André Malraux
André Malraux; drawing by David Levine

“What books are worth writing, except Memoirs?”

The Conquerers, 1928

In 1965 President De Gaulle sent his Minister for Cultural Affairs to visit the Chinese leaders in their heartland. André Malraux had staked his spiritual claim on the Orient more than thirty years earlier with four books, and no one had challenged it. The move was an obvious one for De Gaulle, and a mission not without excitement for Malraux. Probably in order to find rest and resume his writing interrupted since 1957, he traveled by water. The name of the liner, Cambodia, recalled his earlier trips to the Far East. That corruptly administered French colony was the scene of his arrest and trial in 1924, actions which provoked strong protests from many Paris writers. Moreover, the opening sequences of his first two novels take place at sea.

Malraux carried on board with him in 1965 a small library, including his most recent novel, Wrestling with the Angel (La Lutte avec l’ange). The first part had been published in 1943 as The Walnut Trees of Altenburg: the second part, of which an unfinished manuscript had been destroyed or lost by the Gestapo, was announced as still “in progress” in 1965. He had almost a month to work on it in the privileged calm of shipboard life. But instead of returning to the novel, he found himself writing an extended, self-revealing, magnificently eloquent log of the trip, a reweaving of his life back into his work. He chose a counter-title, implying a new genre: Anti-Memoirs. It is as if, beneath the keel of that slow boat to China and inside this substantial volume, Malraux’s past has begun slowly surfacing, like an unknown creature from the deep. When it does, as in the China sequence recounting his conversation with Mao Tse-tung over the fate of hemispheres, the pace of things has slowed and deepened in order to encompass that past. Malraux completes his circumnavigation by air over the Pole and returns to Paris a changed man, not so much because of the trip as because of the unexpected book the trip has spawned.

This much information, at least, can be deduced readily from internal evidence. This much, and possibly more—barely discernible, bringing a note of private lyricism that is unexpected in Malraux. Granted the mood is half shrouded in rhetoric. I quote from the second page of the French text in my own translation.

Why do I remember these things?

Because, having lived in that uncertain country of thought and fiction that artists inhabit, as well as in the world of combat and history, having discovered in Asia when I was twenty a continent whose turmoil still illuminated the meaning of the Occident, I have encountered at intervals those humble or exalted moments in which the fundamental enigma of life appears to each of us as it appears to most women on looking into an infant’s face, as it appears to most men on looking into the face of a corpse. In all forms of whatever draws us on through life, in every struggle I have seen against humiliation, and even in you, sweetness so pure that one marvels how you can walk upon the earth, life seems to spring forth as from the gods of vanishing religions, like the libretto for an unknown music.

Unaccountably, the only words that seem to have been dropped from 400 pages of the American edition are the two personal pronouns, toi and tu. But the American edition does contain something not in the French edition: a prominent dedication “For Mrs. John Fitzgerald Kennedy.” Malraux’s friends have known for some time of the deep attachment he formed for la Présidente, whom he escorted in 1961 to the Jeu de Paume museum and to Malmaison and saw several times after that in the United States. She must appear to him a complex creature: a living statue, the star of stars, a person more scarred by history than he will ever be, the very embodiment of sweetness.

MALRAUX’S POSITION in French intellectual life today is a curiously ambiguous one. Young activists and revolutionaries still admire his exploits in China and Spain and the books that grew out of them. They cannot bear his apparently unwavering association with De Gaulle, with a party, and with a governmental office. As Minister of Cultural Affairs, Malraux has initiated reforms that have little originality. The Maisons de la Culture in the provinces are, even in name, a page out of the Communists’ ideological battles of the Thirties. Commissioning Chagall to paint the ceiling of the Opéra seemed quite a coup until someone pointed out that Lenin had employed him for the same purpose in Moscow thirty years before.

It has been, in fact, a troubled year for Malraux. The promotional campaign that surrounded the Paris publication of Antimémoires, including radio and television appearances and a long-playing record, was widely interpreted as a kind of official propaganda effort designed to cover up unrest and use Malraux’s prestige to bolster the government. When he intervened last winter in the administration of the Cinema-thèque and tried to relieve its director, Langlois, of his responsibilities, Malraux had to back at least half way down. He summarily fired Jean-Louis Barrault for turning over the Odéon theater to students in May. Malraux himself played no public role during the May Days until they were practically over. Then, on June 21, he appeared on Europe I in an interview that came as a kind of summation. “First of all, there has been a real crisis over the idea of hierarchy. It is not easy to see because theoretically what people put forward against hierarchy is the idea of disorder.” He went on to speak of the drama inherent in the fact that Christian culture continues even though Christian faith has disappeared as a sustaining force. “Today, in a way, civilization exists in a vacuum and is going nowhere.” As a Minister Malraux is not being listened to very attentively. As a writer, however, he has not lost his audience.



