The Man from Nowhere

John Sturrock

  • André Malraux: Une Vie by Olivier Todd
    Gallimard, 694 pp, frs 175.00, April 2001, ISBN 2 07 074921 5

At André Malraux’s funeral, in November 1976, two red wreaths were delivered to the cemetery: one came from the French Communist Party, an organisation to which he never belonged, the other from Lasserre, a three-rosette restaurant near the Grand Palais where he had liked to lunch – on his own should company fail. Lasserre had done the honours for a first time to this most bankable of habitués when he was still alive, by adding pigeon André Malraux to its list of entrées, a gesture which inscribed him obliquely in the literary lineage he most aspired to, of writers who had also been men of action: had the name of Chateaubriand, explorer, soldier, politician and Romantic elder, not earlier been incorporated à la carte as a way of doing steak? The posthumous tribute from the PCF on the other hand can hardly have been automatic. Not only had Malraux never come out as a Communist, even in his pro-Soviet days in the 1930s, but after 1945, as he moved, deeply smitten, into the inner circle of General de Gaulle, he had finally said in public the harsh things he had earlier thought but held back from airing about the Stalinist regime to which the PCF had gone on giving its imperturbable support. So was a Party by now on the slide electorally playing the nostalgia card, and showing itself magnanimously prepared to condone his postwar swerve to the Right? Or did it simply not want to be left out as the Fifth Republic assisted at the death of one of its more extraordinary survivors?

Extraordinary in what way is the question, though. By his own valuation, which he was ready on occasion to share with others, Malraux was very extraordinary indeed, one of the literary giants of the 20th century, as both a novelist and a philosopher of art, and at the same time someone of sufficient weight, practical exposure and political acumen to be qualified to travel the world as an emissary without portfolio and chat on equal terms with the Makers of History to whom all his life he was compulsively drawn (vide the Anti-Mémoires): with Nehru or Chairman Mao or JFK (not to mention Mrs JFK, who talked paintings with him and declared him ‘a Renaissance man’). By his new biographer’s valuation, Malraux was extraordinary, yes, but in quite another, less world-historical and less creditable mode: he was extraordinary above all for being able to persuade so many intelligent people over so many years to take him at his own valuation, even though that was patently way too high. Olivier Todd has written a Life dense with facts and hard-headed almost to excess when it comes to exposing just how weirdly far Malraux could go in dressing up his own achievements. This is biography as mythicide, and mightily readable at that.

We all know how to do it, grooming the past to make sure we come well out of the bits of our lives we choose to narrate, a little bolder, a little wittier, a little more imposing than we proved to be at the time. But to do this on the Malraux scale is a daring move in itself, when there are sure to be a few incredulous Todds within earshot, to say, if only to themselves: ‘oh, come on.’ The oddity in this case, however, is that he had no need to be that way, when he had exposed himself to physical risks and had adventures of a kind other writers would have been content simply to make up: in French Indochina as a young man, as a volunteer during the Spanish Civil War, as a soldier in the last months of the German Occupation, as a globe-trotting intimate of the French President. Yet he felt he couldn’t simply leave it there: he had to look for further reassurance as to his historical standing by embroidery, had to boast of qualifications or knowledge that he didn’t possess, of mutually respectful encounters with notables he hadn’t necessarily met, of exploits that weren’t his to boast of. Why this should have been so is not something that any biography can be asked to explain, even one as unfailingly shrewd as this. The explanation that comes quickest to mind may well be the right one, however. Malraux’s first wife, Clara, who enjoyed sniping at him after they’d split up, once observed that get him alone and he didn’t seem anything like so sure of himself as he did when he had an audience; thus boosterism may well have been called for if he was to impress other people to the extent that he required and, more than ordinarily egocentric as everyone close to him recognised him to be, he had no doubt concluded that the PR was best handled by himself. One of his most loyal and perceptive friends, the writer Jean Grosjean, whom he first met in a POW camp in 1940, spoke of Malraux’s ‘juvenile mixture of ostentation and pudeur’, the sadness being that the ostentation did its job of masking the pudeur so effectively that few people would have credited him with possession of that saving grace.

