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Visiting Malraux and Nabokov

What follows is drawn from the diaries Edmund Wilson kept during the 1950s.

1.

Paris, January 1954—Lunch with André Malraux.1 For this, although feeling rotten and probably with a temperature, I pulled myself together. In the cab on the way there, Elena [Wilson]’s solicitude about me reminded me how little she takes care of herself, how much she devotes herself to other people: she was very soon sicker than I.

He now lives in a large house, rather modern and new, quite far from the center of the city. I thought he was flourishing and happy in a way that he had not seemed when I saw him on my way back from Russia in 1935. The wife that I met then, Clara, is said to have treated him badly, and his present one, the widow of his brother, a very pretty brunette, seemed to both of us attractive and honest. I think that he is relieved, too, to be able to relax from politics, which he had on his mind when I saw him before, and had had constantly and more heavily on his mind ever since—the Spanish war, the Resistance, De Gaulle—and devote himself entirely to writing and art. The Gaullist movement, he said, had been the only chance for France to get a New Deal but De Gaulle had now échoué. The government now was nothing—he worried much, as his wife told us later when she was driving us back to the hotel, about the impotence and nullity, at present, of France; and he told us that France, having had two great periods of world importance, in the Crusades and the Revolution, had no longer at the moment any role in the world, and he had been writing his work on art partly because the one field in which France was still supreme was that of art. The Louvre was the greatest museum in the world. He had just been in the US for three weeks with his wife, only New York and Washington. The Metropolitan was une musée de province—the National Gallery was the great one. I asked him whether he had met [Francis] Taylor2—said that T.’s review of Les Voix du silence [1951] had been idiotic, and he replied with emphasis, Tout à fait idiot!—The trouble was that Taylor couldn’t cope with a work on that niveau. I told him that I thought the preface to the new book on sculpture3 was one of the best things he had written, and he answered that was what he thought himself, it had been something he wanted to say; but nobody read it: they just looked at the pictures. I said that it was impossible to understand the pictures without reading the preface, and he replied, On ne comprend pas.

He has two boys by his present wife, of whom he seems rather proud. I felt on his part a certain satisfaction in living in his large house, in a certain style, and playing the role of family. In a humorous little aside to me, he assumed a complicity of men who know the inconveniences of family life, and in this and in his way of addressing himself to Elena—whom he always addressed as madame—I felt a deliberate and self-conscious assumption of a certain social role—a kind of thing not usual with educated Frenchmen, for whom the conventional formulas are second nature, a matter of routine; but it is part of what I like about him, of what makes him satisfactory in a way that few modern Frenchmen of the literary world are (Cousteau the deep-sea diver). It is still hard for him to look one in the eye—what is the cause of his reluctant gaze? You must be very direct with him to summon it; and he has substituted for the tic he had when I saw him last—that of spasmodically winking—a different one, a clicking in the throat. He likes to talk on his feet and jump around. His expositions are punctuated by bon! and bien!, nailing the point just made before rushing on to the next step.

He has some quite remarkable objets d’art—a Buddha (?) of which he told us that it was, I think, the best piece of its kind in France, a reproduction of Fra Angelico, some Hopi katchinas and a New Hebrides mask reproduced in one of his books. (He said that the children liked the former of these but were rather afraid of the latter.) But the house—nor the drinks nor the lunch—did not display much taste of the typical French kind—not that one minded this: a certain effortful bleakness characteristic of Malraux, big spaces, a variety of objects, incongruous one with the other, in which moved continually the vortex of M.’s intense and nervous personality. It was cold, they had just come back and had not yet got the heating going. In the big room, a small electric heater, which was made to play on Elena.—Effect, on Malraux’s part, of an intense, energetic, self-kindling, self-consuming force, whirling about without giving heat, but yet generating energy, in something almost like a vacuum: the room, the house, the quarter (extramural Paris, France, Europe).

He was full, as usual, of formulations—some of them brilliantly illuminating, some of them rather inept—especially on the subject of the US, which I don’t think he understands at all. There had never, he said, been such a phenomenon. People talked about the new Romans, but that was all nonsense. The Romans had been aiming on conquest, at imposing Roman civilization. All that the Americans wanted was qu’on leur fiche la paix. There had never been anything like it! Cromwell had known what he wanted; Stalin had known what he wanted; Washington had known what he wanted. But what did modern America want? Elle ne veut rien. I tried remonstrate with him about this. I said that Stalin had not known what he wanted: he was always changing his line—what was involved here was the automatic expansion of power. I tried to explain that in Europe it was impossible to understand American politics. In Europe you had parties with formulated views, based on theoretical principles (difference between American and European papers); at home there was nothing of the kind. He was rather impatient of this: he cannot understand, in his very French way, any movement which cannot be shown to embody an arguable position. And he has also a “mystique” of nations and their role that seems almost Hegelian.