“ANTI-MEMOIRS” opens with ten pages that rise like a bright rocket and then go out before we have glimpsed much of the surrounding terrain. The effect is tantalizing. A country priest gestures in the night and speaks of hearing confessions. We hear many voices, Malraux’s above all. He has wise words about death and sincerity, about dying gods and rising cities. “I hate my childhood…. I do not find myself very interesting…. how [can one] reduce to a minimum the theatrical side of one’s nature.” In the last paragraph, Jung, of all people, is climbing down a ladder in New Mexico. The surface provides little continuity. Malraux seems to back systematically away from the very subjects the title promises. But be patient. The journey has not yet begun.

Almost everything, of course, comes back transfigured. These pages form an elliptical preview that distorts and truncates what will later be made whole. The priest does have something portentous to say about age and greatness. Malraux does not really hate his youth or disdain his past. Sincerity is a doubtful ideal, found least of all in memoirs. To kill the play-actor in oneself may mean abandoning the game. Jung is as culture-bound as any poor Indian. There is no recapitulation, but by the end of the book we recognize the landscape of Malraux’s many-mansioned life. In the course of this opening chapter he tells us that the Berger family, which he chronicles through three generations in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, is in reality a transposition into the Alsacian forests of his own seafaring forebears from Dunkerque. The second chapter of Anti-Memoirs consists of a twenty-page condensation of the middle 150 pages of that novel. Such a radical telescoping destroys the story line in order to pick out what are apparently the autobiographical elements. From the start we are suspended between fiction and non-fiction, between the already recorded and the unascertainable.

From this point on the book might be called “Ports of Call.” Each place evokes its memories. Egypt, the first stop, carries him back to his first discovery there thirty years earlier of the “two languages” in art: appearance and truth. Halfway between East and West, Egypt is the desert out of which everything came forth, the culture which discovered the human soul and built the first great tombs. Moreover, Egypt reminds Malraux of his archaeological stunt with the pilot Corlingnon. Subsidized by a Paris newspaper, they had tried to locate the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s ancient capital in the desert east of Aden. That flight produced a stirring account of a near-crash they had in escaping from a local storm, as well as a few blurred snapshots, duly published in the sponsoring paper.

The memories that cluster about India, the next lay-over, take us further back and bring us further forward in time. Malraux had stopped briefly in Ceylon in 1923 and had visited a series of holy cities in northern India in 1929, including Jaipur, “the most dreamlike place of all.” But the mention of a 1958 fence-mending mission to see Nehru for De Gaulle transports the narrative back to Paris. The next thirty pages are devoted to Malraux’s meeting with De Gaulle. Apparently each was led to believe the other had asked for the interview. By divulging this fact at the end, Malraux contrives to extract a minimum of comedy out of this epic malentendu. By his own account Malraux seems to harangue the politely listening General about the primacy of the nation, the revolutionary spirit, and intellectuals in politics. After this first take comes a series of retakes of De Gaulle. Malraux characterizes him as the exact opposite of Trotsky. (Thereby hangs another tale, not told here, of how Malraux refused to admit in 1934 that he had gone to Royan to meet the exiled Russian. Malraux was very close to the Party then.) The story of another political mission for De Gaulle in 1958 turns into a semi-burlesque thriller. Malraux discovers himself on a platform in Guiana talking only to the first few rows of a vast audience while its outer edges are engaged in a well-organized uprising.


THE NARRATIVE moves back now to India, where the ship is still docked, and gives an account of Malraux’s 1958 conversation with Nehru. “So now you’re a Minister.” Malraux’s response is one of the nimblest literary leaps in the book. He recounts an anecdote that implies he is as much a Minister as the cat that lived in Mallarmé’s apartment was Mallarmé’s cat: it’s all a matter of pretending, like Sartre’s waiter. They talk of many things, at the end of which Nehru says, “Tomorrow we shall learn from the newspapers what we said to each other”—a wistful motto for our times, just as much a theme here as it is in Bonnie and Clyde.

The Indian interlude with its multiple appendages is not yet over. A line from Gandhi about freedom being found in prison leads into the trumpet-like line, “My prisons began in a field.” The following section (we are approaching the center of the book) picks up Malraux’s “absurd” arrest by the Gestapo in 1944 north of Toulouse and his decision to reveal his real identity at his first interrogation. The Germans staged a mock execution to unnerve him and from then on everything, including his imprisonment in Toulouse, seems to turn on malentendus: Malraux shares a room with a man hideously tortured because the word “tourist” in his file had been read as “terrorist”; Malraux himself barely misses being tortured, and is possibly saved from death, because the Paris authorities sent down his brother Roland’s file instead of his.

