André Malraux
André Malraux; drawing by David Levine

Of all the outstanding figures in contemporary French literature, André Malraux is probably the most difficult to assess. At times he appears as a remarkable genius, one of the key writers of the first half of the twentieth century, with a range of reference in life and art that no one else can equal. At other times, he exasperates by a certain looseness of texture or assertive jumpiness; we begin to wonder if we are dealing with an entirely solid achievement, or with something that is partly collective mirage, like the legend of T. E. Lawrence—significantly, no doubt, one of the culture heroes by whom Malraux was most inspired. Are the obscurities and apparent contradictions of the life sublimated in the works? Are the works themselves as rich as they first appear, or do they eventually break down into a number of conflicting attitudes, reiterated in different guises?

About Malraux’s extraordinariness as a man and a writer, there can be no argument, however much one may wish to query certain details. His name was legendary, at least in intellectual and political circles, before De Gaulle had ever been heard of and before Churchill won really international fame in 1940, and yet he was much younger than either of these now celebrated men, since, unlike them, he was born after the turn of the century, in 1901. He has been identified with some of the most notable events of contemporary history: the Chinese Revolution, the development of Communist Russia, the Spanish Civil War, the struggle against Nazism, the French Resistance Movement, and the “resurgence” of France under the Gaullist presidential monarchy. He has written novels which crystalize some of these experiences in a very graphic way. Although these works are not, for the most part, strictly documentary or autobiographical, Malraux is unique among contemporary novelists in having played a major personal role in the sort of political adventure he describes. While it was not he, but Sartre, who popularized the term engagement (commitment), he seems to have practiced commitment in a much more impressive way than Sartre, long before Sartre became prominent. He also expressed the concepts of the “Absurd” and “Existentialist Man,” well in advance of the time when these terms became part of common parlance. He was something of a pioneer in eroticism, helping to popularize Les Liaisons dangereuses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in two famous essays and embodying in his novels that mixture of sex and action which has become such a commonplace in the modern world. Finally, in later years, he has taken the whole of world art as his province and produced several large volumes of speculations about the function of art in the history of mankind. For all these reasons, he might be hailed as the most representative humanist of his time, and as a much grander figure than Camus or Orwell or any of the other possible contenders for the title.

MY DOUBTS about his ultimate position arise from a combination of personal and literary impressions. I remember, a few years ago, tuning in to the French radio and hearing an unknown voice delivering a highly rhetorical speech in the quavering, over-emotional tones characteristic of old-fashioned French politicians. I listened to the end to discover who this weirdly pompous orator could be and was staggered to learn that it was André Malraux. Since then, I have seen him on French television performing in a similar over-emphatic and uneasy manner. Then there is something peculiar about his accepting the post of Minister for Culture in the Gaullist Government. I am not repeating the usual complaint that he has moved from Left to Right; the concepts of Left and Right may be partly irrelevant in this case, and anyhow, if he thinks he has good reasons for the political shift, he is obviously entitled to make it. It is the position itself which seems rather inappropriate; one does not expect the author of La Condition humaine and Les Voix du Silence to become the French Mme. Furtseva; it is rather as if Prometheus had become manager of a match factory. In an article in a recent number of the Journal of Contemporary History, “Malraux, Revolutionist and Minister,” Mr. Davis Wilkinson has argued forcibly that, by this practical encouragement of culture, Malraux is remaining faithful to his basic principles, but I am not altogether convinced. When Malraux has not been at home attending gala performances of Carmen with visiting heads of state, or cleaning historic monuments, or getting involved in squabbles with the Comédie Française about its liking for nineteenth-century bedroom farce, or with the cinema industry about the stupid banning of the film, La Religieuse, or with eminent musicians about the national music policy, he has gone all over the world on cultural occasions or with traveling exhibitions. As some anti-Gaullist, French observers have pointed out, during these journeys he has shown a curious tendency to confuse the greatness of art with national prestige, even to the point of hailing the exhibition of the Mona Lisa in Japan as a kind of French achievement. Recently, in Egypt, he drew a very strange parallel between that country and France in respect of their ancient greatness and modern revival. One cannot help feeling that he has come to prefer words and gestures to works and actions—unless, of course, behind the smoke-screen of cultural fuss, he is preparing some new and astonishing book which will give these impressions the lie.


