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Mythmaker

André Malraux: A Biography

by Curtis Cate
Fromm, 451 pp., $29.95

1. Malraux in the Pantheon1

This story is somewhat stale, I am afraid, but it still has a point. In a crowded church, the preacher ascends the pulpit and pronounces a moving sermon. Everybody is crying. One man, however, remains dry-eyed. Being asked the reason for his strange insensitivity, he explains: “I am not from this parish.”

I am not French, but French is my mother language and, when I am in France, I always feel completely at home-with only one reservation. Whenever the issue of Malraux crops up, the evidence hits me: I am not from this parish. The same sentiment reemerged last year when Malraux was reburied in the Pantheon.

I experienced it for the first time twenty years ago. In November 1976, when Malraux died, a weekly magazine in Paris invited me to write one page on the theme “What did Malraux represent for you?” I always believed that death is not an excuse for withholding judgment; I naively assumed that the editors expected me to express a sincere opinion-and this is precisely what I offered them. They were horrified and immediately junked my shocking contribution. And yet, in my innocence, all I had done was simply to repeat what was already obvious to many discriminating foreign critics, from Koestler to Nabokov: Malraux was essentially phony.

For instance, on the tragedy of the Chinese revolution, instead of wasting time with the artificiality of La Condition humaine, one should read the account of Harold Isaacs: at least he knew what he was writing about. (The first edition of Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution appeared in 1938, but it took another thirty years before a French translation was finally published….)2

In those early days, Malraux, who only spent a few days in China, as a mere tourist in transit, pretended to the French public that he had been a people’s commissar in the Chinese revolution. Later on, the epilogue of his Chinese adventures-his famous interview with Mao Zedong in 1965-proved to be an equally brazen humbug. A French sinologist recently made a comparative study of Malraux’s description of this episode (in his Antimémoires) and of two other contemporary accounts of the interview in question-one in Chinese (from notes taken by Mao’s interpreter, subsequently leaked to the Red Guards and published in China during the Cultural Revolution), and the other in French (compiled by the French Embassy in Peking).3 The comparison revealed that the three-hour cosmic dialogue between two philosophico-revolutionary giants of our century had in fact been limited to a routine exchange of diplomatic platitudes that barely lasted thirty minutes. At one point in this brief and otherwise banal interview, however, Mao, who was already stewing up his forthcoming “Cultural Revolution,” dropped a tantalizing hint, indicating that writers and intellectuals were deeply corrupted by “revisionism,” but that the youth might be mobilized against this counterrevolutionary evil. This, in a nutshell, was already a first suggestion of the gigantic explosion that was to shatter China the following year. Any interlocutor with some sense and a modicum of information would have recognized the true significance of this opportunity, jumped upon this unexpected opening, and eagerly pursued the issue, but Malraux blindly ignored the cue that had just been offered him; and Mao, who by then could hardly conceal his impatience, brought the audience to an abrupt conclusion.

On the Spanish Civil War, who, after having read Orwell, could still take seriously Malraux’s histrionic amphigory? Next to the stark truth of Homage to Catalonia, the misty and flatulent speeches of L’Espoir have a hollow ring of café eloquence. As to the Musée imaginaire-a shrewd imitation of the work of the art critic and historian Elie Faure (whose name Malraux always took great care never to mention)-Georges Duthuit demonstrated long ago in his ferocious and scholarly Musée inimaginable (in three volumes) that Malraux’s foray into art history had probably been his boldest work of fiction.4

In his old age, Malraux confided to Bruce Chatwin (another seductive mythmaker-a lesser prophet perhaps, but a better writer): “In France intellectuals are usually incapable of opening an umbrella.”5 If this observation is true, it may well explain the puzzling and enduring prestige which Malraux always commanded among these same intellectuals: people who are too clumsy to handle their own umbrellas must naturally look with awe at a man who can fire machine guns, drive tanks, and pilot airplanes. (In actual fact, though Malraux organized an air squadron in the Spanish war and styled himself a colonel when he led an armored brigade of French partisans at the end of World War II, his only experience of airplanes was that of a passenger; and he never learned even to drive a car-which I find quite endearing actually, but then I myself often find it difficult to open my umbrella.)