The subtitle of this long Indian section of the book now changes from “Anti-Memoirs” to “The Temptation of the West,” the title of an epistolary novel or essay he published in 1926. The 1958 visit takes him to the holy towns of Benares, where he is mistaken for (so Raja Rao tells him) Vishnu, to Ellora, and finally to Bombay, where he recalls his brief combat service as a tank commander in 1940. These pages are lifted almost verbatim from the end of The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. The chapter closes with a romantic yet moving passage about an old peasant woman’s smile bringing back all human realities to his crew, who have barely missed death in a trap.

The desultory conversation with Nehru that concludes this section reads like a reworking of ideas from The Temptation of the West. The discussion of values and action and culture circles slowly around the concept of transmigration of souls, which resists assimilation into the Western view of the world. But Malraux is forever coming back to it as if it were a far more tempting solution to the conundrums of death and immortality than the Christian game of gambling all eternity on a single life. Nehru himself remains a shadowy figure, guru of all India. He should be the very soul of that nation which is not yet a victim of the Western disease of individualism. But such a country of the mind cannot be concentrated in one character of high relief; we glean its reality from a tempo and the patina of its places. “Remote from us in dream and in time, India belongs to the Ancient Orient of our soul.”

The steamship Cambodia moves on toward Singapore and is rammed in the narrows. Malraux lingers a few days in that agonized city of refugees. Out of a real past and out of his own fiction emerges the character, Clappique. (The narrative has now modulated into the present tense of a journal with frequent excursions into the past.) In Man’s Fate, Clappique is the clownish talker and shady dealer whose forgetfulness at the crucial juncture leads to Kyo’s death. This aging yet still vigorous character reads, mimes, and summarizes to Malraux the scenario of a film based on the life of Mayrena. He was a legendary adventurer—Prince of his own private realm among the Sedangs and toast of the Montmartre at the turn of the century. It makes quite a film, complete with witch doctors and elephant hunts, entitled The Devil’s Kingdom (Le Règne du Malin). Malraux, by including it, has signed it.

Leaving the disabled ship, Malraux takes an airplane to Hong Kong and rereads his own text, The Royal Way, about the Moï tribes whose territory he is now flying over. A few miles further on, Da-Nang lies below him, another legendary place out of the fictions of Mayrena, Clappique, and Malraux himself. But now: “…around the port, the American battle fleet lies motionless:” Cut: to the last section, called “Man’s Fate.”

In Hong Kong, posters in the big communist department store inspire a dramatic retelling of the Long March and the heroic crossing of the Ta Tu river by Mao Tse-tung’s troops. Malraux flies to Peking and begins a series of conversations that rise steadily in significance and tension. First, Marshal Chen-yi, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party in France, expelled in 1921, now Foreign Minister. In a long discussion of Vietnam, the Marshal states that the US escalation is Vietnam’s Long March. Malraux suggests that the US has no world strategy at present, imperialist or otherwise, and is simply repeating France’s old errors. With Chou En-lai (“He knows as well as I do that in the United States he is thought to be the original of one of the characters in La Condition humaine.”), the exchange moves far beyond Vietnam to China’s sense of destiny, her newly found freedom, and her will to transform herself. Malraux thinks to himself of Sun Yat-sen’s sentence about the word “freedom” being new in Chinese and therefore lacking the weight it has in the West.1 “It is always men who win in the end,” says Chou at the end of the talk.

The official audience, with presentation of credentials to President Liu Shao-chi, provides the occasion, as everyone understands in advance, for the meeting with Mao Tse-tung. Malraux begins by talking about the Museum of the Revolution he has just visited in Yenan. We are now at the true summit, not of world power but of wisdom and experience. On the walls, not propaganda posters but Manchu scrolls. At least that is the account Malraux gives, reconstructed like all the other conversations from transcripts and recollections, corrected, I feel sure, to register how it should have happened.

MALRAUX: Gorki said to me one day, in Stalin’s presence: Peasants are the same everywhere.

MAO TSE-TUNG: Neither Gorki, a great vagabond poet, nor Stalin…knew anything at all about peasants.

Mao Tse-tung means the Chinese peasantry, in whom he puts his faith more than in professional revolutionaries. This is the true father of the country; unlike Chen-yi and Chou, he has never left China. He is concerned about the nationalist-bourgeois opposition and about his following among the young. A few sentences suggest the thinking that may have led to his five-month “disappearance” and subsequent developments—the cultural revolution and the Red Guards. But every stage direction implies a great immobility on Mao Tse-tung’s part, “a bronze Emperor” with cigarette. The conversation, slowed to half-time by the pauses for translation, seems monumental even when it is trivial. Russian revisionism, French socialism, the possible Indonesian alliance—everything finds a place in the tapestry of world politics held between them quietly and pondered for its true meaning.

