“For years I have been keeping the Spanish Civil War at bay,” Henry de Montherlant wrote in his notebooks in 1938, “as I know how to keep things at bay. The reason is that I would become too involved…It is more important that I should finish Les Garçons.” Twenty-three years later the subject overcomes him. Having in the interim launched and (he says) finished a preeminent career as a dramatist, he turns in his new novel to the Spanish War, not only with perspective on the past but with the present posed against the past. Well rendered in English by Terence Kilmartin, Chaos and Night is concerned with a relic of the war, a Spanish anarchist, now sixty-seven, who has been exiled in Paris for twenty years. The old anecdote tells us that, when a Frenchman was asked by his grandchild what he had done during the Revolution, he replied, “I survived.” In effect, Montherlant examines this answer for his hero: to find out what survived and why and whether it was worth the effort.
Celestino Marcilla has an independent income, a twenty-year-old daughter, a passion for bullfighting (starved for a generation), a few fellow-exile friends. He writes cranky sweeping articles, some of which he sends to newspapers, a few of which are published, and many of which are typed by his daughter for his “archives.” He considers the approach of death. As part of his preparation, he not only plans his death-bed scene, with the proper furniture, he breaks with his few friends, as if subconsciously scrubbing himself free of the world in a ritual bath before the long journey. (“He was undergoing the last change of life, similar to the crisis of puberty in adolescents, or the flowering of the virgin into the young woman.”) As for his politics and philosophy, the fixed attitudes of twenty-five years ago have been abraded by the passage of time and the petrification of desperate obstinacy. His mind has become a cave of small winds, rustling the dry leaves of dogged anarchism and atheism, hatred of Franco, hatred of the Church and—especially—of the United States.
At this point, he is jolted by news from Madrid that his sister has died and that he must return to settle her estate. His daughter wants to accompany him, and against his premonitions, he permits it. The journey back is mixed with fear, excitement, loathing. Every moment in Madrid he expects arrest, although he has a visa. His daughter is just as charmed as he dreaded by the country, its manners, its religion, its political climate, everything he detests. He prepares to return to Paris as soon as possible. The day before his planned departure he goes to a bullfight; then in his hotel room he dies alone. Soon after, the police arrive with a warrant for his arrest as a political nuisance. On the back of his neck they find four wounds, like those a matador might inflict on a bull.
Two themes run through this austere but rich novel, one explicit, one manifested through the book’s shape and sum: the realities of political belief, and God’s last laugh. As for the former, it becomes increasingly clear to Celestino that seemingly immutable principles are a matter of the moment in which they are acquired; they depend on environmental conditions, one’s desires, one’s very metabolism. As to Celestino’s atheism, the Catholic Montherlant seems to be saying that God encourages it as the matador likes spirit in the bull. It is irrelevant whether the bull “believes” in the matador; the man’s dominio exists. (The book is pranked with bullfighting terms, all annotated). Unknown to Celestino and clear to us only at the end, God the matador plays with Celestino throughout, passing with his cape so that Celestino will charge with the illusion of power and control. Then, after seeing a corrida which leaves him with intimations of imminent death, Celestino trudges back to his hotel room where God closes in for the kill and leaves him with the stigmata on his neck. He is buried in this theist country—on his tombstone the inscription Laus Deo.
The book is not a heavy religious parable; it is a political novel by a religious man. One need not share Montherlant’s faith, nor any faith, to see the scope of the cosmos defined by Celestino’s reticent vainglory. The book has a certain bloodlessness, a clinical coolness about the fierce struggles of this century as it has moved towards or away from communism; but the Olympian view is not used to sneer but to perceive. We have had fervor, we have had disillusion; there is room for what amounts to post-mortem. The term is apposite because the autopsy may tell us something useful for the future.
When Celestino sees the ongoing life in Madrid, he is naive enough to be dejected.
In Paris he justified his unhappiness by telling himself that he was unhappy because his country was unhappy: that made it a noble unhappiness. But if his country was happy, his unhappiness in Paris was no more than the unhappiness of a failure.