In reading his works, I go through conflicting phases of admiration and bafflement. There are superbly vivid and successful passages in all of them; some of the most memorable episodes are to be found, for instance, in the early book, La Voie Royale, which he himself has not included in the Pléïade collected edition, presumably because he is dissatisfied with it. But the difficulty, in each case, is to decide where the center of gravity of the novel lies and to bring the various parts into focus to form an artistic whole. I must have read La Condition humaine half a dozen times by now, but I still cannot see it clearly in my mind’s eye as I think I can see La Nausée, say, or A la recherche du temps perdu. This is partly, of course, because Malraux is usually describing large social movements—political parties, armies, colonial communities, native tribes—at the same time as he is presenting the actions of certain outstanding individuals. But it may also be that his attitude towards his material is an extreme case of artistic ambiguity verging on the incoherent. He may write the various passages in different moods which are not organically related to each other, because, as it were, there is no moderately settled personality at the center to which they can relate. Who is André Malraux? One doesn’t feel aware of him as an identifiable man, as one is aware of Camus, or Sartre, or Proust. One has read about his brilliantly voluble conversation and his nervously twitching features, but it is difficult to get the sense of his individual presence. It might be said that this is a sign of great ability, if the work is otherwise good, because, after all. Shakespeare is another anonymous writer. But if Shakespeare doesn’t exist, his characters do, whereas Malraux’s, however elaborately described, have no fullness. They occur intensely in individual scenes, yet are as difficult to see in the round as their inventor. They inhabit a series of critical moments—political, erotic, intellectual—and are usually in the grip of a strong, physical sensation, darkness or flashing lights, noise or intense silence, fever or pulsating pain. When the scene is over, it is as if the character had been switched off; there is no gradation between that vision of it and the next. And the reader is still left with the problem of coordinating the separate vivid episodes.

THESE RESERVATIONS find an echo in some of the twelve essays by eminent American, French, and other critics, included in Mr. Lewis’s very useful collection, although, on the whole, the writers are enthusiastic in their praise of Malraux. Most of the material is not new, and indeed goes back as far as Trotsky’s article on Les Conquérants, published in 1931, and Edmund Wilson’s comment on La Condition humaine, published in 1933. It is obviously impossible to review such a wealth of opinion expressed by such varied critics, who also include the late Claude-Edmonde Magny, the author of a wonderfully penetrating essay, and Professor W. M. Frohock, whose book, André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination, remains, I think, the best full-length study of Malraux that has so far appeared. I cannot do more than pick out one or two points that strike me particularly. I wonder, for instance, why Mr. Wilson, who has always taken a special interest in the connection between politics and literature, has never dealt at length with the full range of Malraux’s novels (I take it that he hasn’t, or his later essays would have been referred to, or included, in this book). Can his failure to treat such an obvious subject be an accident, or does it indicate some hesitation about Malraux’s ultimate value? Then I notice that the critics vary a great deal in their assessments of individual novels: M. Gaëtan Picon thinks that L’Espoir is probably the best, and Mr. Joseph Frank calls it “this magnificent but greatly underestimated book,” whereas Mr. Lewis, in his Introduction, says that in spite of some uncommonly fine individual episodes, it strikes him “as a showy and ultimately rather tiresome performance.” Other critics devote most attention to the last novel Les Noyers de l’Altenburg; however, Mme. Magny downgrades it, and continues to consider La Condition humaine as Malraux’s masterpiece.


