Henry de Montherlant
BORN: 1896, Paris, France
DIED: 1972, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction
The Bachelors (1934)
The Costals Tetralogy (1936-1939)
The Civil War (1965)
Henry de Montherlant. Montherlant, Henry de, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
Henry de Montherlant was a nonconformist, and his plays, novels, and essays reflect his own experiences, particularly those he had as a soldier in World War I in addition to his personal, and controversial, relationships. Eager to provoke life as the heroes in his works do, Montherlant questioned the norms of society and valued experiences that produced intense emotions. Although created after the decadent period, his work is often classified as having decadent themes.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Secrets Kept in Early Life. Born in Paris, Montherlant was extremely close to his mother as a young boy, perhaps because she had almost died giving birth to him. His grandmother was also an important figure in his life, and he shared her home for years. On a trip with his grandmother, Montherlant discovered his fascination with bullfighting, a sport that lends color to much of his early work and inspired his second novel Les Bestiaires (1926). He also developed a keen interest in early Greek and Roman culture, which would be intrinsic to his writings in years to come.
Just as Montherlant was preparing for his baccalaureate exam at a private Catholic high school, he was dismissed for homosexual conduct. He could not forget the shame he endured from the public scandal, but he eventually passed his baccalaureate exam and, in 1912, began studying law. From then on, he kept his personal life hidden from view and adopted the pose of a compulsive womanizer in his works.
Military Experience and Adventures Abroad. At the outbreak of World War I, Montherlant intended to enlist in the army, but his ailing mother begged him to delay his entrance. When she died in 1915, he applied to the army again, but his poor health kept him from being accepted until 1917. His frontline military experience influenced his first novel, Le Songe (1922).
The year 1925 proved a turning point in Montherlant’s life. Because of his grandmother’s death, nothing kept him at the family home at Neuilly. He moved to an apartment in Paris, and for the next thirteen years he treated it only as storage space: He did not even unpack his trunks. He traveled widely instead, in search of exotic experiences. Montherlant went to Spain (where he fought bulls and was more than once gored by them), and from Spain he traveled to North Africa.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, Montherlant established a solid notoriety as a particularly caustic and even iconoclastic novelist, publishing such acclaimed works as The Bachelors (1934). The Costals Tetralogy, published from 1936 to 1939, made him famous, but even before publishing these works, he had already produced a substantial body of fiction, all of it stylish, sophisticated, and more or less shocking to conventional readers.
Montherlant tried his hand at drama as well during this period, penning Pasiphae (1936). The play examines the psychological life of the mother of the mythological beast called the minotaur.
A Nazi Collaborator? When World War II erupted in Europe in 1939, Montherlant became an unofficial war correspondent for the magazine Marianne, and was once wounded by the flying remnants from the explosion of a nearby bomb. He also took part in civic duties. He was jailed for a time after publishing seemingly pro-Nazi material, but he was later released. Nevertheless, after World War II, although not charged for collaboration with the Germans or the Vichy government (the German-controlled government of occupied France), Montherlant appeared in various newspapers on lists of traitors that included such writers as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Robert Brasillach, Marcel Jouhandeau, and Jean Giono.
Writing Plays. Montherlant’s early career was dominated by writing fiction, but as he grew older he began concentrating on writing plays. In La Reine morte (The Dead Queen; 1942), one of Montherlant’s most popular plays, a king’s political ambitions are upset by his son’s secret marriage, and the king goes into a state of selfexamination. La Ville dont le Prince est un enfant (1951) explores the intimate relationship of two boys at a Catholic school, a plot seemingly drawn from the scandal of Montherlant’s own school days.
Later Life. Montherlant continued to write to the end of his life. In the last phase of his life—during the late 1960s and the early 1970s—he returned to his first love, the novel, while still enjoying success in the theater with plays already written. Montherlant became obsessed with suicide, often writing about it in his notebooks. In 1972, after battling ill health for years, he took his own life.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Montherlant's famous contemporaries include:
Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961): Celine was a French author who influenced the development of twentieth-century writing through his pioneering style and controversial works.
Andre Breton (1896-1966): Breton was a French writer who was one of the main founders of the surrealist movement.
John Dos Passos (1896-1970): Dos Passos was an American novelist whose nonlinear and stream-of-consciousness style had a major influence on twentieth- century fiction.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980): Piaget was a Swiss psychologist best known for his studies on children that led to his theory of cognitive development.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): De Beauvoir was a French novelist and philosopher best known for her pioneering work in feminism, The Second Sex (1949).
Albert Camus (1913-1960): Camus was a French author, philosopher, and journalist associated with the existentialist movement. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Montherlant had a lifelong fascination with bulls and bullfighting. Here are some other works centered around bulls:
Blood and Sand (1922), a film directed by Fred Niblo. This silent movie starred the famous Rudolph Valentino as a poor village boy who grows up to become a famous matador.