(The final irony is that the arrest for political reasons, which he feared but which would have given his exile a raison d’être, does not arrive until after his death.) Montherlant seems not to be saying that political belief is futile but that it must remain as alive as life; that unexamined rigidity means egotism, not integrity; that killing in war has ultimately to be taken lightly because ultimately it cannot be taken seriously. The deaths that Celestino has caused and seen have been mocked by time, as, to some degree, time mocks all such deaths. (See today’s paper.) Nor does Montherlant cheaply belittle his hero vis-à-vis God. In a moment of frustration Celestino reverts to “bullfighting” the cars in a Paris street and is almost killed.
In the whole of this little scene, which has not lasted more than twenty minutes, he had touched the three limits of his genius: the Comic, for he had been ridiculous, the Tragic, for he had risked his life, and the Profound, because of the reasons which had led him to risk it.
This, with other elements, makes us believe that essentially what Montherlant has attempted here is an examination, for the religious, of the conflict between predestination and free will. But the cosmic view is not reserved to the religious alone. Others as well can see the choices and inevitabilities, the silliness and nobility, in the old anarchist.
Every country seems to develop its own kind of young writer. In America at present the dominant tone in young writers is surrealist irreverence, sometimes satirical, sometimes even funny. In France the dominant tone at present seems to be microscosmic subjectivity, not the conventional inward journey but subjective reality converted into a surrogate superior world. The Interrogation by J. M. G. Le Clezio has been an immense success in France. As soon as it lost a tight race for the Prix Goncourt, it was awarded the Prix Renaudot, and the story of the twenty-three-year-old author’s close run was prominent in the Paris press. A happy aspect of this is that a literary event, even the politics of a literary event, is still important in France.
The Interrogation deftly translated by Daphine Woodword deals with a young man named Adam Pollo who lives alone in a house near the sea in southern France, walks, does not walk, talks to people, visits and is visited by a girl, but is in essence as solitary as the Crusoe who supplies the epigraph for his story. The novel traces his mental decline after his release “out of a mental home or out of the army”—much of it in interior monologues. But his retrogression is presented as contemporary heroic myth, not pathology, in a manner that implies the superiority of his withdrawals and distortions to the facts of life around him, that these withdrawals are indeed caused by the drabness and terror of the facts.
This of course is neither a new field for fiction nor a fresh view of contemporary society. The highhandedness of the young about the stupidities of the world they inherit is an ancient strophe, and the private purities of schizophrenia and paranoia are a latter-day mode of expressing it. LeClezio burdens himself with superficial trickeries—lines crossed out in the printed text, newspaper pages—but he has some gift of vision and an imagination that flies at the touch of a certain light, a view, a voice. If over-reaction were not the very tonality of his book, one could indict him for over-reacting. As it is, his novel—easily readable and sometimes poignant—fails simply by being insufficiently relevant to large concerns, a youthful paw at the universe instead of the intended tragic embrace. The tragedy soon wears away into self-consciousness and we are left with a series of attitudes substantiated, partly, by a vivid talent.
The Woman in the Dunes, by the Japanese novelist Kobo Abé, is his first book translated into English—the dull English of E. Dale Saunders.
[The entomologist’s] efforts are crowned with success if his name is perpetuated in the memory of his fellow men by being associated with an insect. The smaller, unobtrusive insects, with their innumerable strains, offer many opportunities for new discoveries.
An office worker whose hobby is insect-collecting goes to a lonely section of the coast on his vacation. He comes across a fishing village, each of whose houses is set in a deep pit in the dunes to protect it from the weather. He stays overnight in a house with a woman. In the morning no ladder is lowered for him. He is kept prisoner: to help shovel sand into buckets, to keep the house from being buried and, incited by proximity, to beget children with the woman. Thus he is impressed into the survival and continuity of the village.
The plot, which is what it must be called, is designed as a framework for symbolisms of freedom, love, tenacity, stupidity, hope. There is no inherent demerit in such a plot but there is inherent risk. As soon as the shape becomes clear, the reader becomes aware of a blueprint being slowly followed. Unless the author is able to keep us concentrated on the present moment with interest of character and richness of texture, we become impatient. This is too often true of Abé’s book.
The novel has been converted into a film, with Abé’s screenplay, by the young Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara, a film in every way superior to the original. Teshigahara’s visual and structural senses—implemented by a good cast and superb photography—supply the characterizations, tensions, bitter implications that are possible but generally unrealized in the novel.
January 14, 1965