Written on Water

The Walnut Trees of Altenburg

by André Malraux, translated by A.W. Fielding
Howard Fertig, 224 pp., $35.00

This publication is something of a puzzle. The statement on the copyright page, the “First American Edition,” leads one to expect a new translation, but the text turns out to be an undeclared reissue of an English version, published in 1952, four years after the appearance of the French original. Nor has much care gone into its production. Any first-time reader will be baffled by the fact that the words “Chartres, 21 June 1940,” which should stand at the head of the opening section of the novel to indicate the time of the action, have slipped back to a previous page, where they figure at the end of Malraux’s preface. How, the reader will wonder, can the author have written the book and the preface before the events he goes on to describe? More seriously, although the translation was first published under the auspices of the late John Lehmann, a noted Francophile, it is nevertheless bespattered with elementary mistakes—e.g., “he put on his glasses” instead of “he put down his glasses” (il posa ses lunettes)—which sometimes obscure the meaning of whole paragraphs. Imagine a performance of a piece of music in which the instrumentalist resolutely hits a wrong note every two or three bars, and you get the effect. If the publisher thought Malraux worth relaunching at this point, why did he not commission a new translation, or at least have the old one revised?

However, the book is before us again after a lapse of some forty years, and we have to decide what we think of it now. Malraux, who was world-famous only a decade or two ago, is not much talked about these days. The romantic international revolutionism, which he represented so glamorously in his early career, has suffered a dramatic loss of appeal; even La Condition humaine, his most celebrated novel, must make rather ironical reading in the light of the recent events in Communist China. Malraux’s self-mythologizing, which once helped his legend, has proved even more vulnerable to scholarly investigation than T.E. Lawrence’s comparable public image. Also, when Malraux, the fabled man of action in distant places, became involved in public activities in France after the war, he surprised some close observers by his rather ineffective busyness in the shadow of De Gaulle. Art historians around the world have given his Musée Imaginaire a fierce battering. All in all, his reputation is probably now at its lowest ebb, and so one reopens Les Noyers de l’Altenburg in a mood of doubt.

I am happy to report that it remains for me one of his most interesting works. It was Malraux’s last attempt to express his ideas and sensibility in fictional form, before devoting himself entirely to memoir writing and reflections on art. With characteristic theatricality, he presents it as the surviving first part of a large-scale novel, La Lutte avec l’ange, the rest of which was “destroyed by the Gestapo,” in circumstances that he leaves totally vague, and that have apparently proved impossible to…

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