What follows is drawn from the diaries Edmund Wilson kept during the 1950s.


Paris, January 1954—Lunch with André Malraux.1 For this, although feeling rotten and probably with a temperature, I pulled myself together. In the cab on the way there, Elena [Wilson]’s solicitude about me reminded me how little she takes care of herself, how much she devotes herself to other people: she was very soon sicker than I.

He now lives in a large house, rather modern and new, quite far from the center of the city. I thought he was flourishing and happy in a way that he had not seemed when I saw him on my way back from Russia in 1935. The wife that I met then, Clara, is said to have treated him badly, and his present one, the widow of his brother, a very pretty brunette, seemed to both of us attractive and honest. I think that he is relieved, too, to be able to relax from politics, which he had on his mind when I saw him before, and had had constantly and more heavily on his mind ever since—the Spanish war, the Resistance, De Gaulle—and devote himself entirely to writing and art. The Gaullist movement, he said, had been the only chance for France to get a New Deal but De Gaulle had now échoué. The government now was nothing—he worried much, as his wife told us later when she was driving us back to the hotel, about the impotence and nullity, at present, of France; and he told us that France, having had two great periods of world importance, in the Crusades and the Revolution, had no longer at the moment any role in the world, and he had been writing his work on art partly because the one field in which France was still supreme was that of art. The Louvre was the greatest museum in the world. He had just been in the US for three weeks with his wife, only New York and Washington. The Metropolitan was une musée de province—the National Gallery was the great one. I asked him whether he had met [Francis] Taylor2—said that T.’s review of Les Voix du silence [1951] had been idiotic, and he replied with emphasis, Tout à fait idiot!—The trouble was that Taylor couldn’t cope with a work on that niveau. I told him that I thought the preface to the new book on sculpture3 was one of the best things he had written, and he answered that was what he thought himself, it had been something he wanted to say; but nobody read it: they just looked at the pictures. I said that it was impossible to understand the pictures without reading the preface, and he replied, On ne comprend pas.

He has two boys by his present wife, of whom he seems rather proud. I felt on his part a certain satisfaction in living in his large house, in a certain style, and playing the role of family. In a humorous little aside to me, he assumed a complicity of men who know the inconveniences of family life, and in this and in his way of addressing himself to Elena—whom he always addressed as madame—I felt a deliberate and self-conscious assumption of a certain social role—a kind of thing not usual with educated Frenchmen, for whom the conventional formulas are second nature, a matter of routine; but it is part of what I like about him, of what makes him satisfactory in a way that few modern Frenchmen of the literary world are (Cousteau the deep-sea diver). It is still hard for him to look one in the eye—what is the cause of his reluctant gaze? You must be very direct with him to summon it; and he has substituted for the tic he had when I saw him last—that of spasmodically winking—a different one, a clicking in the throat. He likes to talk on his feet and jump around. His expositions are punctuated by bon! and bien!, nailing the point just made before rushing on to the next step.

He has some quite remarkable objets d’art—a Buddha (?) of which he told us that it was, I think, the best piece of its kind in France, a reproduction of Fra Angelico, some Hopi katchinas and a New Hebrides mask reproduced in one of his books. (He said that the children liked the former of these but were rather afraid of the latter.) But the house—nor the drinks nor the lunch—did not display much taste of the typical French kind—not that one minded this: a certain effortful bleakness characteristic of Malraux, big spaces, a variety of objects, incongruous one with the other, in which moved continually the vortex of M.’s intense and nervous personality. It was cold, they had just come back and had not yet got the heating going. In the big room, a small electric heater, which was made to play on Elena.—Effect, on Malraux’s part, of an intense, energetic, self-kindling, self-consuming force, whirling about without giving heat, but yet generating energy, in something almost like a vacuum: the room, the house, the quarter (extramural Paris, France, Europe).


