The Walnut Trees of Altenburg
This publication is something of a puzzle. The statement on the copyright page, the “First American Edition,” leads one to expect a new translation, but the text turns out to be an undeclared reissue of an English version, published in 1952, four years after the appearance of the French original. Nor has much care gone into its production. Any first-time reader will be baffled by the fact that the words “Chartres, 21 June 1940,” which should stand at the head of the opening section of the novel to indicate the time of the action, have slipped back to a previous page, where they figure at the end of Malraux’s preface. How, the reader will wonder, can the author have written the book and the preface before the events he goes on to describe? More seriously, although the translation was first published under the auspices of the late John Lehmann, a noted Francophile, it is nevertheless bespattered with elementary mistakes—e.g., “he put on his glasses” instead of “he put down his glasses” (il posa ses lunettes)—which sometimes obscure the meaning of whole paragraphs. Imagine a performance of a piece of music in which the instrumentalist resolutely hits a wrong note every two or three bars, and you get the effect. If the publisher thought Malraux worth relaunching at this point, why did he not commission a new translation, or at least have the old one revised?
However, the book is before us again after a lapse of some forty years, and we have to decide what we think of it now. Malraux, who was world-famous only a decade or two ago, is not much talked about these days. The romantic international revolutionism, which he represented so glamorously in his early career, has suffered a dramatic loss of appeal; even La Condition humaine, his most celebrated novel, must make rather ironical reading in the light of the recent events in Communist China. Malraux’s self-mythologizing, which once helped his legend, has proved even more vulnerable to scholarly investigation than T.E. Lawrence’s comparable public image. Also, when Malraux, the fabled man of action in distant places, became involved in public activities in France after the war, he surprised some close observers by his rather ineffective busyness in the shadow of De Gaulle. Art historians around the world have given his Musée Imaginaire a fierce battering. All in all, his reputation is probably now at its lowest ebb, and so one reopens Les Noyers de l’Altenburg in a mood of doubt.
I am happy to report that it remains for me one of his most interesting works. It was Malraux’s last attempt to express his ideas and sensibility in fictional form, before devoting himself entirely to memoir writing and reflections on art. With characteristic theatricality, he presents it as the surviving first part of a large-scale novel, La Lutte avec l’ange, the rest of which was “destroyed by the Gestapo,” in circumstances that he leaves totally vague, and that have apparently proved impossible to verify.
As it stands, the book is not so much a novel with a plot as a juxtaposition of four fictionalized “movements” in different keys, which illuminate each other reciprocally to give a multi-angled presentation of the human condition. As the composition is musical rather than logical, and many points are made only by implication, all the interconnections may not be quite obvious at a first reading.
The four parts are held together by the fact that they describe the experiences of a father, Vincent Berger, and his son. The narrator is the young Berger (I can find no mention of his Christian name), and most of the book is devoted to his account, supposedly based on the paternal diaries of episodes in the life of Vincent, a philosopher-cum-political adventurer who was active before and during the First World War. The family is Alsatian, so that Vincent was a German subject before 1914, whereas his son is a French citizen in the present. Malraux has no doubt adopted the guise of an Alsatian narrator the better to underline the constraints of political and cultural divisions, as well as their fundamental irrelevance with regard to universal human emotion.
The young Berger is, to all intents and purposes, Malraux himself, as indeed is the father, who is Malraux projected back imaginatively into the previous generation. The overwhelming impression is of two active, concerned, reflective individuals buffeted by history. An initial short “movement,” narrated in the first person, is set in Chartres Cathedral just after the fall of France. The basilica has been transformed into a temporary hospital for wounded French prisoners of war, among whom is young Berger. The real-life locale of Malraux’s experience had been Sens Cathedral but, following his epic instinct, he transferred the scene to Chartres, which is more prestigious, more central to the French national tradition. Then come two long sections in the third person. The first describes Vincent Berger’s vain attempt, during the years preceding 1914, to help with the unification of Muslim tribes in Turkey and Asia, his return to Europe and his participation, in the German town of Altenburg, in a major intellectual symposium on the meaning of history. Here Malraux is drawing on his own experience in Indo-china, and also taking suggestions from T.E. Lawrence’s efforts on behalf of the Arabs, as described in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The second Vincent section switches, without transition, to the Russian front in 1917, where Berger senior, as a German intelligence officer, is present at an experimental gas attack on the Russian lines; this episode appears to have no historical foundation, and is presumably an imaginative flight based on accounts of chemical warfare on the Western Front. The short fourth “movement” brings us back again to the Second World War, but to a date prior to the scene in Chartres Cathedral; it is Malraux/Berger’s first-person narrative of his experiences as a tank commander in the French army in 1940, in the short period of fighting before the German breakthrough.
All this sounds more muddled in résumé than it is as one reads. Malraux may have had two reasons for not putting the fourth “movement,” the earlier in time, in its chronological place at the beginning. He must have decided to open in the cathedral, so as to get an immediate, pathetic contrast between the great monument to the transcendent and the humble spectacle of defeat and physical suffering. Also, by subverting the time sequence and alternating young Berger with Vincent, he creates an impression of the circularity of history, which subjects mankind to parallel ordeals at widely differing times and in widely differing places.