Once you discard the heroic and colorful paraphernalia of the warrior and the adventurer, and confine your scrutiny to the more austere fields of literature and criticism, where stage props and other gimmicks are of little support-in the end, what remains of Malraux’s self-built legend?

Nabokov, who considered Malraux “quite a third-rate writer” and was puzzled by Edmund Wilson’s professed admiration for him (“I am at a loss to understand your liking Malraux’s books-or are you just kidding me?”) commented on La Condition humaine: “From childhood I remember a golden inscription that fascinated me: ‘Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens.’ Malraux’s work belongs to the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Clichés.” And then he pursued and produced an hilarious list of rhetorical questions, asking Wilson to tell him, for instance, “What is the ‘great silence of the Chinese night‘ (try and substitute: ‘the American night,’ ‘the Belgian night,’ etc., and see what happens….)”6

Note, however, that even in France there were a number of connoisseurs who privately expressed similar reservations. Sartre detected the trouble quite early: “Yes, Malraux has got a style-but it is not a good one.” In a letter to Simone de Beauvoir, he confessed: “La Condition humaine is plagued, in turns, with ridiculous passages and with deadly boring pages.” Exactly like Nabokov, he found Malraux’s narrative technique old-fashioned and dismally reminiscent of the worst Soviet fiction. As to Le Temps du Mépris, he simply considered it “deeply abject.” (Nabokov called it “one solid mass of clichés.”) Plodding through L’Espoir, Sartre added: “I am dragging myself through this book which may be full of ideas, but it is so boring! This chap seems to be lacking a little something, but, good God! he is lacking it badly!”7

The novelist and essayist Jacques Chardonne, who had questionable views in some other matters but who unquestionably knew about the subtle art of writing French prose, identified the root of the problem of Malraux’s mumbo-jumbo (his galimatias): “I have attempted to read Malraux, and I became angry. I am not going to do his work for him. Let him first sort out his own ideas. Once he finds out what he is actually thinking, he will become able to express it better and quicker.”8

An ancient Greek philosopher remarked that if horses had gods, these gods would look like horses. Every society puts in its pantheon the icons it deserves and in which it can recognize its own features. Our age has proved so far to be the age of Sham and Amnesia. But at this point you may suspect that the acrimony with which I have deplored Malraux’s entry into the Pantheon in Paris conceals some grudge-well, you would have guessed right.

What irks me is this: in 1935, Boris Souvarine, a former secretary of the Third International who had escaped from Moscow back to Paris, wrote the first documented analysis of Stalin’s murderous political career. This monumental and courageous work remains to this day a landmark in the unmasking of Stalinist crimes. The book was reissued in 1977, not long before Souvarine’s death. In the foreword which he wrote for this new edition, Souvarine recalled the vile and sinister obstacles he had to overcome when, forty years earlier, he first attempted to publish his historical masterpiece in Paris. At the time, the leading figures of the French intelligentsia avoided him as if he had the plague. Malraux, who could have had the book published by Gallimard, flatly refused to support it, but at least he was straightforward and said: “Souvarine, I believe that you and your friends are right. However, at this stage, do not count on me to support you. I shall be on your side when you will be on top.” (Je serai avec vous quand vous serez les plus forts.)9

And yet…

Einstein (who ought to know something on this subject) once observed that good ideas are rare. It seems to me that Malraux hit upon two important truths-which, after all, still represents a respectable record, well above the average that can be expected from most literary men.

1) Malraux, who worshiped T.E. Lawrence and dreamed all his life of imitating him, perceived accurately what made this ambiguous hero truly inimitable. He confided to Roger Stéphane: “In reality, [Lawrence] desired nothing at all. It is prodigiously hard to be a man who wants nothing.10

2) On the very first page of his Antimémoires, he noted one reflection that should stand forever as a glorious counterweight to all the heavy and endless trains of the Compagnie Internationale des Grands Clichés. When he asked an old priest what he had learned about human nature after having spent a lifetime hearing people’s confessions, the man replied: “Fundamentally, there are no grown-ups.”

2. Curtis Cate’s biography of Malraux

Tristan Bernard said that he never read the books he was supposed to review: he was afraid he might become biased. He certainly had a point; the acquisition of knowledge can needlessly complicate many enterprises.