He was, to be fair, a second-generation bluffer, his father having also had a talent for misrepresentation. Fernand Malraux was a stockbroker’s middleman who called himself a ‘banker’, and an Army officer during the First World War who looked every inch the warrior in his uniform but got only bad reports from his superiors and saw mysteriously little action. He had by this time deserted the family, leaving his son to be raised by his mother and aunt above a suburban sweet shop, a furtive circumstance that was to be written definitively out from Malraux’s mature CV. He left school as soon as he could, without ever taking the baccalauréat, let alone going on to read for the degree in Oriental studies to which he later laid claim. Instead, he began buying and selling rare books and fine editions, and made plans to become a publisher. To be self-taught in a country as stiflingly curricular as France was up to a point a blessing: Malraux read more freely and thought more expansively than he might have done had he stayed on at school. Expansiveness can go too far, however, and with Malraux it did, allied as it was to a quickness of mind that could leave toiling interlocutors for dead. The outcome, when he wrote or spoke in public, was a ranging, elliptical prose from which too many of the connecting thoughts have gone missing. Add to this the facial tics he suffered from, which Todd believes were symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome, and you have someone whose verbal performances were inescapably fascinating, even if the oracular manner he favoured has now dated fatally, in our rhetorically shrivelled times.

Where art was concerned, Malraux never had any intention of limiting himself to the European canon; he meant to embrace all of it, no matter where or by whom it had been made, not only the ‘primitive’ forms from Africa or the Americas which had already been taken up by Modernism, but the art of India and the Far East as well. By the age of 20, he was projecting a history of world art, no less: a conspectus whose virtue so far as he was concerned was that it would allow him to refer the artefacts of one culture to those of another, preferably widely separated one – that is, to indulge for a first time that addiction to comparison that was to make much of his later writing on art so hard to keep up with. Had the scheme come to anything, it would have had one thing at least in its favour: it would have been thoughtfully and lavishly illustrated, which not so many art books were at the time. Here Malraux was years ahead of his publishing contemporaries, in seeing the function of such books as being to serve as what he later called a ‘museum without walls’. Todd gives him his due when it comes to the actual making as opposed to the writing of art books. In late adolescence he had acquired a genuine expertise in the techniques of publishing, and it was as an art editor that he was first drawn into working for Gaston Gallimard, who was, after 1918, the most worldly and best-served of Paris publishers, and, like his father before him, an art collector of means.

The association with Gallimard impelled Malraux on his first and most enduringly notorious adventure. In 1923, he travelled to colonial Indochina, in order to search out and buy artefacts for a new Paris gallery that Gallimard had opened. He was by now two years married, to Clara Goldschmidt. She had money, although hanging onto it with the high-spending André around was to prove a problem. Her family didn’t take to him, thinking he must be a fortune-hunter, which, to judge by what he’s quoted here as having said to her when the question of how he might make a living came up (‘Je ne vais tout de même pas travailler’), he was. Aesthetic curiosity alone would not have got the Malraux to the East; the trip was intended to show a profit: ‘Art + adventure = income,’ as Todd sums it uncharitably up. The income was to derive from wealthy Parisian art dealers, D.-H. Kahnweiler and the like, who would gladly buy exotic art objects brought back from Cambodia or Vietnam. What they didn’t inquire into – any more than their successors do today, as we keep reading – were the piratical methods by which an André Malraux might gain possession of the art in the first place. In the event, he went off up-country looting, ‘detaching’ a number of reliefs from a tenth-century temple. He was caught, tried and given three years by the colonial courts. Back home in Paris, there was agitation on his behalf in high places, as though he were already an eminence over whose fate the metropolis should be concerned. On appeal, the sentence was cut to a year, and suspended.

In November 1924, while Malraux was on his way back to France, an archaeologist who had given evidence against him in court, and wondered who on earth this well-connected young temple-raider might be, wrote a mystified letter to the director of the Ecole Française des Etudes Orientales:

I was therefore counting on learning a lot of things about Malraux in Paris. Not a bit of it. Those close to him know nothing about him. He was at every vernissage and in every avant-garde coterie. Everyone knew of him in the rowdy village of the late Apollinaire, [André] Salmon, [Pierre?] Rosenberg etc, holding forth on negro art, Greenlandish metaphysics and the day after tomorrow’s literature – but as to his means, his past, his family, as well look on the moon. Oh charm of Paris! And the indulgence of its natives! A well-cut jacket, a profound gaze, and away you go.

André Malraux, the man from nowhere, his tracks obscured, the literary and art worlds brought precociously under the spell by a charm that never deserted him, was on his way.

On his way back to South-East Asia in the first instance, to begin his off-and-on career as a political activist. Given how little interest he’d taken previously in anything political, this was hardly on the cards, the meteoric, well-tailored arriviste turning all of a sudden to agitprop. A bare two months after getting back to Paris, however, he and Clara set off for Saigon, where he helped to launch what its prospectus described as a ‘daily paper of franco-annamite rapprochement’. L’Indochine, soon to be given the more engagé title of L’Indochine enchaînée, was never a daily but a twice-weekly and it did a lively and incisive job of reporting the injustices committed against the native population by the colonial authorities, as well as improvising technically so as to thwart official attempts to put it out of business. Malraux proved himself an acute observer and analyst of the local regime, his opposition to which was founded not on any explicit ideology but on sympathy for the native condition. He was anti-colonist, not anti-colonialism as such: France’s ‘civilising mission’ might not be going too well on the ground, but it would have been defeatist to abandon it. Few then had independence in mind for France’s South-East Asian possessions.