The Sun Also Rises (1926), a novel by Ernest Hemingway. This novel about the spiritually and morally exhausted ''lost generation" of the 1920s follows a band of hard- drinking sophisticates on a trip to Pamplona, Spain for the Feast of San Fermin and the famous running of the bulls. Hemingway's own fascination with bull fighting is clearly evident in the novel.
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2003), a novel by Steven Sherrill. In this novel, the mythological half-man half-bull minotaur survives the millennia since his birth and winds up living in a trailer park in the Deep South and working as a cook in a barbecue restaurant.
Works in Literary Context
Misogyny. Many critics have labeled Montherlant’s work, particularly The Costals Tetralogy anti-female. In the novels that make up the collection, the central character, Pierre Costals, a successful writer modeled after Montherlant, finds the relationships between traditional couples horrifying because they lead to boredom, inevitably limit personal freedom, and end in a slow and torturous death. Critics have noted that in these novels, women are, to both Costals and Montherlant, manipulative, silly, and insincere beings, physically and intellectually inferior to men. However, Costals, unlike Montherlant, does not reject relationships with women and even accepts the idea of marriage with a woman who could give him children and act as a secretary, thus facilitating his work.
In her highly influential feminist work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir writes that for Montherlant, ‘‘The ideal woman is perfectly stupid and obedient; she is always ready to serve a man without ever asking for anything in return.’’ Although Montherlant’s novels may appear relentlessly antifeminist to contemporary readers, his ideas aligned with the more-or-less- accepted attitude toward women in the early 1900s. In fact, de Beauvoir suggests that Montherlant actually provoked women to speak up for themselves and thus initiated a feminist movement. She writes, ‘‘We should congratulate Montherlant for demystifying the eternal woman, because it is by rejecting the idea of womanhood that women can finally assert themselves as human beings.’’
Decadence. Although Montherlant’s work was published in the twentieth century, he seems heavily influenced by the decadence movement in French literature of the second half of the nineteenth century. Such writers as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine rejected conventional morality and reveled in excesses of the senses writing poetry laced with high emotion and personal symbolism. Montherlant’s seems to have taken up the rallying cry of these poets: ‘‘epater le bourgeoisie’—‘‘shock the middle class.’’
Works in Critical Context
Montherlant was admired and praised by many notable writers and disliked by as many others. Much of the controversy surrounding Montherlant's writings concerned his topics, even though he wrote in the style of men like Ernest Hemingway, praising war and bullfighting, and characterizing women as weak and a bother to men.
Disagreement Among Critics. In 1961 Justin O'Brien wrote ofMontherlant: ‘‘Many articulate Frenchmen had seen him as the greatest living writer of France.’’ O’Brien cited Andre Gide and Albert Camus as being among Montherlant's prominent admirers. O'Brien later praised Montherlant: ‘‘However much he feels himself to be out of harmony with our time, Henry de Montherlant will live as one of the outstanding writers of the century.''
Some critics disagree with this analysis. Simone de Beauvoir wrote: ‘‘Montherlant wishes woman to be contemptible.’’ She continued that for Montherlant ‘‘love and friendship are trifles, scorn prevents action. He does not believe in art for art's sake, and he does not believe in God. There remains only the immanence of pleasure.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Critics have noted that the themes of war, sex, and individuality permeate Montherlant’s works. Read one of Montherlant’s novels. With a classmate, brainstorm a list of other themes that can be identified. Then, note some specific examples from the text that illustrate these themes.
2. Montherlant has been accused of both hating and fearing women. Read one of Montherlant’s novels (perhaps the one you read for the previous assignment). Write an essay in which you analyze a female character and discuss whether or not you see Montherlant’s hate and/or fear reflected in her development. Use examples from the text to prove your point.
3. Montherlant’s alleged misogyny has driven some feminist critics to dismiss his works, while it has led others to indicate that he, as Simone de Beauvoir stated, ‘‘provoked women to speak up for themselves.’’ Imagine that Montherlant is still alive and write a letter or e-mail to him stating your views on his treatment of women and explaining your reactions to the portrayal of women in one of the works you have read.
Batchelor, John. Existence and Imagination: The Theater of Henry de Montherlant. Queensland, Australia: St. Lucia University of Queensland Press, 1967.
Becker, Lucille. Henry de Montherlant. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.
Cruikshank, John. Montherlant. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964.
Golsan, Richard Joseph. Service Inutile: A Study of the Tragic in the Theatre of Henry de Montherlant. University, Mo.: Romance Monographs, 1988.
Johnson, Robert B. Henry de Montherlant. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Raimond, Michel. Les Romans de Montherlant. Paris: S.E.D.E.S., 1982.
Robichez, Jacques. Le Theatre de Montherlant. Paris: Societe d’edition d’enseignement superieur, 1973.
Sipriot, Pierre. Montherlant par lui-meme. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1953.
________. Montherlant sans masque: l’enfant prodigue 1895-1932. Paris: Laffont, 1982.
Weightman, John. ‘‘Incomplete Attachments.’’ Times Literary Supplement (September 1986).