After reading Curtis Cate’s biography of Malraux-a remarkable work, well-researched, perceptive and informative-I realized that, in what I just wrote, I had overlooked one aspect of our subject.

The simple fact is: Malraux was obviously a genius. What exactly he was a genius at, however, is not quite clear.

Nearly all those who came in direct contact with him fell under his spell-and I am not talking here of naive schoolboys but of famous writers, some of whom were twice his age, as well as eminent thinkers, statesmen, leaders of men, saintly monks, cunning old politicians, glamorous socialites, cynical journalists, unworldly priests. When young, he appeared to them as a prodigy; in middle age, he was their hero; old, he became a prophet. At every stage in his life, we gather from Cate, he mesmerized and dazzled a vast and diverse audience. The old Trotsky in exile was so impressed after meeting the feverish and voluble young adventurer that he wrote at once to his New York publishers, urging them to bring out an American edition of La Condition humaine. André Gide-whom the French literati believed to be the twentieth-century Goethe, and who was thirty years Malraux’s senior-was overwhelmed by his conversation and privately complained that he could not keep up with such uninterrupted intellectual fireworks.

Malraux himself had little patience for dull minds: “I do not argue with imbeciles” (which, by the way, might explain why he was such a bad novelist: what is life, after all, but a long dialogue with imbeciles?). The most intelligent interlocutors, subjected to his rapid-fire monologues in relentless and stupefying bursts, felt like inarticulate fools, and the sharpest wits turned speechless. And Cate makes it clear that his rather offensive machismo never discouraged bright and talented women from offering him their passionate love. His first wife was a woman of cosmopolitan culture, who supported him intellectually, spiritually, and financially (Malraux quickly managed to gamble and lose her entire fortune on the stock market-and then told her defiantly: “You really don’t think I am going to work now?”). When she dared to entertain literary ambitions of her own, Cate tells us he warned her: “It is better for you to be my wife than a second-rate writer.”

With his fanciful military record, he still succeeded in inspiring the blind loyalty of authentic war heroes. Though singularly devoid of humor, he won the steadfast affection of one of the wittiest women of his time (Louise de Vilmorin). And even Général de Gaulle (who appointed him as his Minister for Cultural Affairs) endured his most bizarre and ludicrous initiatives with uncharacteristic patience; his cabinet colleagues were puzzled at first, then concluded philosophically: “Malraux is mad, but he amuses the Général.”

His singular magnetism was originally built on impudent lies, then further enriched by a permanent and compulsive mythomania, expressed in an unremitting verbal flow. But in the end, his theatrical performances became convincing and even respectable, for they were sustained by a gallantry that was not counterfeit. When he ventured with his young wife into the Cambodian jungle to dismantle and steal monumental Khmer sculptures, and when he had himself flown over Yemen without maps and without adequate fuel supplies in search of the mythical capital of the Queen of Sheba, he was engaging in questionable or harebrained enterprises (well analyzed by Cate), but these also demanded considerable physical courage. He constantly took enormous risks; he led a restless and dramatic life in restless and dramatic times.

Today, his writings are hardly readable à froid-they are stilted, pompous, hollow, confused, verbose, obscure; but whenever we encounter the man himself-for instance, in the record of his conversations with Roger Stéphane, his faithful and lively Boswell, or in a good biography, such as Cate’s-something of his old magic seems to be at work again. Malraux’s young and beautiful mistress (whose early death in a horrible accident was to shatter him) was once advised by a well-meaning acquaintance to give up a liaison which could hold no future for the daughter of staid bourgeois. According to Cate, she replied, “I prefer a liaison with a fellow like him to a marriage with a tax collector.” Her quixotic choice was to entail much pain and sacrifice, but one can appreciate her wisdom. Malraux could in turns be inspiring and ridiculous, heroic and absurd-he was never mediocre. (And his adventures fired our enthusiasm when we were twenty: if we were to forget this, we would forget the better part of our own youth.)