He was full, as usual, of formulations—some of them brilliantly illuminating, some of them rather inept—especially on the subject of the US, which I don’t think he understands at all. There had never, he said, been such a phenomenon. People talked about the new Romans, but that was all nonsense. The Romans had been aiming on conquest, at imposing Roman civilization. All that the Americans wanted was qu’on leur fiche la paix. There had never been anything like it! Cromwell had known what he wanted; Stalin had known what he wanted; Washington had known what he wanted. But what did modern America want? Elle ne veut rien. I tried remonstrate with him about this. I said that Stalin had not known what he wanted: he was always changing his line—what was involved here was the automatic expansion of power. I tried to explain that in Europe it was impossible to understand American politics. In Europe you had parties with formulated views, based on theoretical principles (difference between American and European papers); at home there was nothing of the kind. He was rather impatient of this: he cannot understand, in his very French way, any movement which cannot be shown to embody an arguable position. And he has also a “mystique” of nations and their role that seems almost Hegelian.

He has a Germanic side (he comes from the north of France)—Elena says he writes like a German (is certainly coming to more and more). After lunch, with his queer little air of complicity, he asked me in a lowered voice a question which I did not at first understand, but which turned out to be, on his repeating it, whether I were not a great “partisan of Nietzsche.” People expected Americans to be like this—demonstrating with shoulders and fist, i.e., very foursquare and positive. But when on a previous trip (raising money for Spain) he had met the university faculties, he had found them on a high level, but had felt that they were rather timid.—People thought that Americans were materialistic, cared about nothing but money. He is still only in the stage of the first rudimentary reactions to the realities of America.

—When I saw him in ’35, however, he said one very good thing about the US that showed that he had grasped our position better than most Europeans. I had spoken of the provinciality, compared with our New York papers, of the Parisian press; and he had said, C’est parce que la France est en Europe, les Etats-Unis sont dans le monde. When I had left him in the taxi after dinner and asked him whether he would be coming to America, he had replied emphatically, Je l’espère bien! But I am not sure that his kind of mind can accommodate itself to us: he would be likely to spend all his time making a series of formulations that would become more and more incoherent. Strange, I thought, his conception of French culture and his accounting in those terms for his work on art; can only see his own life and the life of the nation in terms of one another, and in terms of some high intention civilisatrice.

On literature: He asked about [Alexis] Léger, for whom he evidently feels a certain admiration as for one who, like himself, has traveled and known the great world and has tried to bring it into French literature. But he said—one of his accurate insights—that the three distinguished French poets who had come from the West Indies—Heredia, Leconte de Lisle, and Léger4—had all had in common a combination of sonority and lack of content. I remembered that Huysmans5 had called Leconte de Lisle le quincaillier sonore. I agreed that Léger, though magnificent in rhetoric, as I supposed, in the handling of French, was desolating, écrasant, in the long run—in a long performance like Vents—because you never touched the man—a lyricism entirely on parade; and the lines were so full of rare words, like the labels on exhibits in museums, ethnological, anthropological, zoological, geological, meteorological. (I feel this in his conversation, too, and sympathize with the comment of Isaiah Berlin that when he hears Léger doing his stuff, telling a story in the grand manner, he is likely to say to himself, as he does at a classical tragedy at the Comédie, I’m not enjoying this as much as I should.)—Malraux said that Léger had supported the policy of Pétain, and that it was undoubtedly on that account that he had not come back to France.—I asked him whether Léger was much read in France, said that I thought he felt that people were not interested in him any longer. Malraux replied that Léger was read by everybody who read anything seriously.


