Monday, May 15, 2017
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
AN OLD TRUTH RE-TOLD
This blog is now nearly six years old, and as, most years, I produce about 42 weeks’ worth of postings, that means that about 252 times I have racked my brains to come up with something interesting to say in this “Something Thoughtful” slot.
So forgive me if sometimes I blatantly repeat myself, as I am about to do here.
I have just been considering Le Feu Follet, a novel written by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. As I have been at pains to explain (a.) it is a very good novel; and (b.) there are very good reasons to regard the author himself with suspicion, or even contempt.
Which brings me to blatantly repeating myself.
Back in 2011, I wrote a think piece on this blog called The Song Not the Singer, in which I argued that when we judge the worth of books, we should be judging the book itself, and not how we respond to the biography of the author.
Three years later, in 2014, I wrote on this blog an extensive critique of Henry de Montherlant’s tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles/ Pitie Pour Les Femmes. This time I argued that in judging the book itself, we should be able to judge both its ideas and how well it is written.
If we judge the ideas alone, and how favourably we respond to them, then we will be tempted into a propagandist approach, in which we praise (or condemn) books that endorse (or challenge) our worldview, while ignoring their literary qualities. If we judge their literary qualities alone, and ignore their explicit or implicit ideas, then we will move towards a sterile aestheticism and ignore the connection between any book and the world in which it exists.
I declared that a real reviewer should be able to approve of a book’s worldview while recognising (and truthfully commenting on the fact) that it is poorly written. Conversely, a real reviewer should be able to praise a book’s literary qualities while offering a frank (and therefore sometimes negative) account of the book’s values and worldview.
De Montherlant was a convenient vehicle for me to express these ideas because the Les Jeunes Filles/ Pitie Pour Les Femmes tetralogy is notoriously a profoundly misogynist work – in a way, a long howl of contempt at women for either dragging men into domesticity or trying to encroach on men’s intellectual territory. Not only feminists could tear shreds off its ideas, but also men with a more balanced view of the relationship of the sexes. BUT Les Jeunes Filles/ Pitie Pour Les Femmes is not only extremely well-written, and the work of somebody working within classical French prose tradition; it also offers some real insights into the “battle of the sexes” and presents a real and credible world. As it should have, it has earned praise as the important literary work it is.
As for the matter of the author’s autobiography: yes, there was much that was worthy of negative comment in Henry de Montherlant’s private ife – not the fact that he was essentially homosexual, but the fact that he appears to have been an active paedophile. Doubtless his alienation from women fed into his contemptuous view of women in his novels; but it is still my contention that when we judge his work, we are judging the work – “the words on the page” – and not his private life.
I apply the same critical principles to Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and his novel Le Feu Follet. The novel is an examination of nihilism – a worldview I do not endorse – but it is an extremely well-written and organised examination of this worldview. The author (years after he wrote this novel) became a convinced Fascist, an apologist for Hitler and an intellectual collaborator in the Gernan occupation of France. But when I write about Le Feu Follet, I am judging the man’s novel, not the man’s life.
In spelling out this approach, I am taking my stand against the mass of newspaper and magazine book-reviews I see each week, which do little more than pounce on a book’s ideas, wildly praise those of which the reviewers approve, condemn those of which the reviewers disapprove, and never stop to ask if the book in hand is of any literary merit at all.