Cate’s account does not pass judgment but conveys vividly these contradictions, which makes his book fascinating to read. At times, it can be quite funny too-witness this account of the encounter between Malraux and Hemingway shortly after the liberation of Paris in 1944:

During this brief visit to Paris Malraux heard that Ernest Hemingway had arrived with the US Fourth Infantry Division and had flamboyantly “liberated” the Hôtel Ritz. This was too much for Malraux, who decided that he was not going to be upstaged in his home town by the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Crossing the Tuileries Gardens, he headed for the Place Vendôme. In his bedroom, at the Ritz, Hemingway had just removed his army boots and was busy stripping some weapons with several “bodyguards” (FFI “patriots” he had picked up on his way in to the festive capital), when the tall, lean figure of André Malraux appeared in the doorway. He was in uniform, with the five distinctive silver bars of a colonel’s rank on his shoulders.

Bonjour, André,” said Hemingway, as affably as he could.

Bonjour, Ernest,” replied Malraux.

It is not recorded if they shook hands, but since Hemingway’s were smeared with oil, it is quite possible that they dispensed with this formality.

How many men have you commanded?” Malraux asked.

Dix ou douze,” answered Hemingway casually. “Au plus, deux cents.” Since he was supposed to be a war correspondent, he could not reasonably boast of having commanded more.

Moi, deux mille,” announced Malraux, whose look of triumph was ruined by a facial tic.

This was an affront Hemingway was not prepared to take lying down, particularly from a Frenchman who had rushed to the support of Republican Spain months before his own tardy appearance on the scene, and whose novel, L’Espoir, had outpaced his For Whom the Bell Tolls by several years.

Quel dommage!” said Hemingway with icy sarcasm, “that we didn’t have the assistance of your force when we took this small town of Paris!”

If [Malraux] winced, Hemingway later did not bother to record it…. Their conversation, in any case, must have been lacking in cordiality. For we have his word for it-it became one of Ernest’s favourite dinner table stories-that one of his bodyguards beckoned Hemingway into the bathroom and asked, “Papa, on peut fusiller ce con?”

But didn’t Malraux himself warn us? “There are no grown-ups….” > The language of Phidias’ forms or of those of the pediment of Olympia, humanistic though it is, is also as specific as that of the masters of Chartres and Babylon or of abstract sculptures, because, like that of the great Italians of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it simultaneously modifies the representation and its style.

Between [Cézanne]’s Still Life with Clock, which strives only to be painting, and his canvases which have become a style, there resurfaces the call which raises up Bach over and against negro music, and Piero della Francesca over and against barbarian arts-the art of mastery, as opposed to that of the miracle.

  1. 1

    In November last year, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, Malraux was awarded the form of immortality which the French nation bestows upon its most illustrious cultural heroes: his mortal remains were moved with great pomp into the Pantheon in Paris.

  2. 2

    La Tragédie de la Révolution chinoise, translated by R. Viénet (Paris: Gallimard, 1967).

  3. 3

    J. Andrieu, “Mais que se sont dit Mao et Malraux?” in Perspectives chinoises, No. 37, October 1996. (An abridged version of this article was published in Le Nouveau Quotidien, Lausanne, December 3, 1996.)

  4. 4

    Georges Duthuit, Le Musée inimaginable (Paris: José Corti, 1956). Duthuit pointed out, with great scholarly accuracy, the countless historical howlers in Malraux’s Musée imaginaire: les voix du silence. He also exposed his hollowness, obscurity, logical non sequiturs, and other factual mistakes. His demonstration (in two volumes of text and one volume of illustrations) was brilliant, rigorous, and devastating-but it only reached a small circle of specialized scholars. Its main finding was that Malraux’s philosophy of art was built upon a flimsy and inaccurate history.

  5. 5

    Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here (Viking, 1989), p. 133.

  6. 6

    The Nabokov-Wilson Letters 1940-1971, edited by Simon Karlinsky (Harper and Row, 1979), p. 175.

  7. 7

    Jean-Paul Sartre, Lettres au Castor, Volume 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), pp. 159, 167, 163, 192.

  8. 8

    Letter to Roger Nimier, January 8, 1953, in Jacques Chardonne-Roger Nimier Correspondance (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), p. 91. Two samples of Malraux’s galimatias (out of possible hundreds) are provided by Curtis Cate (p. 372):

    Or again:

  9. 9

    Boris Souvarine, Staline (Paris: Champ Libre, 1977), pp. 11-12.

  10. 10

    Roger Stéphane, André Malraux, entretiens et précisions (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), p. 91.

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