Obviously Malraux admires this “Old Man of the Mountain,” who keeps repeating that he is “alone with the masses.” Is Mao Tse-tung confiding anything to this emissary from another lonely chieftain? Malraux looks at him. “What an extraordinary power of allusion! I know that he is about to intervene anew. Through the young? Through the Army? No man will have shaken history so powerfully since Lenin.” It takes Mao Tse-tung a long time to walk his guest out to the car. Afterwards, what Malraux remembers is the single emphatic gesture Mao Tse-tung made during the entire afternoon’s exchange when his French guest, in reference to the United States, said, “We’re independent, but we’re their allies.” Mao Tse-tung’s arms rose into the air in surprise, or dismay.

“I RETURN to France ‘over the Pole.’ ” The last pages cut back and forth between a meeting to decide an appropriate monument for a Resistance hero, concentration camp scenes of degraded humanity confronting total inhumanity, and the Lascaux cave. It was discovered by two boys and a dog in 1940 out exploring the countryside. The place was used by the Maquis to store arms. Its prehistoric paintings must now be protected against fungus by conscientious objectors. Lascaux is the first museum, and possibly the last. The death-resisting works it guards may still perish in spite of us…. The text ends in mid-air. We are promised more.


THERE OR FOUR HUNDRED years from now what myths or legends will have precipitated out of our century? We may know better than we usually venture to say. The young liberal king who abdicated an ancient throne for love and liberty. The great international performer (a hybrid of Caruso and Nijinsky) who became a victim of his own astonishing talent and found a sad and lonely end. The laconic cowboy-mechanic who gambled everything on a single engine, his capacity to stay alert for thirty-three hours, and an oversize wing full of ping-pong balls. The gesticulating dictator who led a civilized nation into savagery with the brazenness of his lies and the hypnotic qualities of his voice. The new Oriental, sage and activist, a composite of Gandhi, Nehru, and Mao Tse-tung, who revived a sundered continent. The youthful president shot just when he was learning how hard it would be to fulfill the hopes the whole world had begun to place in his smile and in his words…. The exact repertoire is not important. Here, however, is the company among whom Malraux sets out to measure his own role. Do not be misled. The tone is not megalomaniac nor even mythomaniac; it is curiously self-effacing. But he has chosen his league.

In earlier days, every photograph showed Malraux with a cigarette—the intellectual as tough guy and mystery man. He carried the role well, as the illustrated pages of Malraux par luimême amply demonstrate. Walter Langlois’ recent book, The Indochina Adventure, leaves little doubt about the traumatic effect on Malraux of the Phnom Penh trial in 1924 which sentenced him to three years in prison (later reduced to one, and never served) and branded him a criminal for finding and wanting to keep some barely known and unclassified temple sculpture in Cambodia. The gangster surface wore off slowly through a long cohabitation with works of art and through gradual disenchantment with the power struggles of the communist party. Between 1936 when he organized an aviation brigade to help the Republicans in Spain and writing Wrestling with the Angel in 1941, a second crisis altered his thinking. It involved the Republican defeat in Spain, the Stalin-Hitler pact, the German invasion, and Malraux’s own combat experience as a tank commander. Wrestling with the Angel is a title he took seriously. It appears again in the opening pages of Anti-Memoirs, followed immediately by the bluntly affirmative question “…and what else am I undertaking?” When Jacob fought all night with the angel, he prevailed, earned the name Israel, and bore his battle scar in the hollow of his hip. Malraux has squared off here with the dark angel of his own past, which is all that remains for him of the expiring gods. Everything implies that his struggles may belong to legend. But do they?

Even reinforced by T. E. Lawrence, Saint-Exupéry, and Rimbaud, Malraux will not be given a new name by the angel of history. He has neither of the essential qualities: obsession and aura. Intellectual brilliance is not enough. “And it is not the role which makes the historic personage, but the vocation.” The words tumble out after the first meeting with De Gaulle. Malraux’s struggle holds us because of the quality he finds or creates in his encounters. He prepares the ground for them in an ominous sentence on the first page of Anti-Memoirs. Punctuating his statement by raising his arms in the air, the chaplain of Glières (he is the chorus and will be seen and heard again) declares: “…le fond de tout, c’est qu-il n’y a pas de grandes personnes.” Malraux underlines. Kilmartin translates: “There is no such thing as grown up people.” Too much is lost. Behind the cliché expression grande personne, “grown-up,” stands the bedrock meaning of “great man”—hero. “In the end you can’t tell the men from the boys.” Or: “When you come right down to it, there are no little people and big people—just people.” The ambiguity is essential and far-reaching. There has been a mighty striving in the night, expressed in both the structure and the style of this first of many volumes. But its greatness resides in a subtle and ironic avowal that greatness may escape even the great.


