Malraux’s Heroes and History
Hôtes de Passage
La Tête d’obsidienne
It was difficult to be very young in the European summer of 1938 and not feel about André Malraux as Henry James felt about James Russell Lowell: that he was “the poet of pluck and purpose and action” who “commemorated all manly pieties and affections.” Malraux at that time radiated a high-souled masculinity. Where others talked, he acted. Where others thought of writing, he wrote. He was the nonpareil of the decade, the admired of all admirers; it was difficult to carry a new-minted copy of his L’Espoir from one end of a Parisian street to the other without making a friend on the way. That book moved a generation as perhaps no novel has moved one since; and those who were nineteen and in Paris at the time still find it hard to think ill of André Malraux.
But all that was a long time ago, and there is no denying that when the seventy-fifth birthday of André Malraux comes around on November 3 of this year the taste will have soured. Just about everyone now has it in for Malraux, for one reason or another. Malraux may feel with his friend Charles de Gaulle that “whenever I was right, I had everyone against me”; but the fact remains that he is contested as a novelist, contested as an explorer and a man of adventure, contested as an aesthetician, contested as a hero of the Spanish Civil War and the French resistance, contested as a master of language, and contested as a cabinet minister who refused to present himself to the electorate. Some there are who still see him as François Mauriac saw him in 1969: as the greatest living writer in the French language. But there is a counter-opinion: that he is at best an eccentric with no sense of reality and at worst a magniloquent fraud who is one step short of the madhouse.
On the one hand we have the sumptuous pictorial biography with which the French publishing industry hopes to put him in the Pantheon for ever. On the other, we have the opinion of Richard Cobb, who knows France better than most of us know our own front door. Reviewing Jean Lacouture’s biography of Malraux for the London Sunday Times, Professor Cobb spoke of “inescapable evidence of repeated and deliberate distortion, mythmaking and posturing.” As for the Great Thoughts with which Malraux likes to stun his interlocutors, this straightforward Anglo-Saxon will have none of them. “If, in the original, they seem merely obscure,” he says, “in English they look like plain rot.”
Well, yes. Malraux throughout his life has mixed truth with untruth the way painters mix oil colors with turpentine. And when dealing with ideas of an exalted, all-circumscribing sort, he may well often remind us of an automobile which has sixteen cylinders and no steering wheel.
But then again, no. “I do tell lies,” Malraux said to Clara Goldschmidt not long after their marriage in 1921, “but my lies turn …