He has a Germanic side (he comes from the north of France)—Elena says he writes like a German (is certainly coming to more and more). After lunch, with his queer little air of complicity, he asked me in a lowered voice a question which I did not at first understand, but which turned out to be, on his repeating it, whether I were not a great “partisan of Nietzsche.” People expected Americans to be like this—demonstrating with shoulders and fist, i.e., very foursquare and positive. But when on a previous trip (raising money for Spain) he had met the university faculties, he had found them on a high level, but had felt that they were rather timid.—People thought that Americans were materialistic, cared about nothing but money. He is still only in the stage of the first rudimentary reactions to the realities of America.

—When I saw him in ‘35, however, he said one very good thing about the US that showed that he had grasped our position better than most Europeans. I had spoken of the provinciality, compared with our New York papers, of the Parisian press; and he had said, C’est parce que la France est en Europe, les Etats-Unis sont dans le monde. When I had left him in the taxi after dinner and asked him whether he would be coming to America, he had replied emphatically, Je l’espère bien! But I am not sure that his kind of mind can accommodate itself to us: he would be likely to spend all his time making a series of formulations that would become more and more incoherent. Strange, I thought, his conception of French culture and his accounting in those terms for his work on art; can only see his own life and the life of the nation in terms of one another, and in terms of some high intention civilisatrice.

On literature: He asked about [Alexis] Léger, for whom he evidently feels a certain admiration as for one who, like himself, has traveled and known the great world and has tried to bring it into French literature. But he said—one of his accurate insights—that the three distinguished French poets who had come from the West Indies—Heredia, Leconte de Lisle, and Léger4—had all had in common a combination of sonority and lack of content. I remembered that Huysmans5 had called Leconte de Lisle le quincaillier sonore. I agreed that Léger, though magnificent in rhetoric, as I supposed, in the handling of French, was desolating, écrasant, in the long run—in a long performance like Vents—because you never touched the man—a lyricism entirely on parade; and the lines were so full of rare words, like the labels on exhibits in museums, ethnological, anthropological, zoological, geological, meteorological. (I feel this in his conversation, too, and sympathize with the comment of Isaiah Berlin that when he hears Léger doing his stuff, telling a story in the grand manner, he is likely to say to himself, as he does at a classical tragedy at the Comédie, I’m not enjoying this as much as I should.)—Malraux said that Léger had supported the policy of Pétain, and that it was undoubtedly on that account that he had not come back to France.—I asked him whether Léger was much read in France, said that I thought he felt that people were not interested in him any longer. Malraux replied that Léger was read by everybody who read anything seriously.

I said that I had been disgusted by Anouilh’s L’Alouette, and he told me that the Paris theater was now more or less what Hollywood was with us. They wrote now more and more for money, and pretty much all the dramatists were selling themselves: Anouilh, Cocteau, Sartre—Kean, for example. He agreed with me about the badness of Le Diable et le Bon Dieu [1951].—As for Giraudoux, they were trying to make him out to be a great writer, but he was actually a good minor writer. Malraux had been with him the day, or a day or two, before he died. He had not been thinking about Pour Lucrèce, which he had drafted some time before, but been occupied with a quite different project.—When I brought up the always embarrassing subject of Genet, and praised Les Bonnes—which he said he had read but not seen—he hastily admitted that Genet “had talent,” but asserted—I don’t quite know what he meant by this—that he had no sense of discrimination. The merits of Les Bonnes were due to its having been written when Genet had not “arrived”; it had the intensity of the pressures which had driven Genet to express himself, but he [Malraux?] said he had been weakened by success. I expounded my theory that Sartre had written his enormous book on Genet, dropping his own novel and allowing his gigantic introduction to appear as the “first volume” of Genet’s “complete works,”6 because Genet was the Sartre character which Sartre himself had not had the genius to invent—Malraux: Sartre n’a jamais inventé rien!—and that he couldn’t get over it, and tried to expound Genet in terms of existentialist philosophy—saying that Genet did not understand himself—not realizing how much more brilliantly he [Genet] had said it himself.

  1. 1

    André Malraux (1901–1976), French novelist and man of letters; Minister of Culture under De Gaulle.

  2. 2

    Francis Henry Taylor (1903–1957), director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had called the book “pure Apocrypha.”

  3. 3

    Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (1952).

  4. 4

    Alexis Léger (1887–1975), who wrote verse under the pseudonym Saint-John Perse, was born on Guadeloupe; José María de Heredia (1842–1905) was born in Cuba (his mother was French); EW overlooks the birth of Leconte de Lisle (1818–1894) on the island of Réunion, not in the West Indies.

  5. 5

    Joris Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), French novelist.

  6. 6

    Sartre’s Saint Genet: comédien et martyr appeared as vol. 1 of the Oeuvres complètes de Jean Genet (1952). Sartre was then working on the fourth volume of his novel Les Chemins de la liberté, which he never completed.

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