The central problem, I think, is the one touched upon by Trotsky thirty-five years ago: What is the philosophy behind the action in Malraux’s writings? Trotsky complained that the protagonists of Les Conquérants were not truly Marxist, and Malraux replied, justifiably, that they were not obliged to be, since they were characters in a piece of fiction that he had invented. Still, his heroes must embody something. As the critics have pointed out, they engage in action 1) to escape from their individualistic isolation through common effort; 2) to “be,” since man is what he does; 3) to test themselves in extreme situations; 4) to demonstrate the unconquerable spirit of man in face of the universe; 5) to show their fraternal solidarity with the oppressed and the suffering. They could, of course, satisfy ambitions 1 to 4 by being pioneers, or explorers, or courageous adventurers of any other kind, and this, in fact, is what they mainly are in La Voie Royale, Les Conquérants, and Les Noyers de l’Altenburg; in this case, the content of the struggle is relatively unimportant, it is the struggle that counts, and it is significant, for instance, that the narrator in Les Conquérants should express a certain admiration for the English who, ideologically, are the enemy.

MALRAUX IS NOT POSITIVELY FASCIST in temperament, because he is not in favor of the oppression of others as a means of self-realization (except perhaps in the sexual relationship; he writes practically nothing about love, but he keeps reverting to the idea that the man’s erotic urge is to subject the woman to his will and to appreciate her submission as an objective-subjective experience). But it cannot be said that any of his heroes has a very definite political view of the society they are struggling towards, or even that there is any permanent relationship between them and the society they are dealing with. They frequently find themselves in a foreign setting—Perken in Siam, Vincent Berger in Turkey, Africa, and Asia—and they “leave their scar on the map,” to quote Perken’s phrase, by manipulating the alien community, as T. E. Lawrence is thought to have manipulated the Arabs. In each case, a Western individual is imposing his concept of unity and cooperation on an under-developed society (there are some purely Asian heroes, but their psychology does not seem very different from that of the Westerners, and this makes one wonder if they are not Westerners in disguise). This is a heroic form of secular, missionary zeal, yet it is not altogether free from what might be called psychological colonialism. One appreciates the romanticism of Berger being sent by Enver Pasha along the road to Samarkand to enquire into the possibility of a Turcoman movement, but what emotion is the reader supposed to feel on reading the account of the attempt and its failure? Malraux suggests a kind of noble disappointment at the tribes’ unwillingness to accept the ideal. Yet if they want to go on living as an amorphous mass, why shouldn’t they and, strictly speaking, what business is it of Berger’s? He is really a soldier of fortune enjoying the exercise of his personality through temporary identification with Enver’s ambition. Within the context of the book, this is partly explained by the fact that, as an Alsatian torn between France and Germany, he has no native setting. However, the psychological gap between the agent and the community he is acting upon is a commonplace with Malraux’s heroes. This being so, it is curious that he should show so little interest in Napoleon and Stalin, two foreigners who manipulated continents in the name of their adopted nation-states and certainly left scars on the map. He prefers T. E. Lawrence, presumably because he is more in sympathy with the worried, uneasy temperament that enjoys the pathos of its own failure; Napoleon and Stalin were too successful, untroubled, and unscrupulous.

THERE IS A SLIGHTLY DUBIOUS emotional vibration here which bothers me. Malraux’s heroes, and presumably Malraux himself, can switch suddenly from the assertive to the recessive mood and one seems to be expected to sympathize with them in both, yet the assertion and the recession are neither firmly enough grounded nor adequately interlinked. To quote the case of Berger again—he helps Enver in warlike enterprises and becomes a famous character, a military leader, etc. Later, during the 1914-18 war, he is a German officer fighting on the Russian Front when the Germans try out a new poison gas for the first time. There is a long scene during which he listens to the ordinary German soldiers chatting among themselves, and we are obviously meant to be touched by the naive, incoherent philosophy of the common man, who is the reverse of an adventurer. Then the attack is mounted by the crass, dislikeable scientist who has invented the gas, while Berger looks on. The results of the poison are so horrible that the German soldiers, instead of carrying out the order to move forward, bring the dying Russians back towards the ambulances. Berger joins in this rescue operation and succumbs to the gas. The whole episode is wonderfully described and might be taken as a classic example of how human solidarity transcends national differences, if the emotion behind it were not rather uncertain. It is seen largely through the eyes of Berger and the scientist is made to carry the major burden of guilt. This would be acceptable if Berger were a pacifist or had a definite humanistic attitude towards the war, but he hasn’t. He himself has taken an active part in fighting elsewhere, and there can only be a difference of degree between the horrors he has accepted as legitimate military necessities when he has been in charge and this gas attack. We might suppose that he goes to his death on this occasion to atone for his former acceptance of brutal activism, but if this is so, the point is not made clear. My impression is, rather, that Malraux has switched to the recessive mood and has turned Berger into a pure spectator who savors the horror of the situations that mankind gets itself into, and has forgotten that Berger, given his past, is hardly entitled to be such a pure spectator. Claude-Edmonde Magny, in discussing the novels in general, seems to put her finger on the problem when she says:

All Malraux’s works are…torn, without hope of resolution, between at least two positions: a basic antihumanism (which is represented, depending on the circumstances, by intellectual pride, the will to power, eroticism, and so on), and an ultimately irrational aspiration towards charity, a rationally unjustifiable choice in favour of man.

The point can perhaps be made clearer by a comparison. A similar, unresolved tension between adventurism and sentimental humanism is observable in one of Malraux’s French contemporaries, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is a lesser figure as a writer, but an attractive personality and possibly an emanation of the same historical mood. His activism centers on the early airplane, which he takes as an instrument of heroism, as Malraux uses exploration and revolution (and Montherlant bull-fighting). He glorifies the pioneer airmen who risked their lives carrying mail bags in unreliable airplanes during bad weather and, at intervals, he soliloquizes about the charms of home and security and the pastoral beauty of the lives of humble people who go about their daily tasks. He never asks himself why a man should put his life in jeopardy to carry a batch of business letters through a storm and, in this respect, his activism is more gratuitous than Malraux’s, which usually has the justification of a political crisis; he merely switches from the natural human thirst for danger to the natural human love of the pastoral ideal. In his last work, Citadelle, which is a semi-biblical, pastoral allegory with slightly Fascist overtones, he tried to bring the two tendencies together, but it is generally agreed that the book is not successful.

ONE OF THE FURTHER DIFFICULTIES about Malraux is that we have no full or authorized account of the various episodes of his extraordinary life. As W. M. Frohock points out, Malraux himself could have shed light on some of the mysterious incidents, such as his activities in China, if he had cared to do so. Although it has been rumored from time to time that he was working on his memoirs, no autobiographical writings have so far appeared. Mr. Langois’s book seems to go as far as possible towards elucidating what can be learned from external sources about Malraux’s early adventures in Indo-China, when he was brought to trial by the French authorities for the illegal removal of Annamite statues. As one might guess from the fictionalized version given in La Voie Royale, Malraux appears to have been technically in the wrong in taking it upon himself to appropriate antique works of art, even though they had been neglected by the authorities. Having fallen foul of the colonial administration, he saw its deficiencies and broadened his personal quarrel into a spirited fight on behalf of the natives by editing an anti-official paper, L’Indochine. At first, his approach was conservative, in that he merely sought to reform French rule, but as the opposition became stronger, he moved to a more radical position. Mr. Langois maintains that the Indochinese experience was crucial for his development, and he takes a much simpler view of Malraux’s psychological motivations than the one I have suggested above. For him, Malraux is a straightforward anti-Fascist who has spent forty years in a passionate struggle on behalf of the dignity and freedom of mankind.

MR. RIGHTER ADDRESSES HIMSELF to a question which is touched on in two or three of the essays in Mr. Lewis’s collection: Why has Malraux, the man of action and the novelist, become the Malraux who discourses at such length about art in Le Musée imaginaire, Les Voix du Silence, etc.? One answer is that Malraux was already interested in the fine arts before he began writing and has maintained that interest all his life; what was formerly a secondary preoccupation has now become uppermost. Another is that Malraux’s peculiar brand of art-writing, which is neither criticism, nor art history, nor aesthetics, is making the same point as his novels. Just as the novels are about the surging and ebbing of the human will on the level of individual or social action, so Malraux deals with works of art as comparable attempts to transcend the human condition. The internationalism of the novels corresponds to the universality of art. Malraux ranges all over the globe and throughout history to establish parallels between forms of art that are remote from each other in respect of time and place. The “imaginary museum” is that ideal imaginative area where the individual, thanks to reproductions which bring all art within his purview, can feel himself at one with the creative self-assertiveness of mankind. This is an expression of tragic optimism; although men and civilizations die, aesthetic forms, released to some extent from their original significance, survive and can be apprehended by human consciousness everywhere. Malraux is thus deliberately refuting the pessimism of Möllberg, one of the characters in Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, who explains that he has abandoned the attempt to write a great anthropological synthesis, because his experience of Africa has made nonsense of the notion of man. Malraux is rising above such despair by eloquently summoning himself and others to see the identity of man in the timelessness of art.