BEFORE I SPEAK OF STYLE and structure, a word more about the translation. Are we reading, in this English text, a prose that matches or recreates the original? At least the publishers went through the motion of obtaining the best. Last winter a letter went out to a selected group of English and American translators asking if they wished to submit a sample translation of Malraux’s book for consideration. The letter said that Malraux himself had stipulated this procedure. The judges were not named. They picked Terence Kilmartin, literary editor of the London Observer. Having paid more than a third of a million dollars for the American rights, Holt, Rinehart and Winston apparently split the translation costs with Hamish Hamilton in London. They gave Kilmartin four months to do the job.2

Someone’s sense of literary values is seriously distorted. After so large a payment for the rights alone, why not have two competing translations: British and American? Why have a translator blaze away at the rate of five pages a day with no opportunity to put the whole manuscript away and come back to it after a month?

All considered, Kilmartin has done a responsible and workmanlike job, occasionally yielding to the temptation to break up Malraux’s longest paragraphs, yet otherwise faithful to the original. He usually takes articles and possessives and other man-traps in his stride. He does not yield to the beckoning of false friends. Where I feel this translation falls short is in its handling of the passages whose roughness testifies to Malraux’s struggle to fit together the personal and the universal. French order and French terms cry out for careful yet imaginative readjustment as they break the language barrier.

La passion que m’ont inspirée naguère l’Asie, les civilisations disparues, l’ethnographie, tenait à une surprise essentielle devant les formes qu’a pu prendre l’homme, mais aussi à l’éclairage que toute civilisation étrangère projetait sur la mienne, à la singularité ou à l’arbitraire qu’il révélait en tel de ses aspects.

[pp. 290-291]

The passion which Asia, vanished civilizations, and ethnology inspired in me arose from an essential wonderment at the forms which man has been able to assume, but also from the light which every strange civilization threw on my own, that quality of the unusual or the arbitrary which it revealed in one or other of its aspects.

[p. 197]

Not only is the French order halting in English; words like “forms” and “light” are unenterprising solutions to ticklish problems. The end of the sentence goes limp because of the rhythm and the ambiguity of articles and possessives when deprived of gender. We could of course have fared far worse, judging by publishers’ past practice. Kilmartin is not a hack, but a rushed professional. When a translation is surrounded by such extensive hoopla, however, one would like to think it is aiming at the highest literary quality. It may entail finding a new style of English. Nothing like that happens here.


I HAVE ALREADY GIVEN ample attention to one of the structural features that bind together this seemingly jerry-built book. The succession of date lines, some of them double or triple, establish the log-book format; it is fleshed out with flashbacks and time-mixes into a kind of four-dimensional journal. The “transitions” make a further revelation. Writing in Bombay in 1965, Malraux recalls at length a 1958 trip to the same city during which he retired to the Governor’s seaside bungalow to reread a text he had written in 1940 about tank combat. But the different levels of reference are not merely thrown together by casual association; they interlock and frame one another in a second structural pattern—that of a building carefully refashioned out of an earlier structure, with further materials added to complete the new design. The first version of the Berger family story appears in Malraux’s first novel, The Royal Way, expands into a full-dress version in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, and reappears in Anti-Memoirs drastically reduced in size and given both as fiction (i.e. transposed in a variety of ways) and as a true version of Malraux’s youth.

When old stones were reused in an Egyptian temple, the “usurped” inscriptions carried a reference to their previous function and position. The old structure is not forgotten but subsumed in the new one. Anti-Memoirs has folded into itself not only fifty pages from The Walnut Trees but also an execution scene from Man’s Hope, the airplane sequence from Days of Wrath, a rich store of images and ideas from his writings on art, and a hundred pages in the middle of the deck lifted from the scenario he was working on in 1945 about the adventurer, Mayrena. Everything is tightened and revised in small details as it goes in, yet it remains immediately recognizable. The effect, and probably the purpose, of this self-quotation will come clear in a moment. As structure, it carries an experimental and often disconcerting echo-chamber effect in which characters and scenes return in fragments, reinterpreted and colored anew.

The third structural device is the use of recurring motifs. There are in fact two major motifs, both of which are used like refrains. Stated in full only once, they are invoked at intervals like the choruses of a song. I have already identified the first refrain: the chaplain of Glières. He baptized Jews left and right to save them from the Gestapo, never left the Vercors as Mao Tse-tung has never left China, and lifted his arms in the starry night to intone the theme, il n’y a pas de grandes personnes. Four times in the second half of the book, Malraux in almost identical sentences, “thinks of the chaplain of Glières”—of his spirituality, his endurance, his sense of humanity before evil and before death. The opening page of Anti-Memoirs is really a film sequence, stated with an extreme economy of images and words. It is then alluded to explicitly but fleetingly when such peasant perseverence seems either furthest from or closest to the trajectory of the narrative.

The other refrain has to do with an elemental city world that is, if anything, even more Malraux’s than the open country. He calls it “coming back to earth”—retour sur la terre. Vincent Berger experiences it when he returns to Marseille after several years’ absence in Turkey and discovers that “first of all Europe meant shop windows.” Malraux went through that rediscovery of the familiar after his nearly fatal flight over the Aden desert.

