Henry de Montherlant

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Henry de Montherlant (* 20. April 1895, † 21. September 1972, both in Paris) was an important French author of plays, essays, and novels, whose life and work bear the marks of his attraction to boys.

Youth

Henry Marie Joseph Frédéric Expedite Millon de Montherlant was born in Paris on April 20, 1895 into a well-to-do family, which was catholic and royalist in a way that had already started to look antiquated. In particular his father, a mere inspecteur des finances sported a conspicuous backwardness. He was, however, of little importance for his son, who associated intimately only with his mother and grand-mother. His mother was gifted and cheerful. After giving birth to her only child she had to stay in bed until her early death in 1915. So her whole life revolved around her son. Once for instance, she read with him in the evening before bed-time, the novel «Quo vadis», a world-wide bestseller of the time, in a bowdlerized edition. The eight-year old was fascinated, particularly by the free-thinker Petronius.

At first he was educated at home. In 1905, he entered the sixième of the lycée Janson-de-Sailly, where he befriended J.-N. Faure-Biguet. Both rivaled each other in the composition of little stories, which he lovingly copied and illustrated, complete with imprint, copyright and advertisment pages. During his life he would keep an interest in both the pecuniary and the aesthetic side of book production.

In 1907 the family, grand-parents and six servants included, moved to a large house in Neuilly, near the Bois de Boulogne. For the next four years, Montherlant visited the cosy private school Saint-Pierre de Neuilly. Louis Aragon, who was his companion there remembers:

And then I can show Guy [Montherlant] what I had written, my verses. And he is surprised that I should have read more than he, in spite of his being twelve years old at that time, against my eleven, and he even sort of admires me, although it amuses him that I speak of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the year that I prepare my First Communion. . .

(Aragon, le Mentir-vrai, 37, quoted by Sipriot, I, 143)

In these years he fell passionately in love with several fellow pupils, according to Faure-Biguet, who also writes that in his room at home the pictures on the wall showed nothing but children.

During a stay at Bayonne, where he accompanied his grand-mother on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, he sneaked away to attend a bull-fight, still sanguinary at the time, and a new lasting passion grew out of this. Later he would stay in Spain for a long vacation and make some experiences for himself.

In order to be better prepared for the final examinations, the baccalauréat, a change of school was deemed necessary. Montherlant coaxed his mother (he was sick at the time) into allowing him to follow two fellow pupils he was endeared with to the «liberal» catholic collège Sainte-Croix de Neuilly. To compensate for the dangerously leftist climate at this institution he was given a particularly reactionary Jesuit as a confessor, who, it seems, more or less kept his friend Faure-Biguet informed about the following . . .

The following time he would forever remember a his happiest. His old school had been familiar and intimate, but at the new one he soon discovered a secret underground world of forbidden and, as far as we knew, quite sensual friendships between younger and older pupils. He enjoys his life there thoroughly, later in life regretting only to have spent any time at all on his lessons.

In March 1912, only a few months before the final examinations, Montherlant was expelled from school. His father, characteristically, would never been told; his mother and grand-mother, however, were privy, to a degree, to his intimate life; he wrote, e.g., quite open letters to his grand-mother. It is not unusual in this times to extend a certain tolerance in this respect, as Julien Green remembers with respect to his own first love.

Now Montherlant experienced a great void; he takes private tuition towards his exams, shortly tries the university, works as a clerk. Then his parents die, the war commences. He managed half to avoid, half to partake in it remotely at the end.

His first book he wrote in the army. La relève du matin appeared 1920, at first in a private edition as nobody would publish him; but then it is favourably received and soon a commercial publisher took it up. Montherlant has gotten a name. His subject: boys. You remember, the century of the child is barely twenty years old.

Les garçons

The novel Les garçons (Boys) was his last major work. Based, only half-autobiographically, on the story of his expulsion from Ste-Croix de Neuilly, it is central to his life and writing and one might consider it his closing gift to the world. In a first sketch, it dates back to 1914.

