One could almost believe that Balzac wrote The Bachelors (Les Célibataires) in 1834, and not Henri de Montherlant in 1934. There are so many echoes of Balzac in Montherlant’s novels: the squalor of pretentious people falling deeper and deeper into debt; the meanness of relatives turning their backs on the spectacle of poverty; the unquenchable thirst for delusions to shelter one from the bitterness of reality. But it took a 20th century sensibility to take two miserable, useless characters such as the Baron Elie de Coëtquidan and Léon, comte de Coantré, his nephew–a couple of faded aristocrats living on the fumes of long-ago squandered fortunes–and grind them down to squalid, humiliating deaths.
That hardly makes this sound like a book you’d want to crawl in bed with, I admit, and it might seem crazy to suggest that The Bachelors could hold its own beside some of the best novels of the 19th century. It’s so rich in its characterizations, so full of wonderful details and mannerisms.
But imagine Dickens without the tiniest hint of sentimentality. Imagine David Copperfield dying cold, sick and hungry along the road to Dover instead of making it to the warmth of his aunt’s house, and you get a sense of how ruthless Montherlant can be toward his characters. “The tragic thing about anxious people is that they always have cause for anxiety,” he observes at one point, which illustrates the kind of cold, scientific objectivity with which he relates these sad, tragic stories.
What really distinguishes The Bachelors in my mind is that Montherlant manages to be pitiless without becoming cruel, to be grim but not bitter. This is not a satire. Montherlant doesn’t try to skew the story to make a point about the inadequacy of an older generation. This is just an unblinking look at failure. Which also makes it absolutely riveting. The experience of reading The Bachelors is a bit like the old saying about watching a car wreck: “It hurts to look, but you just can’t turn away.”
The Bachelors was originally translated into English by Thomas McGeevy and published as Lament for the Death of an Upper Class by John Miles in 1935. Terence Kilmartin, who translated several other works by Montherlant, released a second English translation, using a literal translation of the French title, in 1960. I picked up McGeevy’s translation and started it, thinking I’d found a long-forgotten work by Montherlant, until I realized it was actually The Bachelors. I thought McGeevy’s version was pretty good, but Kilmartin’s is far easier to locate, having been reissued several times, by Penguin and Quartet.