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The Conquerer


by André Malraux, translated by Terence Kilmartin
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 412 pp., $8.95

What books are worth writing, except Memoirs?”

The Conquerers, 1928

In 1965 President De Gaulle sent his Minister for Cultural Affairs to visit the Chinese leaders in their heartland. André Malraux had staked his spiritual claim on the Orient more than thirty years earlier with four books, and no one had challenged it. The move was an obvious one for De Gaulle, and a mission not without excitement for Malraux. Probably in order to find rest and resume his writing interrupted since 1957, he traveled by water. The name of the liner, Cambodia, recalled his earlier trips to the Far East. That corruptly administered French colony was the scene of his arrest and trial in 1924, actions which provoked strong protests from many Paris writers. Moreover, the opening sequences of his first two novels take place at sea.

Malraux carried on board with him in 1965 a small library, including his most recent novel, Wrestling with the Angel (La Lutte avec l’ange). The first part had been published in 1943 as The Walnut Trees of Altenburg: the second part, of which an unfinished manuscript had been destroyed or lost by the Gestapo, was announced as still “in progress” in 1965. He had almost a month to work on it in the privileged calm of shipboard life. But instead of returning to the novel, he found himself writing an extended, self-revealing, magnificently eloquent log of the trip, a reweaving of his life back into his work. He chose a counter-title, implying a new genre: Anti-Memoirs. It is as if, beneath the keel of that slow boat to China and inside this substantial volume, Malraux’s past has begun slowly surfacing, like an unknown creature from the deep. When it does, as in the China sequence recounting his conversation with Mao Tse-tung over the fate of hemispheres, the pace of things has slowed and deepened in order to encompass that past. Malraux completes his circumnavigation by air over the Pole and returns to Paris a changed man, not so much because of the trip as because of the unexpected book the trip has spawned.

This much information, at least, can be deduced readily from internal evidence. This much, and possibly more—barely discernible, bringing a note of private lyricism that is unexpected in Malraux. Granted the mood is half shrouded in rhetoric. I quote from the second page of the French text in my own translation.

Why do I remember these things?

Because, having lived in that uncertain country of thought and fiction that artists inhabit, as well as in the world of combat and history, having discovered in Asia when I was twenty a continent whose turmoil still illuminated the meaning of the Occident, I have encountered at intervals those humble or exalted moments in which the fundamental enigma of life appears to each of us as it appears to most women on looking into an infant’s face, as it appears to most men on looking into the face of a corpse. In all forms of whatever draws us on through life, in every struggle I have seen against humiliation, and even in you, sweetness so pure that one marvels how you can walk upon the earth, life seems to spring forth as from the gods of vanishing religions, like the libretto for an unknown music.

Unaccountably, the only words that seem to have been dropped from 400 pages of the American edition are the two personal pronouns, toi and tu. But the American edition does contain something not in the French edition: a prominent dedication “For Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” Malraux’s friends have known for some time of the deep attachment he formed for la Présidente, whom he escorted in 1961 to the Jeu de Paume museum and to Malmaison and saw several times after that in the United States. She must appear to him a complex creature: a living statue, the star of stars, a person more scarred by history than he will ever be, the very embodiment of sweetness.

MALRAUX’S POSITION in French intellectual life today is a curiously ambiguous one. Young activists and revolutionaries still admire his exploits in China and Spain and the books that grew out of them. They cannot bear his apparently unwavering association with De Gaulle, with a party, and with a governmental office. As Minister of Cultural Affairs, Malraux has initiated reforms that have little originality. The Maisons de la Culture in the provinces are, even in name, a page out of the Communists’ ideological battles of the Thirties. Commissioning Chagall to paint the ceiling of the Opéra seemed quite a coup until someone pointed out that Lenin had employed him for the same purpose in Moscow thirty years before.

It has been, in fact, a troubled year for Malraux. The promotional campaign that surrounded the Paris publication of Antimémoires, including radio and television appearances and a long-playing record, was widely interpreted as a kind of official propaganda effort designed to cover up unrest and use Malraux’s prestige to bolster the government. When he intervened last winter in the administration of the Cinema-thèque and tried to relieve its director, Langlois, of his responsibilities, Malraux had to back at least half way down. He summarily fired Jean-Louis Barrault for turning over the Odéon theater to students in May. Malraux himself played no public role during the May Days until they were practically over. Then, on June 21, he appeared on Europe I in an interview that came as a kind of summation. “First of all, there has been a real crisis over the idea of hierarchy. It is not easy to see because theoretically what people put forward against hierarchy is the idea of disorder.” He went on to speak of the drama inherent in the fact that Christian culture continues even though Christian faith has disappeared as a sustaining force. “Today, in a way, civilization exists in a vacuum and is going nowhere.” As a Minister Malraux is not being listened to very attentively. As a writer, however, he has not lost his audience.


