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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 of personal and literary impressions. I remember, a few years ago, tuning in to the French radio and hearing an unknown voice delivering a highly rhetorical speech in the quavering, over-emotional tones characteristic of old-fashioned French politicians. I listened to the end to discover who this weirdly pompous orator could be and was staggered to learn that it was André Malraux. Since then, I have seen him on French television performing in a similar over-emphatic and uneasy manner. Then there is something peculiar about his accepting the post of Minister for Culture in the Gaullist Government. I am not repeating the usual complaint that he has moved from Left to Right; the concepts of Left and Right may be partly irrelevant in this case, and anyhow, if he thinks he has good reasons for the political shift, he is obviously entitled to make it. It is the position itself which seems rather inappropriate; one does not expect the author of La Condition humaine and Les Voix du Silence to become the French Mme. Furtseva; it is rather as if Prometheus had become manager of a match factory. In an article in a recent number of the Journal of Contemporary History, “Malraux, Revolutionist and Minister,” Mr. Davis Wilkinson has argued forcibly that, by this practical encouragement of culture, Malraux is remaining faithful to his basic principles, but I am not altogether convinced. When Malraux has not been at home attending gala performances of Carmen with visiting heads of state, or cleaning historic monuments, or getting involved in squabbles with the Comédie Française about its liking for nineteenth-century bedroom farce, or with the cinema industry about the stupid banning of the film, La Religieuse, or with eminent musicians about the national music policy, he has gone all over the world on cultural occasions or with traveling exhibitions. As some anti-Gaullist, French observers have pointed out, during these journeys he has shown a curious tendency to confuse the greatness of art with national prestige, even to the point of hailing the exhibition of the Mona Lisa in Japan as a kind of French achievement. Recently, in Egypt, he drew a very strange parallel between that country and France in respect of their ancient greatness and modern revival. One cannot help feeling that he has come to prefer words and gestures to works and actions—unless, of course, behind the smoke-screen of cultural fuss, he is preparing some new and astonishing book which will give these impressions the lie.

In reading his works, I go through conflicting phases of admiration and bafflement. There are superbly vivid and successful passages in all of them; some of the most memorable episodes are to be found, for instance, in the early book, La Voie Royale, which he himself has not included in the Pléïade collected edition, presumably because he is dissatisfied with it. But the difficulty, in each case, is to decide where the center of gravity of the novel lies and to bring the various parts into focus to form an artistic whole. I must have read La Condition humaine half a dozen times by now, but I still cannot see it clearly in my mind’s eye as I think I can see La Nausée, say, or A la recherche du temps perdu. This is partly, of course, because Malraux is usually describing large social movements—political parties, armies, colonial communities, native tribes—at the same time as he is presenting the actions of certain outstanding individuals. But it may also be that his attitude towards his material is an extreme case of artistic ambiguity verging on the incoherent. He may write the various passages in different moods which are not organically related to each other, because, as it were, there is no moderately settled personality at the center to which they can relate. Who is André Malraux? One doesn’t feel aware of him as an identifiable man, as one is aware of Camus, or Sartre, or Proust. One has read about his brilliantly voluble conversation and his nervously twitching features, but it is difficult to get the sense of his individual presence. It might be said that this is a sign of great ability, if the work is otherwise good, because, after all. Shakespeare is another anonymous writer. But if Shakespeare doesn’t exist, his characters do, whereas Malraux’s, however elaborately described, have no fullness. They occur intensely in individual scenes, yet are as difficult to see in the round as their inventor. They inhabit a series of critical moments—political, erotic, intellectual—and are usually in the grip of a strong, physical sensation, darkness or flashing lights, noise or intense silence, fever or pulsating pain. When the scene is over, it is as if the character had been switched off; there is no gradation between that vision of it and the next. And the reader is still left with the problem of coordinating the separate vivid episodes.

THESE RESERVATIONS find an echo in some of the twelve essays by eminent American, French, and other critics, included in Mr. Lewis’s very useful collection, although, on the whole, the writers are enthusiastic in their praise of Malraux. Most of the material is not new, and indeed goes back as far as Trotsky’s article on Les Conquérants, published in 1931, and Edmund Wilson’s comment on La Condition humaine, published in 1933. It is obviously impossible to review such a wealth of opinion expressed by such varied critics, who also include the late Claude-Edmonde Magny, the author of a wonderfully penetrating essay, and Professor W. M. Frohock, whose book, André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination, remains, I think, the best full-length study of Malraux that has so far appeared. I cannot do more than pick out one or two points that strike me particularly. I wonder, for instance, why Mr. Wilson, who has always taken a special interest in the connection between politics and literature, has never dealt at length with the full range of Malraux’s novels (I take it that he hasn’t, or his later essays would have been referred to, or included, in this book). Can his failure to treat such an obvious subject be an accident, or does it indicate some hesitation about Malraux’s ultimate value? Then I notice that the critics vary a great deal in their assessments of individual novels: M. Gaëtan Picon thinks that L’Espoir is probably the best, and Mr. Joseph Frank calls it “this magnificent but greatly underestimated book,” whereas Mr. Lewis, in his Introduction, says that in spite of some uncommonly fine individual episodes, it strikes him “as a showy and ultimately rather tiresome performance.” Other critics devote most attention to the last novel Les Noyers de l’Altenburg; however, Mme. Magny downgrades it, and continues to consider La Condition humaine as Malraux’s masterpiece.

The central problem, I think, is the one touched upon by Trotsky thirty-five years ago: What is the philosophy behind the action in Malraux’s writings? Trotsky complained that the protagonists of Les Conquérants were not truly Marxist, and Malraux replied, justifiably, that they were not obliged to be, since they were characters in a piece of fiction that he had invented. Still, his heroes must embody something. As the critics have pointed out, they engage in action 1) to escape from their individualistic isolation through common effort; 2) to “be,” since man is what he does; 3) to test themselves in extreme situations; 4) to demonstrate the unconquerable spirit of man in face of the universe; 5) to show their fraternal solidarity with the oppressed and the suffering. They could, of course, satisfy ambitions 1 to 4 by being pioneers, or explorers, or courageous adventurers of any other kind, and this, in fact, is what they mainly are in La Voie Royale, Les Conquérants, and Les Noyers de l’Altenburg; in this case, the content of the struggle is relatively unimportant, it is the struggle that counts, and it is significant, for instance, that the narrator in Les Conquérants should express a certain admiration for the English who, ideologically, are the enemy.

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