In fact, one can distinguish four manuscript stages: of 1914, 1929 (printed in the notes for the critical edition, pp. 1377–1396), 1947 and the final revision, which took place from 1965–1969. When the novel was published in 1969, it was still bowdlerized; Michel Raymond, who prepared the critical edition for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, gives a list of deletions in his notes, which make for an amusing reading.

It challenged Montherlant to make a play out of this stuff, too. The result is La ville dont le prince est un enfant, which appeared in 1951. Characteristically, Montherlant withhold the permission for a theatrical performance for a long time. But when it was given for the first time in Paris, 1967–1971 it met with considerable success (400, according to other sources even 1000 performances).

Early on, however, the play had been staged abroad and by student companies. It also sold exceptionally good, and Montherlant devoted half of the 1967 edition of it (coll. Folio) to collect mostly appreciative voices from this period, «in case the wind changes.» Although the play is not in any sense explicit, this very positive reception is a striking and nowadays almost unbelievable fact.

The French (state) television produced La ville as a prominent feature in 1997, directed by Christophe Malavoy who also played the major adult part, the abbé de Pradts. It is a successful and faithful adaptation that is well played and also meticulously reproduces the period character. Of course, the «will not to know» is at work here, perhaps together with a cultural heritage that allows for some licence, albeit only on a strictly literary level.

Both, the play and the novel share the fundamental dramatic conflict: the intimate friendship of two pupils runs afoul of the love and jealousy of a teacher (the abbé de Pradts). This happens in a catholic collège before the First World War. These collèges were then private establishments, and Montherlant, although not a believer, felt himself (as an old boy) very much attracted to the particular climate of these institutions.

What is condensed to 36 hours in the play grows to a temporarily and thematically far-reaching story in the novel. The major extensions are the description of the pederastic subculture (the protection), the relationship between the boy Alban (Montherlant's alter ego) and his mother, the story of de Pradts, the boys' opponent, which is continued until his death, and the boys' romance, described with much discretion but also with considerable weight.

Ils prirent un fiacre. Serge enleva sa casquette, mit ses pieds sur le petit strapontin de devant, et ainsi, à demi étendu, un peu recroquevillé, s'appuya sur Alban. Il était à sa gauche, et le bras de son camarade l'entourait et l'enserrait avec force, tandis qu'il s'installait à petits coups, inoubliablement . . . « Mon petit corps ! Mon petit corps ! »

Mais quand Alban commença de le baiser au visage et dans le cheveux, il eut d'abord, surpris peut-être par la violence de ces baisers, peut-être par cette même obscurité qui enhardissait son partenaire, ou bien comme s'il ne voulait voir ce qui se passait, un réflexe de gosselot de neuf ans, tout frais en ces choses : cachant sa figure sur ses petit pattes tachées d'encre, tout de même qu'un boxeur se couvre, ou qu'un jeune chat croise ses pattes par-dessus la sienne, avec un fou rire, le petit rire saccadé, ininterrompu et bête, de quelqu'un qui est mal à l'aise. Et peu à peu, dans une absolu silence, les main levées s'abaissèrent et le rire cessa. Alors il s'étira, se poussa, s'encoigna, s'installa encore un peu plus, et Alban le serrait toujours davantage contre soi, remontant ses mèches, dénudant ce front imprévu, grattant le sommet de sa nuque, (mais quid de la célèbre bosse, révélatrice de lubricité infinie ? Rien, il faut le dire, rien . . .), découvrant un nouveau visage, qu'on ne connaissait pas, qui n'était qu'à lui seul, et qui les lumières de l'avenue tantôt éclairaient, tantôt rejetaient dans l'ombre. « J'aurai enfin vu tourné vers moi ce visage que je ne jamais vu tourné que vers ce qui n'est pas moi. » et c'était, pour l'un et pour l'autre, la première fois des gestes qu'ils allaient recommencer toute leur vie.

Alban : Jamais je n'aurais cru que nous nous trouverions un jour dans cette situation.