ANTI-MEMOIRS” opens with ten pages that rise like a bright rocket and then go out before we have glimpsed much of the surrounding terrain. The effect is tantalizing. A country priest gestures in the night and speaks of hearing confessions. We hear many voices, Malraux’s above all. He has wise words about death and sincerity, about dying gods and rising cities. “I hate my childhood…. I do not find myself very interesting…. how [can one] reduce to a minimum the theatrical side of one’s nature.” In the last paragraph, Jung, of all people, is climbing down a ladder in New Mexico. The surface provides little continuity. Malraux seems to back systematically away from the very subjects the title promises. But be patient. The journey has not yet begun.

Almost everything, of course, comes back transfigured. These pages form an elliptical preview that distorts and truncates what will later be made whole. The priest does have something portentous to say about age and greatness. Malraux does not really hate his youth or disdain his past. Sincerity is a doubtful ideal, found least of all in memoirs. To kill the play-actor in oneself may mean abandoning the game. Jung is as culture-bound as any poor Indian. There is no recapitulation, but by the end of the book we recognize the landscape of Malraux’s many-mansioned life. In the course of this opening chapter he tells us that the Berger family, which he chronicles through three generations in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, is in reality a transposition into the Alsacian forests of his own seafaring forebears from Dunkerque. The second chapter of Anti-Memoirs consists of a twenty-page condensation of the middle 150 pages of that novel. Such a radical telescoping destroys the story line in order to pick out what are apparently the autobiographical elements. From the start we are suspended between fiction and non-fiction, between the already recorded and the unascertainable.

From this point on the book might be called “Ports of Call.” Each place evokes its memories. Egypt, the first stop, carries him back to his first discovery there thirty years earlier of the “two languages” in art: appearance and truth. Halfway between East and West, Egypt is the desert out of which everything came forth, the culture which discovered the human soul and built the first great tombs. Moreover, Egypt reminds Malraux of his archaeological stunt with the pilot Corlingnon. Subsidized by a Paris newspaper, they had tried to locate the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s ancient capital in the desert east of Aden. That flight produced a stirring account of a near-crash they had in escaping from a local storm, as well as a few blurred snapshots, duly published in the sponsoring paper.

The memories that cluster about India, the next lay-over, take us further back and bring us further forward in time. Malraux had stopped briefly in Ceylon in 1923 and had visited a series of holy cities in northern India in 1929, including Jaipur, “the most dreamlike place of all.” But the mention of a 1958 fence-mending mission to see Nehru for De Gaulle transports the narrative back to Paris. The next thirty pages are devoted to Malraux’s meeting with De Gaulle. Apparently each was led to believe the other had asked for the interview. By divulging this fact at the end, Malraux contrives to extract a minimum of comedy out of this epic malentendu. By his own account Malraux seems to harangue the politely listening General about the primacy of the nation, the revolutionary spirit, and intellectuals in politics. After this first take comes a series of retakes of De Gaulle. Malraux characterizes him as the exact opposite of Trotsky. (Thereby hangs another tale, not told here, of how Malraux refused to admit in 1934 that he had gone to Royan to meet the exiled Russian. Malraux was very close to the Party then.) The story of another political mission for De Gaulle in 1958 turns into a semi-burlesque thriller. Malraux discovers himself on a platform in Guiana talking only to the first few rows of a vast audience while its outer edges are engaged in a well-organized uprising.

THE NARRATIVE moves back now to India, where the ship is still docked, and gives an account of Malraux’s 1958 conversation with Nehru. “So now you’re a Minister.” Malraux’s response is one of the nimblest literary leaps in the book. He recounts an anecdote that implies he is as much a Minister as the cat that lived in Mallarmé’s apartment was Mallarmé’s cat: it’s all a matter of pretending, like Sartre’s waiter. They talk of many things, at the end of which Nehru says, “Tomorrow we shall learn from the newspapers what we said to each other”—a wistful motto for our times, just as much a theme here as it is in Bonnie and Clyde.

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