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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.
First published in French 1971 by Gallimard
No English translation