Malraux: Behind the Mask

Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by R.W.B. Lewis
Prentice-Hall, 181 pp., $1.95 (paper)

André Malraux: The Indochina Adventure

by Walter G. Langlois
Praeger, 259 pp., $5.95

The Rhetorical Hero: An Essay on the Aesthetics of André Malraux

by William Righter
Chilmark, 92 pp., $3.95

Of all the outstanding figures in contemporary French literature, André Malraux is probably the most difficult to assess. At times he appears as a remarkable genius, one of the key writers of the first half of the twentieth century, with a range of reference in life and art that no one else can equal. At other times, he exasperates by a certain looseness of texture or assertive jumpiness; we begin to wonder if we are dealing with an entirely solid achievement, or with something that is partly collective mirage, like the legend of T. E. Lawrence—significantly, no doubt, one of the culture heroes by whom Malraux was most inspired. Are the obscurities and apparent contradictions of the life sublimated in the works? Are the works themselves as rich as they first appear, or do they eventually break down into a number of conflicting attitudes, reiterated in different guises?

About Malraux’s extraordinariness as a man and a writer, there can be no argument, however much one may wish to query certain details. His name was legendary, at least in intellectual and political circles, before De Gaulle had ever been heard of and before Churchill won really international fame in 1940, and yet he was much younger than either of these now celebrated men, since, unlike them, he was born after the turn of the century, in 1901. He has been identified with some of the most notable events of contemporary history: the Chinese Revolution, the development of Communist Russia, the Spanish Civil War, the struggle against Nazism, the French Resistance Movement, and the “resurgence” of France under the Gaullist presidential monarchy. He has written novels which crystalize some of these experiences in a very graphic way. Although these works are not, for the most part, strictly documentary or autobiographical, Malraux is unique among contemporary novelists in having played a major personal role in the sort of political adventure he describes. While it was not he, but Sartre, who popularized the term engagement (commitment), he seems to have practiced commitment in a much more impressive way than Sartre, long before Sartre became prominent. He also expressed the concepts of the “Absurd” and “Existentialist Man,” well in advance of the time when these terms became part of common parlance. He was something of a pioneer in eroticism, helping to popularize Les Liaisons dangereuses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in two famous essays and embodying in his novels that mixture of sex and action which has become such a commonplace in the modern world. Finally, in later years, he has taken the whole of world art as his province and produced several large volumes of speculations about the function of art in the history of mankind. For all these reasons, he might be hailed as the most representative humanist of his time, and as a much grander figure than Camus or Orwell or any of the other possible contenders for the title.

MY DOUBTS about his ultimate position arise from a combination …

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