The structure of the book is relatively simple. There are three large set pieces about the pathos or horror of life. The first is the scene in Chartres Cathedral, where the humiliated French, imprisoned inside one of the greatest achievements of their ancestors, are given the miserable sop of being allowed to write reassuring postcards to their relatives, only to discover, sometime later, that the dumped, unposted postcards are blowing about futilely in the wind. Next comes the gas attack on the Eastern Front in 1917, directed by a humdrum yet sinister German professor of chemistry, and with results so shocking to the German soldiers when they follow up the attack that they try to carry the Russians back to the emergency ambulances. The third is the vivid account of being inside a tank as it lurches more or less blindly forward, carrying its captive crew, who are just as much in fear of their lives as the enemy against whom they are advancing; no conscious heroics here: these are four ordinary men, in the bowels of a metallic Trojan horse that may at any moment become their coffin.
These three vistas of man’s inhumanity to man, that is to himself, are given the full treatment in Malraux’s elliptical, plangent, descriptive style, which is not without a touch of masochistic frenzy, reminiscent of the revealing cry of the doomed hero, Oreste, in Racine’s Andromaque: “Grâce aux dieux, mon malheur passe mon espérance.” There is a sense in which Malraux revels in the tragedy of life. But he does not just surrender voluptuously to it—like, say, Louis-Ferdinand Céline in Voyage au bout de la nuit. He wants to grasp it intellectually, and so the three descriptive “movements” stand in deliberate contrast to the long, central account of the symposium on the meaning of history. This is held in the shade of the old walnut trees of Altenburg which, in their mute vegetable strength, represent the dogged permanence of the universal life force, whatever man may say about it, or do with it as it flows through himself.
The Altenburg meeting is generally supposed to be a transposition of the famous Décades de Pontigny, in which Malraux was a key figure, along with André Gide and other well-known intellectuals. By putting the debate back from the 1930s to pre-1914 Germany, and making the participants limit themselves to the most general philosophico-historical considerations instead of showing some awareness of the approaching war, he is emphasizing the frequent irrelevance of such abstract symposia to the immediate and irresistible movements of mass history. His account is also surprisingly satirical, given the fact that he himself was so loquacious an intellectual and rarely displayed any sense of humor. The organizer of the meeting, Walter, Vincent Berger’s uncle, is a touchy and self-dramatizing professor/man of letters, inordinately proud of having been personally acquainted with Nietzsche. Here there may be an element of self-caricature on Malraux’s part, and the relationship between vanity and intelligence in all the speakers is deftly indicated.
However, the theme of the debate is genuine enough, and it is one that the French in particular—from Lévi-Strauss to Raymond Aron and from Sartre to Michel Foucault—have been much exercized by during the last half-century. Can there be a unitary concept of man? Is there a “human nature” on which to found a universal humanism? In other words, is the dream of the Enlightenment a reasonable goal or an illusion? The question was vital for Malraux, because the international, pro-Communist activism of his early career supposes such a unitary philosophy of man. On the evidence of Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, by 1942–1943, when he was writing the book, he had almost totally lost any belief in the possibility of such a philosophy.
A main speaker in the debate, Möllberg, an ethnologist who has spent many years in Africa and elsewhere in the hope of proving the oneness of man, has given up in despair and destroyed the manuscript of what was to be his magnum opus. There is no common denominator, he says, between the various cultural crystallizations of the past and the present:
If mental structures disappear for ever like the plesiaurus, if the only result of successive civilisations is to cast man into the bottomless pit of nothingness, if the human adventure is only kept going at the cost of ruthless metamorphoses, it little matters whether men transmit their concepts and techniques to each other over a few centuries; for man is an effect of chance, and in essence the world is nothing but oblivion.
This skepticism—which might be called “the Ozymandias syndrome” after Shelley’s poem of that name—is echoed by Vincent Berger. He has tried “to leave a scar on the map,” but realized that all political action in the name of a principle is eventually distorted and nullified by the crosscurrents of history. As a physical being, man is just one animal species among others, with the difference that he is aware of his individual and collective mortality. Vincent’s conclusion coincides almost exactly with the Existentialist Absurdism that Sartre and Camus were formulating, in much more elaborate philosophical terms, in the late 1930s and early 1940s:
We know that we did not choose to be born, and that we will not choose to die. That we did not choose our parents. That we are powerless in the face of time. That between each one of us and life in general there is a sort of…abyss…. Man knows that the world is not on the human scale, and he wishes that it were.
But one voice, that of Count Rabaud, is raised against this assertion of meaninglessness:
“I believe in eternal man,” said the Count with deep, gentle conviction, “because I believe in the everlastingness of masterpieces.”
