Henry de Montherlant
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 conspicious backwardness. He was, however, of little importance for his son, who associated intimately only with his mother and grandmother. 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 rivalled 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 grandmother 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.
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 as 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 enjoyed his life there thoroughly, later in life regretting only that he had 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 be told; his mother and grandmother, however, were privy, to a degree, to his intimate life; he wrote, e.g., quite open letters to his grandmother. It was not unusual at this time 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 took private tuition towards his exams, briefly tried university, worked as a clerk. Then his parents died and the war commenced. He managed partially to avoid it, but participated in it towards the end.
His first book he wrote in the army. La relève du matin appeared in 1920, at first in a private edition, as nobody would publish it; but subsequently it was well received and soon a commercial publisher took it up. Montherlant had gotten a name. His subject: boys. Remember, the 'century of the child' was then barely twenty years old.
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.
Montherlant also took up the challenge of developing the material into a play. The result is La ville dont le prince est un enfant, which appeared in 1951. Characteristically, Montherlant for a long time withheld permission for its performance. But when it was given for the first time in Paris (1967–1971), it met with considerable success (400 performances, even 1000 according to other sources).
Early on, however, the play had been staged abroad and by student companies. It also sold exceptionally well, 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 unbelieveable 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 captures the character of the period. 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 extends to a temporally 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, depicted 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 les 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 petites 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 un absolu silence, les mains 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-stretched 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 stretched 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 never have 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 feel 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."
- 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 appendices contain material about the early performances and the reception of the play just in case the wind changed. (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.)
- 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.