On the whole, Mr. Righter is more in sympathy with Malraux’s effort than are those art historians, such as Professor Gombrich, who have criticized Malraux for wrenching works of art from their contexts in order to rhapsodize about them. Mr. Righter argues that there may be more truth in a direct, unscholarly emotional response to a remote work of art than in the careful, but always doubtful, reconstruction of its contemporary significance. He is also favorably disposed towards “the rhetorical hero” who, in writing about art, uses the resources of his rich, literary style to urge the reader into an excited awareness of the grandeur of man. However, in the end, Mr. Righter blows cold as well as hot and, as if he were in two minds himself, expresses serious reservations both about Malraux’s method and his basic principle:

With the excitatory rhetoric so prolonged, the conjoining of the remote and the exotic under great emotional pressure becomes more blurring than revealing. The air of exaltation, the heightening of style tend to treat the most banal and the most fantastic, the most recessive and the most demanding works in exactly the same tone…The expressive gesture isolated for its own sake may be a curiously abstract ground for that vision of humanity that the Museum is intended to house. A concentration on the expressive, the gestural, the stylistic contour, has somehow subtly dehumanized the works themselves.

THIS IS TRUE, but I think the fundamental weakness of Malraux’s art books, in spite of their brilliance and incidental fascination and the wealth of knowledge they display, is the same as the weakness of the novels. He is juxtaposing moments of perception and implying a unity that is never realized. It may also be that there is something sentimental in his passionate urge to postulate a unitary concept of man; it is almost as if he were trying to make up for the disunity of characterization in his novels. Supposing he demonstrated, on the basis of the forms and styles of art, that, in spite of the bewildering variety of races and means of expression, there is a common denominator in all the manifestations of human nature in every place and at every time, he would be showing that, contrary to Sartrian Existentialism, essence precedes existence. In fact, most of us—including, I suspect, even Sartre himself, since this is after all a verbal quibble—work on the assumption that existence (including the creation of art) brings out the latent, potential essence, which may be infinitely malleable; we are obliged to assume this on pain of total incoherence. But although we may believe in, or establish, a kind of human coherence, this is a very faint gesture in face of the Absurd, which is all around us and peeps through every chink in language and art and mood. And, in any case, this human coherence, if it exists, is an aspect of our given nature, however much we may have to strive to apprehend it, and therefore its existence is not a human conquest, but a datum of creation. It is “natural” that the struggle towards apprehension should engender emotion in us, but to cherish and magnify that emotion for its own sake may be to devote energy to theatrical, Promethean gestures. Anyone who pretends he is “God,” or can defy “God,” is, in the last resort, like a little boy trying to pull himself up by his boot-straps. Malraux is not altogether exempt from such boyish romanticism. I think Claude-Edmonde Magny is suggesting something of this kind when she writes, in the essay already quoted, about Malraux’s “pride and ingenuousness” and says that his philosophy “is characteristically lacking in humility” (although her criticism, unlike mine, is motivated to some extent by a belief in transcendence; for reasons unknown to me, she eventually subscribed to the Greek Orthodox religion). It is true that all artists are, in a sense, “remaking creation” and expressing their human need to rearrange the given by a perpetually renewed invention and manipulation of forms; it is also true that a great many of them have suffered nobly in the process. But to look upon their achievement as a unitary conquest of fate is to elevate a metaphor into a metaphysical absolute—a common enough procedure, of course, in the rhetoric of religions and substitute religions.

This Issue

October 6, 1966