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Authors: Henri de Montherlant

The Bachelors

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Les Célibataires
first published 1934 Copyright © Editions Bernard Grasset, 1934

This translation first published by

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1960 Published in Penguin Books 1965

Copyright © George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1960



















is not very often that an English visitor to France finds himself being entertained in one of the households of the French provincial aristocracy; and, should he happen to enjoy this privilege, the experience will probably strike him as somewhat odd and disconcerting. He may have imagined, for example, that most French citizens, wherever they lived, were more or less enamoured of the idea of Paris — only to learn from the middle-aged lady, modestly swathed in
broderie anglaise
, sitting next to him at dinner, that she rarely visits the capital, except now and then to buy a new dress at the
or the
Bon Marché,
and that when she enters the Parisian Babylon she feels completely at a loss. From a foreign point of view, she and her husband may bear a certain resemblance to an English 'county family'; yet their name and title suggest the history of the Crusades and the chronicles of Villehardouin.

Such a family, poor and proud and isolated, provides the subject matter of the present novel. True, the Coëtquidans and the Coantrés have been uprooted from their native province. But in the charmed circle of family acquaintances — '
nos familles'
— to whom they are related either by birth or by marriage, they lead a circumscribed and largely provincial existence. The Baron de Coëtquidan and his nephew, the Comte de Coantré, have transferred the atmosphere of a remote provincial château to their commonplace and dilapidated little house off the boulevard Arago; and behind its garden fence they pursue their separate manias undisturbed by the pressure of the twentieth century. Both are unmarried; both are born eccentrics. Each wears a patchwork costume of old and ill-assorted clothes; and M. de Coëtquidan has developed an uncontrollable passion for collecting miscellaneous odds and ends — used stamps, pieces of string, scraps of bread, and dusty lumps of sugar. Although they are poor and steadily losing money — the kitchen table at which they eat, however, is always very well served — neither of them is capable of turning his talents to any form of remunerative work.

According to a recent biographer, Henry de Montherlant, when he composed
Les Célibataires,
now more than twenty-five years ago, took some hints from a pair of eccentric relations who once inhabited his parents' house; but no doubt as in all his novels — and, indeed, in every novel that possesses genuine imaginative quality — the autobiographical element has undergone a far-reaching literary transformation. Whereas the gifted journalist merely reports, the imaginative artist transfigures his subject; and then, besides portraying his queer protagonists with a blend of irony and poetic sympathy, Montherlant establishes their relationship to the larger world around them. On modern society they have chosen to turn their backs; and society, in revenge, dooms them to neglect and humiliation. They are grotesque failures, laughable anachronisms. But is the way of life in which they decline to participate after all so sane and dignified? Mademoiselle de Bauret, their emancipated young kinswoman, is a foolish, restless, unattractive girl, a slightly raffish blue-stocking, the victim of her own spurious intellectual catchwords —
'la pauvre fille était une proie désignée pour les charlatans de la palette et de la plume
'; while their rich and respectable relation, the Baron Octave de Coëtquidan, professedly a modern man — '
l'homme moderne avec la nuance "genre américain
"' — who flatters himself on having come to terms with 'real life', cultivates the illusions and superstitions of his age as eagerly as the two ridiculous bachelors cherish their inherited follies. Naturally, it is the twentieth century that wins — Léon de Coantré loses the remnants of his fortune and dies alone in a gloomy gamekeeper's cottage: he is swept away into the rubbish of the Past. But the question remains whether the victorious Present can afford to stand a very close scrutiny.

First published in 1934,
Les Célibataires
has often been considered Henry de Montherlant's most rewarding novel; and certainly nowhere else does he display so wide a range of qualities. The effect that the narrative produces is by turns tragic, comic and poetic; and, as in life itself, the tragedy, the comedy, the poetry are all details of the same pattern, and we pass from one to the other without any sense of making an artificial change. Montherlant's comic gifts, I think, have frequently been under-valued: like Henry James, he is usually admired for a very different set of attributes. But what could be more felicitous than the portrait he gives us of that 'advanced' plutocrat the Baron Octave, a minute rosette of the Legion of Honour in the buttonhole of his American-cut suit, diligently keeping abreast of the times with the help of his favourite English newspaper?

Le Baron Octave de Coëtquidan . . . était assis dans un rocking-chair, et il lisait le
Daily Mail.
'Lisait' est une façon de parler, car il ne savait pas l'anglais. Allons, n'exagérons pas: il en savait quelques mots. Mais le baron professait qu'on ne connaît rien de la politique française si on ne lit pas les journaux anglais ou américains.

The Comte de Coantré, on the other hand, is an undeniably tragic personage. At least, he acquires a tragic dignity, once the sufferings of his lonely last days have laid the essentials of his character bare. Then the forlorn eccentric becomes assimilated into the surrounding world of nature. As his loneliness increases and mankind grows more and more unfriendly, he hears, overhead in the dusk, the sounds of a skein of wild geese travelling south towards the sun and freedom:

Le volier avait la forme d'un long ruban naviguant très bas . . . onduleux et tout d'une piece comme un tapis volant des Mille et une Nuits, ou comme quelque monstrueux serpent de l'air. Les oies volaient — une cinquantaine — bec au vent, d'un vol sans passion, sans chiqué, vigoureux et tranquille. . . . M. de Coantré, immobile, les regarda jusqu'à ce qu'elles eussent disparu. . . . Et il restait songeur, frappé par cette impression de volonté, de cohésion, de mystère, d'apport lointain que le volier laissait derrière lui, comme une trainee de rêve à travers le ciel vide.

