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Henry de Montherlant: Un assassin est mon maître [A Murderer Is My Master]

This one of Montherlant’s lesser-known novels. It has not been translated into English, which is a pity, as it is a fine novel. Of course, it has Montherlant’s celebrated tongue-in-cheek, sardonic style but still, with a certain degree of pity (but not too much) for the poor subject. The subject is M. Exupère, a French civil servant who, for most of this novel, is in Algeria, during the colonial period. Exupère is a civil servant. He is also an intellectual, very fussy and subject to depression.

At the start of the novel he is in Oran but is offered a post he dearly covets, namely the position of librarian with the Franco-Muslim Society in Algiers. His boss is the autocratic Saint-Justin (a name which, of course, recalls Saint-Just) and, despite his efforts to ingratiate himself, relationships soon break down to a level of basic formality. Exupère has other problems. He is attracted to Jewesses (he thinks it is because of his mother’s anti-semitism) but has to fund his habit. Then there is Colle, a professional borrower who is disinclined to pay back but who, to Exupère’s disgust, seems to survive by a combination of borrowing, showing women tourists around the Sahara (including offering additional services) and generally sponging.

But the strength of this novel is not just the story of a civil servant who feels inadequate, threatened by the people around him and increasingly turns in on himself. More than that, it is the story of a man who gradually sinks into depression because he is unable to cope with the world and its vicissitudes. Montherlant’s portrait of a man slowly but surely being chipped away at the edges, till he is no longer able to cope, is masterful.

Publishing history

First published in French 1971 by Gallimard
No English translation