Saturday, February 21, 2009

"work and bed-clothes"

Another day spent drifting through the house: from book to book, from bed to bed to this chair, from movies to naps. I take down books from the shelves almost at random. The books already piled on my sickbed no longer satisfy. I can't be bothered with Bronte's artful neuroticism, or Chaucer's spelling. Heine's bonhomie does not suit my mood at all. What's wanted is something sharp, something curt and bracing and... French.

And down comes Henry Millon de Montherlant (20 April 1896 – September 21, 1972.) Henry was a closeted French essayist, novelist and one of the leading French dramatists of the twentieth century. He was also, from what I've been able to glean from what I've read, something of a shit. His The Girls: A Tetralogy of Novels, translated by the great Terence Kilmartin, was an experience I will never forget. It is a frankly wicked book; ruthlessly misogynist, ridiculously mean spirited,"for and against everyone." I read it, what? twenty, twenty five years ago? and I can still remember thrilling to Costals, the hero, as he says the most outrageously egotistical nonsense, raging at his women, insisting that he needs nothing, no one. “Most affections are habits or duties we lack the courage to end.” It all seemed terribly brave and shocking.

Later I read some of his more frankly homoerotic, pederastic fiction and, if anything, found it even more curdled with self loathing and self justification. What wonderful stuff! I say that without irony. He was a marvelous writer, even in translation, and his reputation in France seems to be undimmed. I can think of very few men with whom I might have less in common philosophically, morally, or politically. I don't know that that he was quite as loathsome in his personal life as he appears in his fiction, but it really doesn't much matter if he was. Reading him I was empowered by his disdain, his refusal to compromise, his great command of language and argument, his aristocratic elan.

But I'm older now, and don't spend much time in the company of writers I find personally disagreeable. When one is young, bad men are best met in their books. One can walk in their company without corruption, and imagine one's self as the object of their attentions, be the beneficiary of their experience and cynicism, without having to actually go down of the nasty old buggers. Now I fear I would find the whole experience, even in a book, embarrassingly sad rather than romantic and delinquent.

(One marvels at the French for their great respect for the language and it's great practitioners. When Montherlant was an old party, cruising for underage boys, refusing interviews and to have his photograph taken for fear he'd be recognized, and presumably be blackmailed or have to pay more than the going rate for boy-whores, the gendarmes looked away. Henry still got kicked to pieces once, losing the sight in one eye, a few years before he took cyanide and a bullet at his desk. )

So, being in a foul mood tonight, feeling achy and ugly and old, I first reach for The Bachelors, but think better of committing to any long spell in the old reprobate's company, and instead I take up his Selected Essays, edited by Peter Quennell, and read "Work." And it is a wonderful thing and much gentler than I remember Montherlant being, perhaps because it's made up mainly of his conversations with working-class boys. I chose it because I'm missing my own work at the bookstore. In the essay I'm informed just how shocking it is to the aristocrat's sensibility to find working and middle-class children enthusiastic to take up a common trade. He finds the idea touching, but also depressing, even mystifying. It suggests a failure of imagination, a lack of inner resources, a tragedy. He's encouraged to see at least one boy without a badge in his buttonhole, uncommitted to any dreary future. (I'll just bet he was.) He quotes the boy: "When you're working, you're not miserable." and then adds parenthetically, "(What a definition of happiness!)" Ah, "the tragedy of the proletariat." Later, the essayist approvingly quotes "a poor Marsielles prostitute" who once suggested an alternative remedy for unhappiness: "You forget your poverty under the bed-clothes." (Motherlant seems not to notice the irony of suggesting a prostitute at rest in her bed, or perhaps he's just too subtle for me.) He ends on a weary sigh, quoting Gobineau (a truly vile man, the father of master-racism): "There is work, then love, and after that nothing..."

And here I was, pining to price books and chat with customers. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. Thanks, Henry, old darling, what was I thinking?

And now I think I'll just scuttle back into my sickbed and return to the road to Canterbury, and the company of the decent and and only mildly indecent English.

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