By the side of the road there was a gate without a fence as in a Chaplin film, with an inscription in huge Second Empire characters: Ruins of Hippo. In the town, I passed an enormous red hand which was the glovemakers’ sign in those days. The earth was people with hands, and perhaps they might have been able to live by themselves, to act by themselves, without men…

Malraux buffs will recognize the farfelu mood of his early “surrealist” works, but here the whimsey is not gratuitous. Reenchantment with the ordinary world follows a significant physical or spiritual adventure. In the preceding sequence Malraux has already associated the wrinkled surface of the earth seen from an airplane with the lines in people’s palms: the latter are said to fade away at the moment of death. This disembodied, familiar, and ominous red hand serves as the second refrain. When it recurs later in the book, it recalls us to the magic of the simple things that lie around us at every moment and that we can come home to. Anti-Memoirs has the extended, circular, yet essentially domestic shape of the Odyssey or a fairy tale.

The fourth unifying factor lies very close to the third, but extends it in a different direction. The lyric passage I quoted at the start about “humble or exalted moments” is picked up a few pages later when Malraux speaks of the nonchronological order of significant memories. They form “an unknown constellation…the most significant moments in my life do not live in me, they haunt me and flee from me alternately.” Thirty years ago in his essay on the psychology of film, he spoke of “privileged moments” that emerge unexpectedly out of the chaos of experience. The various comings back to earth provide a whole series, particularly when the tank crew escapes from its trap. Other “moments” are fairly sustained and cover as much as several days’ time: Nietzsche literally singing the text of his last poem as he is being taken in the train through the St. Gothard tunnel back to Basel; the meetings with De Gaulle and Nehru and Mao Tse-tung; the sequence of Malraux’s arrest by the Gestapo and his final liberation. Malraux’s privileged moments fall between what Stendhal calls moments probants (he is referring to Molière and implies that true drama presents encounters that test and certify the characters) and Joyce’s epiphanies.

In Anti-Memoirs when the camera pans off into the landscape, when a conversation ceases in order to register a gesture or a distant sound, when time itself seems to dilate, then we have reached a point of intersection between the opposites Malraux can never forget—what you do and what you are, deeds and secrets. It is a profoundly unsatisfactory division of the act of living. Yet Malraux records scrupulously the occasions when these two elements come into phase and reinforce each other. Without such moments, this voyage of rediscovery would have little to offer beyond the litheness of its language.


EVERYTHING I HAVE SAID about the way Malraux has constructed this work, particularly his use of long passage salvaged from previous writings and his focus on privileged moments, suggests comparison with Marcel Proust. Now Proust is one of the greatest figures of literature. The novel form, European society, the French language, and the human sensibility itself have all experienced the tyranny of his feline mind. Malraux has no claim to such stature even though he is a powerful writer in several genres. But the comparison will bear examination. They are both mosaicists. True, Proust’s densely involuted, mimetic style and his complex character development have little part in Malraux’s universe. But both authors spend a lifetime rewriting crucial scenes and themes until they finally take their place in a single all-encompassing work. All Proust’s writing before 1909 is a rehearsal for A la recherche du temps perdu. To a somewhat lesser degree—after all, he is starting late—Malraux’s thirteen previous books begin to look like trial runs for the final contest with destiny in Anti-Memoirs. Some of his readers will abandon him here; they will be the losers.

The development toward reappraisal and summation in Malraux points up the problem that has bothered the French critics: to what genre does Anti-Memoirs belong? Classification can be crucial. Malraux himself broaches the question right at the start, cites Saint Augustine and Rousseau and T.E. Lawrence, and ends the chapter by stating: “I have called this book Anti-Memoirs because it answers a question which memoirs do not pose and does not answer those which they do….” He seems to mean that he is concerned neither with events exclusively nor with introspection exclusively but with a particular relation between them: privileged moments. Furthermore, one significant passage at the start implies that the book is oriented not so much toward memory as toward its opposite, premonition. In their work writers anticipate the fate they will go on to act out in life. He points to Nietzsche and Hemingway. What will Malraux do with himself now that we have the evidence? The smartest answer says he will stick to the task of writing further volumes of documented predictions. Four are expected, posthumous at least in part. Anyone who wants to play the long bet might say: when the time has come, Malraux will take his own life; probably poison. I make no bets in public.

George D. Painter’s description of Proust’s undertaking may turn out to be close to the mark for Malraux: “not, properly speaking, a fiction, but a creative autobiography… Though he invented nothing, he altered everything.” The effects of such a literary project on the writing itself may be even more complex in Anti-Memoirs than in Proust’s novel.3 In Malraux’s palimpsest of fiction and non-fiction, the je becomes a chameleon. The I is narrator, character in his own narrative, and author of earlier works and deeds—and at other times a fictional narrator and character related to the “original” I and in a parallel situation. (We are approaching the territory of The Counterfeiters. But Gide’s puzzle of authors within authors points by implication, and ironically, to a divine agent. Not so Malraux.)

