In the Thick of Things

Malraux: A Life

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

Signed, Malraux

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

Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960

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

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

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

Mona Lisa's Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture

by Herman Lebovics
Cornell University Press, 246 pp., $39.95

The God That Failed

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.