Serge : Moi non plus, jamais ! Et dire qu'il y a quinze jours, tu m'as dit que je te dégoûtais . . .
[Les garçons, Romans II, p.550)

They took a carriage. Serge lifted his cap, put his feet on the little folding-seat in front of him, and thus, half-streched and a bit crooked, he leaned against Alban. He sat on the left, and the arm of his companion embraced him and pulled him with strength while he adjusted himself in the seat with little jerks. Alban would never forget these movements . . . «This little body! This little body!»

But when Alban started to kiss his face and hair he reacted in the first moment—perhaps surprised by the violence of these kisses or perhaps because of the darkness that made his partner bold or even in order not to see what happened—like a little boy of nine years, for whom this is all new: he hid his face in his small ink-stained fists, like a boxer who covers himself or a young cat who crosses its paws, and laughed the abrupt and silly and endless laughter of someone who feels not at ease. But slowly he became quiet, the raised hands sunk, the laughter stopped. Then he strechted himself, pushed against Alban, slid a little further into his corner. Alban pulled him even nearer, pushed his hair out of his eyes to see his forehead for the first time, rubbed his neck (but what about that famous bump, revealing an unlimited sensuality? Nothing, we have to admit, nothing . . .), discovered a new face, as yet unknown to him, a face only for him to behold, and which the lights of the avenue now illuminated, now threw back into darkness. »Finally I have seen this face looking at me, which I never saw but looking elsewhere.» And both of them started those gestures that they would recommence for the rest of their lives.

Alban: I would have never thought that we should find us some day in this situation.

Serge: Nor did I, never! And to think that a fortnight ago you told me that I made you sick . . .

The novel ends with the death of the abbé de Pradts. Dying he looks back. Through the open window he hears the sound of boys playing soccer and on a wall that is covered with boys' photos he looks at those «who during his life had relieved one another—like the little pieces of cork that hold a fishing-net on the surface of the sea they had held him on the surface of his life.»

Select Bibliography

Some Works

  • Montherlant's Œuvres appeared already during his lifetime in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade in four volumes.
  • La relève du matin.-- Paris, 1920, Paris, 1973 (Coll. Folio) [text of the extended edition of 1963 ]
  • La ville dont le prince est un enfant. [Play] His oldest work, dating back to 1913. – Paris: Gallimard, 1951; 1957 [revised text, added appendixes]; 1967 [text revised for the Parisian performance] ; 1973 (coll. Folio). – The appendixes contain material about the early performances and the reception of the play just in case that the wind changes. (M.)
  • La ville dont le prince est un enfant. [movie] Directed by Christophe Malavoy (1997). See IMDB
  • Les Garçons. -- Paris, Gallimard, 1969 [bowdlerized text; complete for the first time in a luxury edition 1973] authoritative text in Romans II, edited by Michel Raimond (1982, Pléiade) pp. 429–842, notes and variants pp. 1360–1494. On pp. 1377–1396 the manuscript of 1929 is printed. The manuscript of 1947 is summarised; in addition Montherlant's deletions from the first edition are given, and make for amusing reading.
  • Boys : a novel / translated by Terence Kilmartin. – London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974. – xi, 281 p. ; 22 cm. – ISBN: 0297994174 (Translation of Les Garçons. — This is apparently the only edition; an expensive collector's item.)

Biographical

  • Correspondance [letters] / Henry de Montherlant, Roger Peyrefitte. – Paris: Laffont, 1983
  • Pierre Sipriot: Montherlant sans masque. – Paris: Laffont. – 2 vols.: 1. L'enfant prodigue : 1895–1932., 1982; 2. Écris avec ton sang : 1932–1972.,1990. – Biography. Vol. 2 has an index.
  • Album Montherlant / iconographie réunie et commentée par Pierre Sipriot. – Paris: Gallimard, 1979. (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade)
  • Faure-Biguet, J.-N. (Jacques Napoléon): Les enfances de Montherlant. – Paris: Plon 1941; ²Paris: Lefebvre, 1948. — Reminiscences of a boyhood friend.
  • Peyrefitte, Roger: Propos secrets. – Paris: Laffont. – vol. 1.: 1977 ; vol. 2.: 1980 — Reminiscences of a longtime acquaintance.

Internet Resources