Something to Answer For
The true novelist may be obliged to outrage his readers; the shrewd novelist will settle instead for being “outrageous.” The true satirist will regret the fact that satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; the shrewd satirist will welcome such complacencies, glad that he can have all the prestige of being hard-hitting with no risk of bruising his knuckles. Caricature as indiscriminate and imprecise as that in Montherlant’s The Girls exists to exonerate and gratify its purported victims, since nobody but a masochist need ever concede that Montherlant scores. Instead of a palpable hit, he offers a merciless drubbing—one which turns out to be that of the masseur. Not an anguished Timon, cynically profound and not merely “profoundly cynical,” but an angostura Jaques, such as any court circle will find refreshingly tart.
The Girls (1936-9) is a tetralogy about a novelist, Costals, and his four women: Solange Dandillot, a pretty nothing who nearly wins Costals to marriage; Andrée Hacquebaut, a suffering intellectual; Costals’s religious correspondent, Thérèse Pantevin; and Rhadidja, an Arab girl in Morocco. Costals eludes them all, causing them some suffering and himself an odd twinge, and all the while elaborating—with not much more variety than that of self-contradiction—his worldly-wise views on women and on the disastrousness of marriage.
“All’s well that ends well,” ends the Epilogue, happy that Costals flew free. Behind Montherlant’s two favorite tones, the manly rasp and the silky scorn, there can usually be heard a reassuring murmur: Not to worry. At the concert: “Pig-faced men with eye-glasses pretended that the slightest whisper in the hall spoiled their ecstasy.” As caricature that is gross, not Grosz. George Grosz had to capture such men in the fine net of his draughtmanship; Montherlant simply brands them “pig-faced,” a branding to which they mildly submit because they are the porkers of blustering fiction rather than the boars of life. At the cinema: “five hundred half-wits licked up this pus with ecstasy.” What makes so undifferentiated an accusation impinge? And why isn’t Montherlant’s contempt as morally vacant as his half-wits’ ecstasy? “Beneath him, on the viscous pavement, flowed the race of men, of sub-men and of women, a vast stream of liquid manure…” But beneath this verbal violence (itself somewhat flaccid) there can be heard the small voice, Not to worry: readers have paid for a seat up here with our hero, not down there on the pavement.
Jaques used his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shot his wit. Montherlant finds it more fun, and even less risky, to shoot the stalking-horses. In the waiting room, a doctor “passes by with his cigarette in the air—not that he is a smoker (he is nothing of the sort), but because smoking being forbidden here, it is a sign of his power.” But what is the level of this as insight or indictment? What are …