I said that I had been disgusted by Anouilh’s L’Alouette, and he told me that the Paris theater was now more or less what Hollywood was with us. They wrote now more and more for money, and pretty much all the dramatists were selling themselves: Anouilh, Cocteau, Sartre—Kean, for example. He agreed with me about the badness of Le Diable et le Bon Dieu [1951].—As for Giraudoux, they were trying to make him out to be a great writer, but he was actually a good minor writer. Malraux had been with him the day, or a day or two, before he died. He had not been thinking about Pour Lucrèce, which he had drafted some time before, but been occupied with a quite different project.—When I brought up the always embarrassing subject of Genet, and praised Les Bonnes—which he said he had read but not seen—he hastily admitted that Genet “had talent,” but asserted—I don’t quite know what he meant by this—that he had no sense of discrimination. The merits of Les Bonnes were due to its having been written when Genet had not “arrived”; it had the intensity of the pressures which had driven Genet to express himself, but he [Malraux?] said he had been weakened by success. I expounded my theory that Sartre had written his enormous book on Genet, dropping his own novel and allowing his gigantic introduction to appear as the “first volume” of Genet’s “complete works,”6 because Genet was the Sartre character which Sartre himself had not had the genius to invent—Malraux: Sartre n’a jamais inventé rien!—and that he couldn’t get over it, and tried to expound Genet in terms of existentialist philosophy—saying that Genet did not understand himself—not realizing how much more brilliantly he [Genet] had said it himself.

I asked about Michelet’s diaries.7 They would never be published, Malraux said positively. They would cause too much scandal—they were full of his sexual obsessions. But with Genet and Sartre, I said, why should there be any objection to anything Michelet might have written?—On se fiche de Genet! he said. But Michelet was in the French pantheon, and the diaries ought not to be published on account of what X, some reactionary paper, would make of this explosion of scandal in connection with the great representative of the revolutionary tradition. I couldn’t see this point of view and remonstrated with him about it.

It is the political side of Malraux which leads him into what seem aberrations, such as his working for the Communists in the Spanish war. He had told me in ’35, when I had asked him whether he had any lowdown on the recent Soviet trials, that he knew no more than I, but that, so far as what the government said went, he was sure that ce sont des mensonges. He had told me at that time that I ought to go to see Trotsky, then somewhere in France or Switzerland. (He described to me le côté Lear de Trotsky, told me how he had walked with the old man, who had been acting the tragic grandeur of his rejection by his own people and his isolation in exile. He told me also of Trotsky’s attitude toward a working-class man who had come to see him—dealt with his business and dismissed him and went back to his conversation with Malraux, as if from an inferior to an equal.) Later on, when he came to America, he was scrupulously observing the Party line, and in the course of a controversy with Trotsky said, Trotsky lies and knows he lies when he says…etc. There may be something of this moral obliquity, the cheating on code in the interests of another, behind his unsteady gaze.

—What led up to our talk about Michelet’s diaries was his saying, when I asked whether Communism in France derived a good deal of its strength from its followers’ connecting it with the French revolutionary tradition, that it was not the real tradition but the myth to which the Communists appealed. French history, he went on to explain, was taught partly in terms of Michelet, partly in terms of the kings, and, in the minds of the children who got this, the two elements existed side by side without contradicting one another. I think he meant to make the point that there was no organic conception of the development of French history, the interaction of forces, so that Communism seemed vaguely familiar, and they did not grasp its real relation to, its incompatibility with, the reality of contemporary France.

I said that Sartre’s sense of politics was weak.—Il n’a aucun sens de la politique! Il ne comprend pas qu’en politique il s’agit soit de faire quelque chose soit de produire un système. (I probably have the French wrong, but the main phrases are right.)

I asked about the vogue of the Marquis de Sade, and he said that there were three people who owed their reputation to the fact that it was difficult to get at them: Sade, Picasso, Lautréamont.8 Picasso required an effort in order to be understood; Sade’s books were not accessible—if it had been possible to get them and read them, people would not have been interested in them. C’était un idiot, Sade! I did not see how Lautréamont fitted into this: he was neither inaccessible nor difficult.

