Shall We Disjoin The Ladies?
THE VAGARIES OF THE weaker sex have driven many a literary strongman to flights of fairly utter rage and despair. Shaw and Mencken come soonest to mind, along with Strindberg and that trying Teuton, Friedrich Nietzsche, who regarded women as part of a long Christian conspiracy to cripple the lions of this world by infecting them with a sickly pity for their natural prey—including lambs and ladies. Frenchman Henri de Montherlant borrows from all four. Yet few writers have warmed to the subject of anti-feminism with quite his unabashed verve and vitriol. Little known in this country, Montherlant is famous at home as a gifted playwright ( Port-Royal ), and as a defender of patrician (not to say fascistic) values. In fiction, however, he is most notable as an excoriating chronicler of the sticky war between the sexes. The best of his novels are the four separate and linked volumes, newly translated and presented under one title as The Girls .
Part of de Montherlant's aim is to transform misogyny into something between an extended parlor game and a private theology. His rude progress can best be glimpsed in the four original titles of his tetrology: The Girls, Pity for Women, The Hippogriff and finally, The Lepers . Their central figure is Pierre Costals, a famous writer and part-time Lothario whom several generations of female readers in France (among them Simone de Beauvoir) have angrily taken as Montherlant's alter ego. Hemingway's fictional fantasies brought cheerful, pliant girls into his hero's sleeping bags. Costals' admirers write him streams of exalted letters instead.
These missives largely fill The Girls, and overflow into all the other volumes. But by the time he reaches Pity for Women Costals has sounded his first theme: men, who have no interest in women's minds and sentiments, let themselves be corrupted by guilty pity into pretending they have. This view of domestic relations is not new; nor is the theme of The Hippogriff , Costals' name for a mythical monster he invents to symbolize the terrible growth in any girl in love of the need to be (and conviction that she will be) married.
Hell, for Costals, is life with a woman he no longer desires. Marriage, Costal sees as the supreme corrupter of love. What he calls “lurve,” the organized, sentimentalized, packaged caricature of love, he asserts will disappear in some enlightened future day. “The modern conception of the couple (sublimation, wrangling and frenzy) will arouse the same horrified amazement,” he writes, “as marriage between brother and sister arouses in us.” Meanwhile, bachelor beware.
In The Lepers Montherlant launches his ultimate marital metaphor. Out of a mixture of lust and loyalty, Costals takes up again with a wistful Arab girl whom he has known in the past, even though she now has leprosy. Men, he concludes, run no greater risk of infection (and destruction) in making love to a leper than in any love affair where they are in constant danger of being slowly devoured alive by the Hippogriff.
Reduced to argumentation, Montherlant's book is easy to dismiss as grotesque. Even his gift for witty invective will not amuse readers foolish enough to take the whole project for clench-jawed seriousness. To hostile readers Montherlant will seem at best, some sort of dirty old sexist. His considerable virtue is mainly to be found in the dozens and dozens of letters written to Costals throughout the four volumes by Andrée Hacquebaut, a 30ish bluestocking spinster from the provinces. Sometimes sending off a score of letters—over a period of months—with no hope of reply, she reveals herself as a remarkable human being, literate and curiously perceptive, apt at describing delicate shades of feeling, at once touching and crazy, clear-eyed and unbelievably confused. Scrupulously, Costals never misleads her. She moves through all the postures of a woman in love—from the humble beginning, when she insists she will be happy if only he will let her write to him now and then, till the end, when she accuses him both of encouraging her love and of impotence—because he has never gone to bed with her. Andrée is one of the memorable minor characters of modern literature. Because she seems real, one tends to be convinced when she slowly becomes what Montherlant would like us to believe all women in love are—monsters of creative self-delusion.