He stayed a year in Indochina before returning to Paris, and to literature in place of journalism. The experience had given him ideas but it hadn’t turned him into an ideologue, when a commitment of that magnitude would have demanded a stability of mind and intellectual purpose that was foreign to him. But he believed that his twelve months in the East had given him the right to contrast its ways of thought at the highest level with those of the West, which he set about doing in the assured if often elusive generalisations of an exchange of letters between a young Frenchman and a young Chinese in a book ambiguously called La Tentation de l’Occident – are we meant to suppose that the West was doing the tempting or being tempted? Indochina, in short, was too confined a stage on which to perform. Politically speaking, far more significant things were going on to the north, in China proper. Malraux didn’t cross over into China during his stay in Saigon but he gave people to suppose afterwards that he had, that he had put himself about there and, in astoundingly short order, had even been taken on as a senior adviser to the Nationalists of the Kuomintang.

Compared with mere colonial unrest, the war being waged in China by the Nationalists and their Communist allies against the Government and its European backers was a geopolitical event well worth his attention, and it became the subject of two of his three major novels, Les Conquérants (1928) and La Condition humaine (1933). The first of these, which is set in Canton, was written before he ever set foot in China, but what he’d seen of Hong Kong and Saigon was enough to supply the novel with its ample urban colour. In La Condition humaine, the setting has moved north to Shanghai, and by the time he wrote it Malraux had been with Clara on an extensive Asian tour, staying in Shanghai and Peking among other places, not in order to see how things were progressing politically, but to buy more art. It would be nice to suppose that the buffoonish figure of the Baron de Clappique in this novel, a lapsed antique dealer now on the fiddle, is Malraux poking a little fun at himself, as a visiting art dealer set incongruously loose in a country engaged on a civil war. But humour wasn’t his strong suit: the identification is fanciful.

The politics in these two novels is subordinate to character, reduced as far as possible to the psychological, as it was in real life for Malraux, who could readily succumb to the man who embodied an ideology, Trotsky, say, whom he met briefly in France in 1933, or de Gaulle, but never to an ideology as a pure abstraction. The focus in both Les Conquérants and La Condition humaine is less on the Chinese, who are well suited by their sheer numbers to play the part of an anonymous collective, than on the murky freelances from Europe – French, German, Italian, Russian – who have found their way to the revolution and now seem, like so many Lawrences of Arabia, to be running it on behalf of the natives. These variously sombre individuals are Malraux heroes par excellence, intellectual men of action whose true cause is action itself. The violence of war is there in good measure in both books, but what you carry away from them in the end is more the dialogue that envelops the action with a view to raising it onto a higher intellectual plane, as the novelist in effect questions himself as to what reasons there might be for men like these to act as he has them acting. The one Communist hard man aside – the Comintern’s agent, Borodin, a historical figure who appears in both novels – their activism is ultimately downbeat, a romantic, paper-thin solution to the problem of how to live to some manly purpose in a universe that has no purpose. The sick propaganda chief Garine, in Les Conquérants, speaks for all of Malraux’s proto-Existentialist heroes: ‘I am fighting against human absurdity in doing what I do.’ The human condition of the Chinese proletariat thus comes to seem by the by, when, in metaphysical terms, the condition of the heroically lucid foreigners who are fighting to raise them out of it is no better. In his conversation with Trotsky, Malraux complained of Communism that even if it delivered on its promises in respect of life on earth, it still couldn’t do anything about death; Trotsky’s answer was that if a man did in life what he felt he had to do, then death became ‘simple’. But simplicity of that transcendent kind wasn’t for Malraux, for whom extinction in life, as opposed to fiction, could never make sense.

The third and best of his war novels, L’Espoir (1937), is the one book of his that Todd thinks deserves to endure, a severe judgment even if it’s hard to think of another that might keep it company. The difference between this and the Chinese novels is that there he was speculating, as to what a revolutionary’s life might be like in a country he didn’t know, whereas in L’Espoir he is remembering, or further dramatising what was dramatic enough in the first place: his own experience of the Spanish Civil War. Malraux got into that early on – partly as a way of escaping from Clara, so he told André Gide in a rare moment of levity (unless it wasn’t levity) – playing a major part in the recruitment and logistics of the ‘gloriosa aviación republicana’. Gloriosa the Republican Air Force was never able to be, but a makeshift collection of unreliable planes whose operation was dangerous and whose bombing raids were good for morale but strategically of small account. Malraux’s track record in the air was none too promising: a year or two earlier he’d helped mount a rash but futile aerial expedition to look for the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s capital city in the Yemen. His name was worth much to the Republicans in Spain, however, and it was his contacts with the Popular Front (but non-interventionist) Government in Paris that procured for them some useable French aircraft on the sly (thanks not least to a sympathetic Jean Moulin, the future Resistance hero, who was the Air Minister’s chef de cabinet). Malraux flew on bombing missions himself before withdrawing once the squadron was brought under Spanish control – and then named after him! (What fun the Roland Barthes of Mythologies would have had with the story of Malraux crouched down in the fuselage reading the plays of Corneille when his plane was being shot at.)

