This is a translation of the first part of an essay by de Benoist on Henry de Montherlant. I will post the second part once I have finished. The essay appeared in the German Journal
. Apologies for all errors and I hope it is of some interest.
De Montherlant: A Portrait of an Author by Alain de Benoist
Novels, novellas, essays, short stories, poetry, notes, and plays: there is hardly a literary genre untouched by Montherlant. And, he always found the greatest inspiration in his own life, not in a shallow, narcissistic way as so many contemporary authors, but by attaching a greater importance to firsthand experiences.
Henry (Millon) de Montherland was born on 20th April 1895; though he’d sometimes give his birthday as 21st April, so that it fell on the traditional anniversary of the founding of Rome. His father descended from a noble Picardian family and his mother was of Catalonian origin. After the premature death of his father, his education and upbringing were left up to his mother, who imparted to him a love of literature at a young age. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical tome “Quo Vadis?” left on him not only a lifelong impression, but also awoke his interest in roman antiquity, when heathens and Christians constantly confronted each other. Already present in this book are the topoi he would claim to set out in his own work: ancient Rome, bulls, friendship and suicide. He would later say of his childhood, “I was as obsessed with my Romans as Don Quixote with his chivalrous heroes.”
His expulsion from Collège Sainte-Croix in Neuilly-sur-Seine provided him the material for two works, the play La ville dont le prince est un enfant (1951) and the book Les garcons (1969), in which he intertwines the themes of religious education / upbringing and “special friendships” between boys, aged 14 to 16. “All friendships recorded in history”, he wrote, “had their origin the school or the battlefield.” In the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Maurice Barrès , with which he quenched his youthful thirst for reading, Montherlant found an ideal of bravery and an initiation into the ethics of honour. During the First World War he was, in 1916, first sent into the reserves and then active service. The wound he suffered made its way into his early 1914 work L’exil and his 1922 debut novel Le songe. After the war he became secretary of the Association OEuvre de l’Ossuaire de Douaumon and published a noteworthy hymn to the dead: Chant funèbre pour les morts de Verdun(reprinted 1932 in Mors et vita). The text is a lengthy meditation on death, in which Montherlant quotes en passant Fritz von Unruh and Goethe. “Everything that constitutes man, shows itself more fully in three months of war than in a lifetime of peace”, he said elsewhere. Though he was careful not to glorify the war: “If one wants to do away with war, one must offer courageous men, especially young men, something of equal worth… One must inspire the virtues of war in times of peace… I call for a peace in which we systematically conjure up events in order to display courage and self-sacrifice.” Invariably one feels reminded of Ernst Jünger.
In the 1920s Montherlant’s interest turned to sport, especially athletics and football, which he placed under the banner of “The God of Friendship”. In the stadiums he believed he rediscovered the “brotherhood of the trenches”. In Les Olympiques he celebrated the virtues of the naked body, sporting prowess, manliness and the beauty of feminine faces “spread out like the sea”. In bullfighting too, by which he had long been fascinated, he saw something similar to a religious offering. Thus he took up the fight against the toros of the arena himself. As an admirer of the Mediterranean civilisations – naturally the Roman, but also the Spanish and Arabian – he embarked on numerous journeys there. His first literary success Les Bestiarires was written in Seville. After Morocco and Tunisia, he spent several years in colonial Algeria, where in the 1930s he got to know André Gide in the capital. There, his love of boys, the posthumous revelation of which would cause scandal, was indulged in freely. But he also wrote a weighty “anticolonial” novel, La rose de sable , in whose hero, a young French army officer, he imprinted the excesses of colonialism. Fragments of the work would appear, but it was not published as a whole until 1968. It was Montherlant himself who shied away from publication, fearing that it would “harm the interests of a weakened France.” His criticism of colonialism was expressed in his correspondence with the army officer Paul Oudinot, who was himself an open opponent of colonialism. Montherlant had to bear the costs of publishing his first works, after they were rejected by publishers. He would though quickly achieve fame when Les célibataires w as awarded with the Grand Prix of the Académie française . The four volumes of the cycle Jeunes filles sold more than 1.5 million copies and brought him to global fame. These works earned him – unjustly – the enduring title of a woman hater. In truth his interest was in firstly giving a psychological analysis of the female nature and how it differed from that of the male. He was in no way a misogynist (any way, for the rest of his life he had numerous female admirers, and would thank his success to the female readers of Jeunes filles ), but far more represented the view that men and women belong, in certain ways, to different species and that marriage was a prison; into which the hero of the novels, Pierre Costals, refuses to tread. In this he resembles Montherlant himself, who in 1934 broke off his engagement.
Montherlant was a patriot without ever being a nationalist. He loved France as Cato the elder loved his fatherland, and without ever being politically engaged. Nevertheless he expressed himself critically against National Socialist Germany in certain of his essays of the 1930s, and spoke explicitly against the Munich agreement. Under the German occupation, his 1936 book L’équinoxe de septembre appeared on the index of banned works. However, another work, Le solstice de juin , whose title alludes to the previous book, which dealt with the war in France in May and June 1940, brought him the odour of collaboration. Here he described the swastika as the new avatar of the “sun rune” and celebrates the heroism of the individual, which only permits us to “escape those things which aren’t dependent upon us”. During the occupation he held himself back from politics. He refused to take part in a 1941/ 42 writers’ congress in Weimar, but actively participated in literary life and cultivated close relationships with certain members of the “German Institute”. Heinz-Dieter Bremer, who in 1943 died on the eastern front, translated several of Montherlant’s books. Thus he fell into disrepute after the liberation.
From the war’s end de Montherlant wrote increasingly for the theatre. After the tremendous success of Reine morte ( 1942 ), he used pieces such as Malatesta (1946), Le maître de Santiago (1947), Port-Royal (1954), Brocéliande (1956), Don Juan (1956,), Le cardinal d’Espagne (1960, which was, on 21st April 1967 at the time of Adenauer’s funeral, shown on German television) and La guerre civile, in order to portray an arrogant morality, and whose protagonists, driven by their passions, are at the end betrayed or destroyed. He tackled serious questions emphatically. He brought the conflict between mysticism and politics to the stage, the tragedy of mercy and those who rule. He showed how noble values are punished in a society that only calls for the development of that which satisfies the majority. As he said himself, he was better able to describe man’s faults as he had already explored his own.
In March 1960 he was elected to the Académie française, without having so requested as convention demanded. At this time his life and work were already the subject of numerous books and many of his own works had appeared in luxury editions, illustrated by contemporary artists (Cocteau, Mariette Lydis, Pierre Yves Trémois among others). In addition, translations in many languages, especially German, had been produced.
After partially losing his eyesight and fearing complete blindness, Henry de Montherland decided upon suicide, which he had always viewed as honourable. Entrusting nothing to chance, he carefully chose his death day. On 21st September, when day and night are equally long, the moment when all things – shadow and light – are in balance, he shot himself in the head in his Parisian apartment amidst his antique busts. He died in accordance with the Roman principles he had always revered. Those who had long reproached him for living behind a mask could no longer deny that he remained true to himself. As Julien Green wrote, “He had invented a character of bravura and fire and he would be faithful to him to the last.” In accordance with his wishes, the executor of his will, Jean-Claude Barat and his friend Gabriel Matzneff scattered his ashes over the Roman Forum, halfway between the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Portunus.