The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant

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.

The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant, translated by Terence Kilmartin
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960

7 thoughts on “The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant

  1. You write: “it might seem crazy to suggest that The Bachelors could hold its own beside some of the best novels of the 19th century.” That suggestion doesn’t seem at all crazy to me, as I’ve read the book. It’s an unrelenting clinical examination. Even the manner in which the death scene is handled (the memory, the wrenching the bed post) is devoid of sentimentality. Maybe that made it so moving.
    I lent the book to a friend, and she thanked me for thoroughly depressing her. But, as you point out, it’s an unblinking look at failure. And there are many who fail at making their lives work out.
    Then I read (as much as I could stand, which wasn’t much) Montherlant’s The Girls. How could the same man succeed so fully and fail so dismally?
    I often wonder: What if the first book I read by an author is his/her worst, and that has caused me to miss all the excellent ones?

  2. Les Célibataires has the implication- which The Bachelors does not- that they are the end of the line, that they will die childless.

  3. I think that’s an example of a faux ami. “The Celibates” would certainly imply that they’re the end of the line, but the corresponding English word for “Célibataire” is, in fact, “Bachelor.”

  4. I say that it might seem crazy merely because it’s certainly not a description that would lead one to think it’s truly a rewarding reading experience–even though it is. This is a book that deserves to be out in Penguin Classics and Signet Classics editions and just taken for granted as part of the canon of basic classics. “Life is hard and then you die,” as the T-shirt says. And not all protagonists in a tragedy are heroic. “The Bachelors” teaches you that in prose that is interesting and clear enough for a high school junior to figure it out.

  5. I don’t think it’s a faux ami, or not entirely. Les Célibataires draws attention to their celibacy and childlessness in a way that- say- Les Hommes Seuls would not. Bachelors and célibataires have different connotations,which-presumably- is why McGeevy changed the title..

  6. Talking to a French friend today: Célibataires has the same root as celibate, but its usage diverged so long ago that no-one would notice the connexion. He pointed out that there’s an analogy with spinster. An English-speaker wouldn’t pay attention to the link with spinning but a foreigner might.

  7. I’d make a quick defence of part one of The Girls – the letter writing sequence is extremely good I think with the author appearing as a character in the footnotes to cast comments on the main character’s lies and evasions.

    If he could have sustained that the Girls would have been a superb novel. Instead of course it lapses into long sections of crimially unfunny self-pity.

    De Montherlant must have realised that too as the Bachelors and Chaos and Night which were written after The Girls ( I think ) present far more bleak but crucially far funnier versions of bitter old age

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