Unmasking Monsieur Malraux

Richard Mayne

‘He’s the one great epic novelist of the revolution to come that never came.’ ‘All of a sudden, after the war, his novels seemed to me to have no literary value whatsoever,’ ‘I find them naff.’ ‘In L’Espoir he is immersed in the action and that makes his art great,’ ‘He was a fake: he always pretended to be what he was not.’ ‘He was in love with danger, with adventure,’ ‘He was one of the most religious men I ever met.’ ‘He was always speaking about fraternity, about the masses, but no – he was an aristocrat: he was deeply an aristocrat, a man of the élite.’ ‘I think probably from his childhood, which he hated, he had to forge a sort of mask. He needed that.’

Contradictory verdicts on André Malraux, from witnesses I questioned about him in Paris when making a documentary for BBC Radio 3. Whether hostile or favourable, all of them were vehement. ‘I cannot name one person, left, right, or centre,’ said the reporter and novelist Olivier Todd, ‘who was not really fascinated by the man,’

As if in confirmation, the Paris bookshops last December were displaying a crisp new volume in the austere Gallimard uniform, bearing a red publicity band with the single name MALRAUX in white capital letters. An undiscovered novel? Far from it. This was a compilation of writings by Napoleon Bonaparte that Malraux had made almost anonymously in 1930, and published as Vie de Napoléon par lui-même. The publishers obviously felt that ‘Malraux’ was a better-selling name than that of the Emperor himself.

So, half a generation since his death in 1976 at the age of 75, André Malraux is still a celebrity. The University of Chicago’s new paperback edition of three of his lesser-known works carries a grandiose, Latinate tribute from the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: ‘No other writer of the 20th century had the same capacity to translate his personal adventure into a meeting with history and a dialogue of civilisation.’ Two of the three authors who preface the reprints endorse this lofty estimate. Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his Foreword to The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, which Malraux wrote during World War Two, declares: ‘The author was probably imagining, in historical retrospect, a happier future time, after the fall of Hitler, when it would again be possible for French and Germans to live together as friends. He was sensing the possibilities that were to come to fruition in the European Community.’ And Jonathan Spence, discussing The Temptation of the West, a supposed exchange of letters between ‘AD’, a Frenchman, and his Chinese correspondent ‘Ling’, is more venturesome still, It is never safe, and often folly,’ he admits, ‘to call any writing “prophetic”, but the closing two pages of this last letter of Ling’s read now as if they had been designed as an epilogue and benediction to the hopes and fears of China’s long revolution, and to the millions who died for the future, whether in the anti-Rightist campaigns, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or under the bullets and tank treads of the People’s Liberation Army in June 1989.’ Not bad for a book first published in 1926.

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