Mythmaker

André Malraux: A Biography

by Curtis Cate
Fromm, 451 pp., $29.95

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….)

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). 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 …

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