This identity game works out most neatly and paradoxically in the prison sequence in 1944. Malraux tells it tersely and well. It looks to me like the autobiographical and phenomenological heart of the book. Captured by surprise in uniform, Malraux decides to give his true identity as man and writer as well as his nom de guerre, Colonel Berger. (He had chosen the name originally for the hero of The Walnut Trees of Altenburg because it could be either French or German in origin.) The Gestapo is puzzled by the prisoner’s apparent forth-rightness and never does accept his unlikely story. Later, the French prisoners in Toulouse free themselves while the German tanks are still leaving. Malraux alone is in uniform. Out of the dangerous confusion in the courtyard someone calls out, “Let Berger take over!” And he does—yet he doesn’t. For Malraux never enters the action directly as himself but acts through his surrogate and alter ego, through the character of himself as Berger, his pseudonymous creation brought to life. Stendhal played this game all his life. Malraux too, it seems, but without the same style and relish. A flesh and blood person is called to command liberated prisoners in the guise of one of his own fictional characters whom he usually casts in the role of his father—this is why the book moves so mysteriously through the straits that separate history from dream, and which connect history and dream. Colonel Berger is now Minister of Culture in a highly flammable government.


ENGLISH AND AMERICAN READERS have available to them as large a choice of critical works on Malraux as the French reader. Several are enlightening. Beyond the books I have mentioned, the last few years have produced the following: the Twentieth Century Views volume entitled simply Malraux (edited by R.W.B. Lewis; see particularly Claude-Edmonde Magny’s essay linking Malraux’s jumpy style to his themes of isolation and lack of communication)4 ; Joseph Frank’s two fine essays collected in The Widening Gyre5 ; David Wilkinson’s6 unsatisfactory but resourceful attempt to write a political study complete with “Systematic Table of Ideas”; and Denis Boak’s general study published a few months ago in England.7

For the most part these critics see in Malraux a struggle between Destiny, working through the determining forces of history, and man’s various affirmations of anti-Destiny: adventure, revoluion, art as secular transcendence. The individual process of creation is seen as a conflict with Destiny: ironically, the product of that conflict, the work of art wrested by metamorphosis (or by what I understand better as translation) from other works of art, belongs to culture. Belongs, that is, to the very structure against which each individual has to struggle in order to assert himself. It makes a very Nietzschean picture, and most critics take pains to point out the debt.

My principal objection to this version is the ponderous nature of the terminology. Malraux was the first to launch it. His novels and especially his works on art are shot through with ill-defined hortatory words that have incurred the wrath of careful art scholars, such as Gombrich. Something is accomplished, I believe, by falling back on a concrete term: conquest. It provided the title of his first novel. His career and writings turn on that theme. His first “serious” book, The Temptation of the West, presents a confrontation of East and West in a context of conflict and domination. The characters in that book vigorously criticize museums as the repositories of dead trophies from the culture wars. In his political speeches of the Thirties, Malraux retains the image of conquest, now enacted less against distant cultures than against our own unconscious. The heterodox speech he gave in Moscow to the first Congress of Soviet Writers (1934) was called “Art as Conquest.8 André Breton found Malraux’s solution to the artist’s political dilemma so convincing that he quoted a lengthy passage in one of his own speeches collected in The Political Position of Surrealism. “Art is not a surrender, it is a conquest. Conquest by what? By feelings and means of expressing them. Conquest of what? of the unconscious almost always; often of logic itself….” The passage ends with the motto “More consciousness” lifted from Marx (early and late) and obviously alluding to Freud, who was by then anathema to the Soviets. Garcia, in Man’s Hope, picks up the same theme in his widely quoted line about “transforming into consciousness the broadest possible range of experience.” Möllberg, the ethnologist in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, has written and destroyed a lengthy manuscript entitled Civilization as Destiny and Conquest.

If culture, the creative act, and even life itself can best be seen as a conquest, we still have one further step to go in order to understand the particular dilemma Malraux must face. To conquer implies a responsibility to dominate, to occupy, to assimilate, or to be assimilated. The conqueror in some way undertakes to live in relation to what he has conquered. But not so Perken and Ferral in the earliest novels. Their haughty and remote attitude toward a sexual partner is transferred in later books to other forms of knowledge and activity.