In connection with Michelet’s diaries, I felt, as I had sometimes done in reading Malraux’s books, that there was something, for a Frenchman, peculiar in his attitude toward sex—something not perhaps puritanical but implying obstructions in his own sexual life: the trait of Garine in Les Conquérants [1928] going to bed with two women, the masturbating terrorist of La Condition humaine [1933], Malraux’s interpretation of Les Liaisons dangereuses9 as a study not in sex but in power. It is a subject on which one feels he is uncomfortable; yet I got a decided impression that his present pretty wife and fairly recent children are doing a good deal to satisfy him. Cf. the passage in Gide’s diary where he tells of Malraux, in his earlier marriage, feeling that he was stronger on his own, that he had to get away from his family. This is certainly not the case now.

April 26. Second lunch with the Malraux: I enjoyed them even more than the first time—was not ill and the weather was no longer cold; and Malraux seemed more likable and human than on either of the two previous occasions I had seen him: full of enthusiasm and looked you in the eye. Helen [Wilson] was whisked away, quietly and efficiently, to have her lunch—under supervision, I think—in another room with the two boys, and we had a good conversation. I started out by asking him about Indochina, which he analyzed at great length, saying that the part played by everybody was “ridicule.” In writing about our earlier visit, I described his present tic inaccurately—it is something like a snort from the nose, and when he becomes excited and voluble, it sounds like the exhaust from a car.

—We talked about the Guitry film, which his wife had seen but not he. I told him that he ought to go, but he shook his head. He said that the idea of history of the ordinary Frenchman was that wars had occurred because the King had couché with somebody or other.—He talked about T.E. Lawrence, of whom, during the war, he had written a study.10 He said that L. and his brothers were all illegitimate, and that this had affected his psychology. He thought he had a passion for “the absolute,” thought that he had deliberately degraded himself by reducing himself to the ranks, in order to prove to himself that he was “invulnerable.” The Mint, he said, was scatological but not obscene—the writing very much “travaillé.” I told him that he had made Lawrence into un personnage de Malraux.

—He started off with one of his usual formulations on the subject of the Dead Sea Scrolls.—There were arguments based on two kinds of evidence: historical and philological—but he dropped it when I made attempts to present the problem in different terms.—After lunch, when Mme. M. and Elena had withdrawn, he sat beside me on the corner of the chair at the desk, talking vehemently into my face. He was amusing about the publishing business—we were talking about Doubleday and Douglas Black.11 I don’t know how it is in America, he said, mais les éditeurs français ne sont pas drôles! I asked him whether it were true that Genet had stolen Gallimard’s cuff links.12 C’est trop beau, he answered; I said that Dos Passos had told me that Gallimard was a character out of Balzac (though I believe what he really said was that the Gallimard office reminded him of Balzac). Un personnage de Stendhal, said Malraux. Gallimard was un millionnaire timide and wore ordinary buttons on his cuffs. Mme. M. came back at this moment, and he asked her to corroborate this.—I had at moments, as I had had on the earlier occasion, the impression that it was part of his present role—père de famille, etc.—to say little conventional French things of a kind that must previously have been foreign to him. For example, when I expressed relief at his telling me that he would send me the proofs of the Michelet journals—so that I should not have to go to the library and could spend the afternoon with Elena and Helen—he said to Elena something like: Your good angel is presiding over you today.

It is always bracing to see him. Elena said that the afternoon with him and the evening at the Gaîté Montparnasse, where the young people were working sincerely, with however little means, to do something distinguished in the theater, had made her feel better about France. She had been struck by—what I had not noticed—the deterioration of the goods they turned out—had used to make things better than America, now this no longer true. This was apropos of my speaking of Dupont-Sommer’s13 inferiority to Renan, that there was just a touch of something cheap about him.