Even in his most poetic passages, Henry de Montherlant is a notably restrained and economical writer, who uses words with the utmost precision and care, and never introduces a decorative digression purely for its own sake. He is not a novelist who often pauses to describe at length the natural background of his story — an exception, however, is provided by
Le Songe,
his prentice novel about the First World War; but when he does so in one of his more mature books, in
and, earlier, in
Rose de sable,
it is always with the purpose of enlarging and deepening our appreciation of his human actors. Released from the miserable triviality of existence at the boulevard Arago, Léon de Coantré drifts towards death under the spell of the sleeping ice-bound forest:

Dehors continuait la nuit sans histoire. Toute la forêt craquelait sous le vent et le froid. Les crapauds endormis battaient au fond du feuillard, secoués par leur coeur trop fort. Les renards dormaient dans leurs tanières, le museau sur l'échiné l'un de l'autre, ravis par leur puanteur; et les sangliers dans leurs bauges, rêvant à la glace étoilêe qu'ils avaient léchée à la lumière du soir. Dans les souillats récents l'eau se congelait à nouveau, et la boue durcissait, alentour, sur les troncs d'arbres où les biches et les cerfs s'étaient frottés. Mais au fond du ciel clair, au-dessus des immobilités tapies, les oies sauvages passaient toujours, les pattes collées au ventre, soutenues par le vent, parmi les myriades d'insectes des hauteurs, le long de la grande route migratrice, semblable aux routes invisibles qu'il y a sur la mer pour les vaisseaux, ou à celles que suivent les astres.

Among much else, it is his mastery of the language that recommends Montherlant to French critics; and the passage quoted above, with its short sentences, its easy harmonious rhythm, its frieze of simple yet vivid images unfolding as the period develops, has a music that will certainly appear to any well-trained English ear. As in all good writing, English or French, the author's prose style is not a form of external ornament, but the proper expression both of his individual point of view and of his attitude towards his subject. From whatever angle we approach it,
Les Célibataires
is a singularly complete achievement, which leaves the reader little to say that the novelist, in more expressive terms, has not already said before him. Montherlant himself has told us how, after turning the last page of one of Colette's most successful novels, he was moved not to comment upon its separate literary virtues, but to exclaim simply:
'C'est cela!'
— that's that; that is exactly the way it must have happened. The same sentence seems an appropriate tribute to this beautifully balanced and admirably rounded book.









seven o'clock on a cold February night in 1924 a man apparently well in his sixties, with a rough beard of indeterminate grey, was standing on one leg in front of a shop in the rue de la Glacière, not far from the boulevard Arago, reading a newspaper by the light of the window with the help of one of those large rectangular magnifying glasses used by stamp-collectors. He was wearing a shabby black greatcoat which reached well below his knees and a dark peaked cap of a style introduced around 1885, with a chinstrap of which the double flaps were now fastened over the top. Anyone who examined him at close quarters would have noted that every detail of his get-up was 'like nobody else'. His cap was thirty years out of date; his greatcoat was fastened at the collar by two safety-pins linked together in a short chain; the collar of his starched white shirt was frayed like lace so that the lining showed through, and his tie was not so much a tie as a cord barely covered here and there by some worn black material; his baggy trousers hung at least six inches below what tailors call 'the fork'; and one of his boots (which was enormous) was laced with a piece of string which someone had
to blacken with ink.

If he had pushed his indiscretion even further, the observer would have noticed that a stout piece of string was also doing duty for our hero's belt, and that he wore no underpants. His inner garments were held together by an armoury of safety-pins, like those of an Arab. On each foot he wore two woollen socks, one on top of the other (whence, no doubt, the size of his boots). Turning out the pockets, the observer would have discovered the following items of note: an old crust of bread, two lumps of sugar, a sordid mixture of shreds of black tobacco and solidified bread crumbs, and a solid gold watch, which would have arrested his attention. It was an old, flat watch, stamped all over with the beauty of priceless craftsmanship, and its case was almost entirely concealed by the loops and tendrils of an elaborate coat of arms (lion, pennons, the whole shoot), crowned with a baron's coronet. Rounding off his investigation with the wallet — a tattered wallet with the pencil missing from its socket — the observer would have come across, on the one side a hundred francs, and on the other a card advertising the establishment of Jenny, Theatrical Make-Up, etc. and three visiting cards which must have been there a good ten years, for they were so faded as to be almost brown at the edges. They bore the following inscription, printed in a vulgar type:
Élie de Coëtquidan. 11 rue de Lisbonne.
And — a practice nowadays confined to the provinces, and perhaps exclusively to Brittany — the inscription was surmounted by a baron's coronet.

M. Élie de Coëtquidan, propped up on one leg, jostled by passers-by, but imperturbable, read his paper from cover to cover by the light of this barber's shop, in front of which he had been reading it every night at the same hour — although several nearby shops were better lit — for the past nine years. The contents of what he read drew from him now and then a sort of growl, a very characteristic 'Hrr. . . .' or sometimes an exclamation: 'Swine!', 'Trash! 'Hrr, that's the young all over!' Eventually, holding the newspaper unfolded by one corner, he shuffled off towards the boulevard Arago. From time to time he would slow down in order to poke with his cane at some bit of paper or refuse on the pavement, with the age-old gesture of the ragman.

BOOK: The Bachelors
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