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In the Thick of Things

Malraux: A Life

by Olivier Todd, translated from the French by Joseph West
Knopf, 541 pp., $35.00

Signed, Malraux

by Jean-François Lyotard,translated from the French by Robert Harvey
University of Minnesota Press, 326 pp., $59.95; $19.95 (paper)

Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960

by David Caute
Macmillan, 413 pp. (1964; out of print)

L’État culturel: Une religion moderne (The Culture State: Essay on a Modern Religion)

by Marc Fumaroli
Paris: Fallois, 412 pp. (1999; out of print)

The God That Failed

edited by R.H.S. Crossman
Harper, 273 pp. (1959; out of print)
Paperback edition published in 2001 is available from Columbia University Press.

Malraux and Corniglion-Molinier in Search of Sheba: An Arabian Adventure

by Walter G. Langlois
Revue André Malraux Review, Vol. 31, Nos. 1–2 (2002–2003),158 pp., $25.00


With remarkable equanimity, we have since 2001 assimilated into our political metabolism a new Department of Homeland Security, complete with a presidentially appointed secretary, swarming bureaucracy, and enhanced budget. The department already occupies an important position in the Washington pecking order. On the other hand, it is not hard to identify a new executive department whose proposed creation would be met not with equanimity but with furious resistance from all sides: a Department of National Culture. Most Americans believe that their culture should grow out of the free marketplace of ideas, fashions, and institutions, not out of a state command system. Our knowledge of Nazism and Soviet communism has faded but not vanished. Fortunately one of the few books that inoculate us against totalitarianism, Orwell’s 1984, is still widely read in schools. We shall not soon have a secretary of culture.

Fifty years ago we did indulge in a brief flirtation with a minister of culture—but not our own. The episode seems to belong in an earlier century. At the end of 1962, at the invitation of President Kennedy and of our fairy-tale first lady, and with the urging of President De Gaulle, the Resistance hero, celebrated novelist, and minister of culture André Malraux escorted Leonardo’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre to the United States. The painting traveled alone in its own first-class cabin aboard the liner Le France.1 It was exhibited in the National Gallery and in the Metropolitan Museum. All parties to the grandiose occasion, including the delighted press, conspired to turn it into a choreographed reaffirmation of marriage vows between France and the United States during a major cold war crisis in French–American relations. In photographs the event looks like a royal wedding.

But I suspect that many Americans would identify Malraux not as the diplomat of high culture but as the plain-spoken national custodian of everything French, who decided it was high time to give the façades of Paris public buildings a good scrubbing. When he did so, even the scoffers granted that it was a success.

Who, then, is this Malraux figure that we should honor him? Or perhaps mock him?

The first major entry in Malraux’s curriculum vitae landed the impecunious, fearless, twenty-three-year-old adventurer in front of a spiteful French colonial judge in Phnom Penh. Caught attempting to loot Khmer statues from a crumbling temple, Malraux spent six months under house arrest and received a three-year prison sentence for an offense that French colonial officials could commit with impunity. Malraux’s friends and supporters among Paris writers and intellectuals raised enough rumpus to have his sentence suspended and to bring him home. He soon returned to Indochina, where with a local lawyer he founded a hard-hitting anticolonialist newspaper. They wrote, edited, printed, and distributed the paper in Saigon from June to December 1925 in the face of bitter and sometimes violent opposition from colonial authorities. Malraux spent two and a half years in Indochina and returned to Paris at twenty-five with a contradictory notoriety as brazen thief and political hero. Could he survive this opening?

The following eight years through 1933 form the most intensely literary period of Malraux’s career. He became an editor and artistic director at the Gallimard publishing house. He and his German-born wife traveled widely, including a trip around the world. Most significantly, he wrote, revised, and published three major novels. The third and best of them, Man’s Fate (1933), based on the Chinese Communist revolution of 1927, won the prestigious Goncourt Prize and became a best seller in several languages.

Early in 1934, flush with his royalties and sponsored by a Paris newspaper, Malraux and a pilot friend made a daring four-week aerial foray to Yemen on the Red Sea. Their inflated but not baseless claims of having discovered from the air the buried ruins of the capital city of the Queen of Sheba catapulted the two explorers onto the front pages of European newspapers. Dismissed as an unprofessional escapade and welcomed as the discovery of a new aerial approach to archaeological exploration, the Yemen trip provoked controversy that continues to this day. The veteran and enthusiastic Malraux scholar Walter G. Langlois recently published a detailed narrative and reassessment of the Sheba expedition in the Revue André Malraux Review. Langlois credits Malraux not with intellectual exhibitionism but with love of bizarre adventures, of genuine personal risk, and of out-of-the-way research. With its Arabian desert backdrop, Langlois’s account provides a vivid portrait of Malraux in his thirties.

Malraux flew back to Paris in time to be swept up in fierce arguments over Trotsky’s banishment to France. After Malraux visited Trotsky in hiding, the Soviet exile devoted a long, generally favorable review to Malraux’s first novel, The Conquerors. Trotsky also advised Malraux to read Marx more carefully.

