting the ordered domesticity that Costals almost accepts from Solange. And the scene in Les Lepreuses where the Dandillot apartment is being re-decorated once Solange’s father is dead, suggesting how quickly the influence of a male is eliminated in a house which women rule.
Notice, too, the combination of narrative voices – third-person limited and epistolary – so that the Costals’ persona is challenged and set in dialectic with other voices.
I cannot help but regret de Montherlant’s outlook. If men and women are not made to complement each other, mate and have children, then why are there two sexes? Short term “sensuality”, serial “friendship” – from my point of view these are ways of avoiding real intimacy, of sleeping around, of keeping your precious ego intact while holding the rest of humanity at arm’s length. It is a pitiable code. And yet…how well-written the sequence is! How many incidental and truthful insights there are into mental habits that really do separate men and women! How true many scenes ring!
I do not in any way endorse de Montherlant’s / Costals’ views, but there are times when even well-balanced, thoughtful, considerate men, who get on well with women, enjoy their company and are happy to marry and have children ARE NEVERTHELESS exasperated with the whole female gender, wish only for the company of other men and spit at and scorn feminine tricks designed to cajole and manipulate men. Of course the mood soon passes and sanity returns. But to such moods de Montherlant’s volumes speak cogently.
So this is what real literature can be – the extremely good expression of views and ideas which we may find repugnant, but which still illuminate a corner of the human psyche. If I rejected de Montherlant’s tetralogy because of its expressed values, I would be succumbing to the Jim Flynn propagandist Torchlight List approach. If I praised it for its style while neglecting to mention what it was saying, I would be endorsing the angry (and self-interested) novelist who said “You’re not a critic – you’re a moralist!”
Real criticism flies on two wings.