Since I do not believe I wrote at the time any account of my first meeting with Malraux in the fall of 1935, when I was passing through Paris on my way back from Russia, I may as well add a few notes now.—I first went to the apartment where his first wife was living. He came in, as it were, from the outside, as if he lived elsewhere. The impression I got is corroborated by the account in André Gide’s diary, where he speaks of M.’s feeling, during the Spanish war, that he had to get away from his household. He never looked at you, was terribly tense—his current tic was a spasmodic winking. They took me to dinner in a restaurant. When I talked about Soviet literature, he made at once the distinction between the better writers, who were read by a kind of elite, and the popular writers, such as the poet—I can’t now remember his name—who regularly appeared in one of the papers. I said that I had had the impression in Russia that the literary world was divided into two groups—those who thought that Alexei Tolstoy was the greatest living writer and those who couldn’t hear his name mentioned.

I should have included in the account above of our second 1954 conversation that he talked, during lunch, about Stalin, whom he had met (on, I think, two occassions) while visiting Gorky. He said that Stalin was very “abstract.” I objected that he was too primitive. He asked me why I assumed that a primitive man could not be abstract. I think he took Stalin’s Marxism too seriously, underrated the political boss, the Oriental intrigues. He told us how, when Stalin was present, Gorky had told them a story about one of his visits to Tolstoy. Gorky liked to watch people when they thought they were alone—had followed Tolstoy on a walk in the woods (I couldn’t help wondering whether Tolstoy had not been aware of this, and when I told Elena’s Russian relatives the story, they were sure he must have been): Tolstoy had stopped to look at a lizard sitting on a rock, with his heart visibly palpitating, then had said, You are sitting on a rock in the sun, and your heart is beating—you are happy; but I am not happy! Stalin’s response to this was simply to drop his hand, which he had been holding against his body. I asked whether Stalin had had Gorky poisoned, but Malraux said definitely not. Yagoda had done away with him. He had wanted to marry Gorky’s niece, and had gotten rid of first her husband, then Gorky.


Visit to Ithaca, May 25–28, 1956. George Munn14 drove me. He did not bring a coat and came to dinner at the Nabokovs in one of those floating fancy shirts he wears, which caused Volodya to tell him that he looked like a tropical fish. He does not know what to say, so doesn’t speak unless spoken to, but he has dignity and is not embarrassed, runs true to the old tradition. I thought he would be bored by the literary and learned conversations, but he always seemed to be interested and afterwards told his mother that the thing he had got the most kick out of was an animated argument between Volodya and me—which almost became heated—on Russian and English versification. (We have been having this out for years: Volodya’s point of view—that Russian and English verse are basically the same—is, I have become convinced, a part of his effort, inherited from his father, to believe that the two countries are, or ought to be, closely associated.) George was also much interested in Volodya’s stories about the animals he had seen in the West. He encountered—in Montana—a long animal with claws that he thought was not a bear, and when he asked the zoologists about it, they immediately changed the subject. He came to the conclusion it was something they had been investigating but did not want to talk about yet. His theory is that it may be a giant sloth, of which prehistoric remains have been found out there.

The first evening, when the Epsteins were there and [Victor] Lange, the German professor, came to dinner, Volodya was playing the host with a good humor, even joviality, such as I had never seen him display before. The success of Pnin and the acclaim of Lolita, with the fuss about its suppression in Paris, have had upon him a stimulating effect. With no necktie and his hair ébouriffé, consuming his little glasses of “faculty” port and sherry (as Frohock at Harvard called it), he was genial with everybody, seemed full of high spirits. But when I saw him the next day after his two-hour examination—at which Vera [Nabokov] had helped him—he was fatigued, rather depressed and irritable, said that he would never go back to Russia—[Roman] Jakobson15 had been trying to induce him to pay a visit and lecture—that he had got so antagonized against it that it had become an obsession with him. He is undoubtedly overworked, had a hundred and fifty papers to correct. That night his nerves were still on edge but he exhilarated himself with drinks—in which I joined him in spite of my gout—and was at first amusing and charming, then later relapsed into his semi-humorous, semidisagreeable mood, when he is always contradicting and always attempting to score, though his statements may be quite absurd—as when he asserts, on no evidence whatever and contrary to the well-known facts, that Mérimée16 knew no Russian and that Turgenev knew only enough English to enable him to read a paper. These particular falsities, of course, are prompted by his impulse to think of himself as the only writer in history equally proficient in Russian, French, and English; and they are always hopping [on] people for petty mistakes—such as Steegmuller’s verre de vin17 instead of verre à vin, in connection with Madame Bovary—when Volodya himself makes frequent mistakes in English, in French, and even, as Vera admits, in Russian. They would not believe me, two summers ago, when I told them that fastidieux in French meant tiresome and not fastidious, and Volodya swore up and down that samodur had nothing to do with durak. So he tried to tell me just how nihilist in English was pronounced neehilist.

