Henry de Montherlant: Les Célibataires (UK: Lament for the Death of an Upper Class, US: Perish in Their Pride; later editions: The Bachelors)
This is a simple but very effective story of a decaying minor aristocratic family, which has been unable to adapt to the twentieth century, in particular to the fact that one has to earn a living to survive. We mainly follow the story of Léon de Coantré, who is one of the eponymous bachelors. It is not that Léon avoids work. It’s just that it never occurs to him that this is something he has to do to survive. His family has money – he thinks – and therefore work does not enter into it, except for other people. When his father dies, it is to his mother he turns for help and she does what she can but, when she dies, there is little money left and he casually fritters it away. For example, when there is a claim on the estate, instead of challenging it or even checking it out, he pays up, thereby eating into his capital. He does look at both jobs and advantageous marriages but does not seem to have the energy to pursue either. He does ask various family members for help but they – his uncle in particular – are reluctant to help, not least because of his attitude.
He is not the only one in the family in difficulties. Indeed, most of the family seems to have financial problems and a reluctance to work for a living. Léon’s niece, Mlle de Bauret, is in similar straits, though she is able to go and live with various relatives to keep the wolf from the door. Like her uncle Léon, she tries the marriage route but with the same lack of success. She survives but he does not and barely anyone cares. But Montherlant’s portrait of the minor aristocracy on its last legs is masterful.
First published in French 1934 by Grasset
First English translation in 1935 by John Miles; later editions: Terence Kilmartin