His profession of faith is immediately deflated in the text by a muttered aside from another participant about meeting the distinguished count in a brothel. Another asks very pertinently in what sense masterpieces are everlasting, if we can never be sure of the original meaning they had for their creators, and if they too are subject to decay through time. No answer is forthcoming. Yet the surprising thing is that while Count Rabaud appears to be defeated in the debate, in real life Malraux was later to behave as if he shared the count’s views. In the latter part of his career, he abandoned his commitment to politics, to become De Gaulle’s minister for culture, and he wrote rhetorically and at length about the durable significance of masterpieces. Indeed, his indiscriminate enthusiasm caused some wry comment, when, for instance, he sent the Mona Lisa on exhibition around the world, with the implication that, coming from the Louvre, it was as much a French, as an Italian, contribution to universal culture.
The contradiction is perhaps to be explained by the fact that Malraux, more so than most people, was himself not a unified man but a committee of mixed tendencies, a colloquium all to himself, in which different voices spoke up at different times. One can chart a kind of sequence. In his early phase of romantic adventurism, he was playing the man-who-would-be-king, or the great archaeologist-explorer, partly in real life, but perhaps mainly on the imaginative level. La Voie royale, his first tragic novel, and one of his most powerful works, has a hero who is openly Kiplingesque in his personal ambition. Later, in Les Conquérants and La Condition humaine, the nearly conquering hero is the revolutionary activist who puts his individual thirst for adventure at the service of a collective cause, which he takes as an absolute; but it is only a human pseudo-absolute, not recognized by Fate or Necessity, which play tricks on it.
In real life, the activist Malraux reappears as an aviator in the Spanish Civil War, and writes a would-be committed novel, L’Espoir, his weakest, at it happens, perhaps because the title was not in line with his deepest sensibility. He reappears as a tank commander in 1939–1940, and as a rather enigmatic Resistance figure during the German occupation. Finally, only a few months before his death in 1976, he makes an unexpected resurgence, as the frail old man who, in a quavering voice, announces on the radio his obviously unrealizable intention of lending his active, physical support to the people of Bangladesh.
In spite of this lengthy adventurous record, I sometimes wonder whether Malraux was in reality much more suited to practical action than Jean-Paul Sartre, the totally abstract intellectual. Perhaps, as Les Noyers de l’Altenburg suggests, he liked to be near, or involved in, action the better to express his feeling for its confusions or pathos. This suspicion is to some extent confirmed by the significant break in his career, not long after the composition of Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, when he finally abandoned his left-wing commitment and went over to Gaullism. At the time, he was widely accused of betrayal and of an incomprehensible conversion to old-fashioned nationalism. I would suggest rather that, to his amazed satisfaction, he had encountered in real life a man-who-would-be-king far more effective than he himself had ever been, and one, moreover, who was actually to enjoy his regal sway for a number of years, before being defeated in his turn by Fate, as all monarchs eventually are. De Gaulle, a nonsentimental realist, a cool Nietzschean (as opposed to the excitable ones, like Malraux), a nihilist disguised as a Catholic officer, who had chosen to believe in France as the objective embodiment of his personal identity (see Le Fil de l’épée and Vers l’armée de métier), was the perfect Malraux hero, to whom the writer could willingly subordinate himself, even though he, Malraux, had been a celebrated figure some years before the general appeared on the scene.
Les Noyers de l’Altenburg expresses the conflicting components of Malraux’s personality just before his polarization on De Gaulle, with whom he was to become personally acquainted in 1945. Perhaps the book was composed in a mood of near despair, when the Nazi domination of Europe still seemed a probability. Certainly, human behavior is seen throughout, sub specie aeternitatis, as vanity of vanities. The French prisoners in Chartres Cathedral are hungry penned animals, with no more notion of the general situation than medieval peasants; Vincent Berger returns from Asia and the Middle East with a sense of failure, because of the uncontrollable fluctuations of international politics; he looks on, helpless, while the German war machine, of which he is part, commits a ghastly atrocity; Berger junior, in the French army, shares the panic of the three enlisted men shut inside the tank, who do their duty, but in an incomprehensible nightmare.
Around the human beings, external nature carries on: rain falls, the wind blows, the clouds move, the pathetic fallacy works full-time, now directly, now by inversion. In the interval between the different fluxes of blind life, the intellectuals try to understand, but their combined efforts only echo the voice of the Psalmist: man’s acts are written on water, he makes monuments that survive for a longer or shorter time according to chance, and then all is leveled out into the blank of infinity.
But two or three years after the writing of the book, the Germans had been defeated and a self-made king installed by acclaim at the head of French democracy. Malraux was now free, in his last phase, to turn aside from his bleak central vision and to indulge the Count Rabaud side of his nature. He enthused about art as man’s Promethean gesture against Fate, he founded Maisons de la culture like lay churches to help the ordinary citizen to see the point of defying the universe, and he wrote memoirs, more Dichtung than Wahrheit, about his experiences as a great man among great men. This last phase was like a bombastic, romantic sunset when, as some critic said, Malraux was “en pleine possession de ses défauts,” in full command of his defects. In Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, in spite of some rhetorical hollowness, he is still in relative command of his qualities.