It is of course very difficult for him to have to function between two languages, and the difference between American and English usage is a further source of confusion. Our argument about metrics is a mare’s nest, which I know how to straighten out but which he doesn’t even want to. He seems to consider it a reproach against Pushkin that his verse is more regular than Shakespeare’s, and even denies that Shakespeare ever achieved the flexibility that he did. Years ago he declared that the line from King Lear “Never, never, never, never, never!”—where all the iambs are turned into trochees—should really be pronounced so that the stress somehow fell on the last syllables, and now he says it is a line of prose. There are inversions, as he showed me, in Evgeni Onegin, but, he admitted, not anything like so many.

Vera invariably sides with him and becomes slightly vindictive against people who argue with him. She did for me everything she could, brought me sandwiches for lunch, etc., but a little resented my gout, which made it necessary for me to eat with my foot up, so that she had to leave the table to serve me. She also resented Histoire d’O, which I had brought on for Volodya to read. He agreed with me that, trashy though it is, it exercises a certain hypnotic effect. Vera, who had managed to look into it, became quite grim about it, and accused us of giggling over it, with a certain deadliness. She had precipitated the discussion of metrics, inquiring whether it wasn’t true that I had said that Evgeni Onegin was written in syllabic meter, and when I answered that this was absurd, intimated that they had letters of mine which could prove the truth of this disclaimer. When I attack the subject of argument from some angle—such as Greek and Latin—about which Volodya knows nothing—he adopts a semi-ironical and patronizing expression.—The next morning, however, when I went to say goodbye, he emerged much calmed and refreshed (undoubtedly, the uncorrected papers had been on his mind the night before). I said, “How wonderful you look after your bath!” He leaned into the car and murmured, referring to Histoire d’O: “Je mettais du rouge sur les lèvres de mon ventre.” Vera had just asked me, “Did he give you back that little horror?”

I always enjoy seeing them—what we have are really intellectual romps, sometimes accompanied by mauling—but I am always afterwards left with a somewhat disagreeable impression. The explanation of this comes out in his work quite nakedly. The element in it I find repellent is the addiction to Schadenfreude—everybody is always being humiliated. The inward life of Volodya himself had had so much of humiliation that it would naturally be one of his themes. But there is also something in him rather nasty—the cruelty of the arrogant rich man—that makes him want to humiliate others, and his characters he has completely at his mercy. And yet he is an admirable person, a strong character, a terrific worker, unwavering in his loyalty to his family, with a rigor in his devotion to his art which has something in common with Joyce—who is one of his great modern admirations. The miseries, horrors, handicaps that he has had to face in his life would have degraded or broken many, and, after years of it, Volodya has achieved over here “life tenure” in a firstrate college and now a reputation as the author of brilliant books in English, besides being probably at the present time the most distinguished Russian writer. Even aside from his talent, he inspires more respect than Nicholas [Nabokov] for his fortitude and concentration, for the integrity of his family relations.

Copyright © 1986 by Helen Miranda Wilson. Used by arrangement with Farrar,Straus and Giroux, Inc.


This Issue

August 14, 1986