After 1934, Malraux became increasingly the spokesman for antifascist sentiments widely embraced by Communist Party members and sympathizers. Though he accepted an invitation to travel to Moscow to attend the First Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, he gave a passionate speech in favor of the independence of the writer to reject the new Party line of “socialist realism.” On the last day of the congress, Malraux proposed a show-stopping toast to Trotsky, Stalin’s fiercest enemy. Malraux never joined the Party. The prominent French author André Gide had also plunged into an intensely political period by 1935. One or both of the two writers seemed to preside over, or address, every major antifascist meeting, conference, parade, and rally in Paris until the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936. That development changed the scene, the plot, and the cast of characters of left-wing politics in Europe.

Malraux felt no inclination to flee the looming war clouds and he remained in the thick of things. Without being a pilot himself, he organized and commanded the first Republican squadron of bombers and fighters (piloted by foreigners) in combat. The fruit of Malraux’s three tumultuous years in support of the Spanish Republicans was a tautly written war novel, Man’s Hope (1937), and a stunning semidocumentary film based on the novel’s closing scenes. After the fall of France to Nazi troops, Malraux was taken prisoner while serving in the Resistance under the name of Colonel Berger. He resumed his own name while commanding a sturdy brigade of French troops during the final campaign to retake Strasbourg. During his several years under arms, Malraux was wounded and decorated less frequently than some of his admirers claimed. Yet he displayed remarkable qualities of leadership and courage.

There was to be no intermission. After the liberation, Malraux distanced himself from left-wing causes and threw himself into writing, editing, speaking, and organizing for De Gaulle’s new political party. When De Gaulle finally came to power in 1958, he appointed Malraux to the important position of minister of culture, where he remained until De Gaulle’s entire government resigned in 1969. During that decade, Malraux carried out an ambitious program of conservation, education, cultural exchange, and encouraging the arts. He also found time for his own writing (on the arts and his memoirs), for editorial work for Gallimard, and for missions and trips to every continent. During ten relatively happy and healthy final years, Malraux maintained his program of writing, speaking, and travel. He was no malingerer.

I’m put in mind of a miniaturized version of Malraux’s life to be found in Jack Teagarden’s wistful vocal rendition of Ira Gershwin’s “Can’t Get Started” of the 1930s:

I’ve been around the world in a plane,

I’ve settled revolutions in Spain,

I’ve got a house, a showplace,

Still I can’t get no place

With you.

Women occupied a significant and troubled part of Malraux’s life, but getting started does not appear to have been a major obstacle.

It is difficult to give this Protean life a simple outline or to probe far enough into it to find key character traits. But the mass of documentation and controversy that heaps high around Malraux’s name yields two historic incidents and two oracular fictional scenes that seem more revealing than most other items.

Twice, riding on his fame as novelist, public figure, and adventurer and on the spellbinding power of his speeches, Malraux addressed an over-excited meeting of leftists in the immense auditorium of La Mutualité in Paris. Each time he struck an effective blow against the impending Communist takeover of the French left. In 1935, presiding with Gide in Paris over the First International Writers’ Congress in Defense of Culture, Malraux did not so much as mention the latest Party directive for writers: socialist realism. Gide’s and Malraux’s firmness prevented the congress from becoming primarily a front for Communist propaganda.2

Ten years later in the same Left Bank auditorium, representatives from war-time Resistance groups met to discuss whether or not to “fuse” into the Communist-run National Front. It was a crucial moment. Speakers raised their fists. Called back from the Alsace front where his brigade was deeply engaged in the liberation of Strasbourg, Malraux, in his colonel’s uniform with riding boots and insignia, provided the major voice in turning the vote against fusion and against further Soviet encroachment inside France. From this moment on, Malraux threw his unconditional support to General De Gaulle, who finally slowed the growth of the Communist Party in France. Malraux rarely failed to find the appropriate beau geste for an important public occasion.

Those who have read some of Malraux’s writings are probably familiar with the many oracular passages in his fiction. Two such moments strike me as particularly revealing. The central character in Man’s Fate, Kyo, a Communist organizer of mixed parentage in Shanghai just before the 1927 revolution, listens to a recording of an unfamiliar male voice. He is shocked to discover that it is his own voice. Told that this error often happens the first time, Kyo’s dismay over not recognizing himself is not dispelled by the information that we are accustomed to hearing ourselves not through the ear but through the throat. The sudden failure of (self)consciousness provoked by this little incident reinforces in Malraux’s universe the interior discrepancy that the teenage poet Rimbaud expressed through faulty syntax: Je est un autre (“I is another”). Kyo, Malraux, and Rimbaud are sailing close to the reef of solipsism. Neither action nor introspection will eliminate the peril of losing touch with oneself. Who is that out there? Or in here? There is ample reason to find Malraux’s fiction as metaphysical as it is psychological.

When, in his sixties, Malraux sat down to write his memoirs, he entitled them Antimemoirs and opened with a weighty conversation with a priest about death and confession. Melodramatically, “the priest raises his woodsman’s arm in the star-filled night” and pronounces the words that become the leitmotif of Antimemoirs, of many of Malraux’s other writings, and of his public career:

  1. 1

    One of Malraux’s proposals was to have the treasured painting transferred in mid-Atlantic from a French to an American battleship.

  2. 2

    I have devoted a long essay to this remarkable congress, which provides a commanding view of the international political turmoil during the Red decade. See “Having Congress: The Shame of the Thirties,” in The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts (ArtWorks/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003).

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