The special pleasure one experiences in discovering unknown arts ceases once the discovery is made and does not develop into love. [The Temptation of the West]

To transform society doesn’t interest me at all. It’s not injustice that puts me off, but something more basic, the impossibility of joining, of giving my loyalty to any form of society at all. [Garine in The Conquerors explaining why he is a revolutionary but not a communist]

The adventurer is obviously an outlaw; the mistake is to believe he breaks only the written law, or convention. He stands opposed to society to the full extent that it represents a pattern of life. He is opposed less to its conventions than to its very nature. To win is his undoing. Lenin was not an adventurer, nor Napoleon. [Malraux’s marginal comments in Malraux par lui-même]

The curve can be traced across Malraux’s works, whether they be concerned with archaeological prospecting, revolutionary struggle for power, aesthetic discovery and domination by means of museum or illustrated book, or a man’s desire for a woman. His vocabulary is saturated with words like wrest, crush, annex, conquer, victory, triumph, dominate. More widely circulated terms like metamorphosis are dignified versions for a title page. Notice that pleasure occurs only in the initial stage of conquest—even though the corpus of writings on art represents Malraux’s resolute attempt to live with his empire. But he finally cannot.

Our feelings seem to have a special charm while they are forming, and the whole pleasure of love lies in its shifting moods…. In the end nothing is so satisfying as to overcome the resistance of a beautiful woman. And on that score I have the self-feeding ambition of a conqueror who can never have enough victories or limit his desires. [Molière’s Don Juan on himself]

In spite of his lifelong attempt to settle accounts with culture and art, in spite of the lucidity that reaches a high degree of intensity in Anti-Memoirs, Malraux remains a cultural Don Juan more excited by seducing than by possessing his prey. Is this a harsh judgment? I think not. Better we know ourselves than hide from ourselves. Furthermore, even Molière did not probe this passion-without-attachment to the full. Moral comprehension comes through the cool voice of Montaigne in his last revisions of the Essays.

I feel weighed down by an error of soul which I dislike because it will not leave me in peace. Though I try to correct it, I cannot get it out of my system.

It comes to this: I underestimate my own possessions and correspondingly attach too much value to things that are strange, far away, or belong to someone else. [“On Presumption”]

Here, according to my reading, lies Montaigne’s secular account of original sin, our natural weakness. The inversion of pride distorts as fully as pride itself. Malraux has lived in constant struggle against this incorrigible soul-error. Every museum filled, every revolution won, every woman led to the bed of slaughter is a Pyrrhic victory unless our natural perverseness of mind can master itself. Here, in the context of our eternally empty conquests, arises the absurdity that prefaces every effort Malraux makes to reach lucidity or profundity. And here in the context of eternal enchantment and disenchantment, one should reread the opening of Anti-Memoirs. “Il n’y a pas de grandes personnes.”

AFTERWORD: one further thing I wish to say in a note, because it falls outside the scope of this review. In the seminal book, The Temptation of the West, Malraux develops the idea that “Every civilization moulds its own sensibility.” The following year he wrote an article in which he refers to a “grill” through which we apprehend the world. Today a loose group of thinkers whom it is convenient to refer to as “structuralists” keep repeating to us that language forms and sustains the shape of experience, the pattern of available ideas and feelings within which we live. We cannot see the pattern except by an effort of personal and cultural transcendence, like that of visualizing the Milky Way as our own galaxy. Very well. Twenty years from now, I believe Malraux will be regarded as one of the early structuralists—but not of language. The mental grill he has increasingly devoted himself to mapping consists of images—forms, colors, simplifications, and their transformations. His temperament and his talent remain predominantly verbal. But his subject, his deepest fascination, is painting and sculpture. Gaëtan Picon, who writes with the authority of long friendship, concludes his portrait of Malraux with a flat statement. “The great admission of The Voices of Silence is that the author would have wished to manipulate colors and forms, not write sentences.” The same book, Malraux par lui-même, reproduces eight of his drawings that display a surprising sensitivity to line and movement. By vocation and profession he manipulates words, yet he is forever telling us that thinking takes place by images in many of the greatest minds. For the past twenty years he has produced books whose profuse illustrations form the armature or the text. It is so because he feels instinctively that a painting or a sculpture attests directly to and arises from an act. A non-verbal work of art detours the mental set inherent in language. Malraux speaks for himself in The Voices of Silence:

The non-artists vision, wandering when its object is widespread (an “unframed” vision), and becoming tense, yet imprecise when its object is a striking scene, achieves exact focus only when directed towards some act. The painter’s vision acquires precision in the same way; but, for him, that act is painting.

The novels, and now Anti-Memoirs carry no illustration. But the pictures lie in the text itself in the form of landscape, focused acts of seeing which express the character’s freest thinking. Anti-Memoirs is a travel book because Malraux thinks through places—through the landscape that punctuates the dialogue.

In respect to this radical insight into human consciousness, and in respect to a number of other preoccupations (politics, time, the novel as a vehicle of action, the faltering maturation of a man), there is one wistful figure who bears comparison to Malraux. Allow for at least three generations or sixty years of difference. He is not even a Frenchman: Henry Adams.

This Issue

October 24, 1968