The novel that came out of Spain is securely grounded socially and territorially as the earlier two are not. The fliers, whether mercenaries or volunteers, have lived more ordinary lives in the past than their predecessors, the exchanges between them are often refreshingly mundane rather than philosophical, the practicalities of flying and maintaining the planes function as a source of tension, the Spaniards involved are convincing as the Chinese had not been, and above all there’s an authentic sense in the book of the fraternity that holds together a group of men who are chancing their lives to a common end. Fraternity was for Malraux the most desirable of ideals but it was rarely within reach for so extreme an individualist as himself. In Spain perhaps he briefly lived it.

The action in all three of these novels is delivered in short sequences, in a narrative equivalent of the parataxis characteristic of Malraux’s written and spoken manner. It’s also very obviously cinematic, and Malraux knew that his novels would film well. On a visit to Moscow in 1934, he had discussed turning La Condition humaine into a movie with Eisenstein. That fell through, seemingly because Eisenstein was worried that if they stuck closely to the novel the result might appear to be anti-Stalin. L’Espoir, however, was turned into a film, by Malraux himself, and a truly powerful one in my memory of it, showing For Whom the Bell Tolls up for the tosh it was. It was made in Spain in difficult conditions, as the Republic crumbled, and Todd is surely right to claim that the haunting 13-minute sequence of a bombing raid, in which the runway has to be lit by car headlights, is one of the greatest in any war movie.

Malraux did much less well in World War Two until quite near its end. He joined up in the ranks, was captured in May 1940, escaped without difficulty and made his way into the unoccupied zone in the South. There he lay low, describing the Resistance, even once it had begun to be properly organised, as ‘pas sérieux’. Because of what he saw as Malraux’s ambivalence towards the Germans, Drieu la Rochelle tried to recruit him to the collaborationist side, but soon desisted, put off by what he described, prophetically, as his ‘neutralité gaullisante’. Only in March 1944 did Malraux decide to join the Resistance, in the Corrèze where he was then living and after his two half-brothers had both been killed while serving in it. He at once took the rank of colonel but it’s not clear who or what he commanded, nor what if anything he achieved. By his own self-enhancing account, whose plausibility Todd demolishes item by item by reference to the French and German records, he was a résistant of stature, was captured, interrogated, put in front of a firing squad, and somehow talked his way out of it.

And then, weary or else ashamed of fake heroics, he set about organising and leading into action an improvised militia, the so-called Alsace-Lorraine Brigade, which, for all its poor equipment, fought bravely and with heavy losses alongside the regular Army units of de Lattre de Tessigny in eastern France in the last winter of the war. Malraux led from the front, did very well under fire and might, you’d have thought, have left it there. But Todd has inspected his subsequent military service record, which was, unusually, compiled by Malraux himself, is 27 pages long and is a tissue of fabrications. How finally to understand a man so given to wild and superfluous bravado that his real bravery comes to seem like an aberration?

Once the war was ended, the formerly gaullisant Malraux quickly became the complete Gaulliste. He was Minister of Culture and then of Information in the General’s short-lived postwar Government, though for all anyone knew at the time, he might well not yet have given up the left-wing views on which his celebrity so much depended. But politics for Malraux was now a binary affair: ‘What is there at this moment in this country?’ he asked his audiences. ‘There is us, the Communists, and nothing; or else people who are vaguely linked to us or people who are vaguely linked to them.’ He foresaw that once de Gaulle had given up office, Gaullism would come into its own as a political force and believed that he knew how to promote it, to be the Garine of a new nationalism. It turned out that he did know, working for several years as a very effective organiser and propagandist for the Gaullist Rassemblement du Peuple Français. It was inevitable therefore that he would go back to cohabiting when the General returned to power during the Algerian crisis. Malraux became Culture Minister for a second time, set about cleaning up Paris’s monuments and launched the provincial Maisons de la Culture, an enlightened attempt at the spreading outside the capital of the high culture that he so prized. Todd gives a splendid description of him in office, superior, affable, spendthrift, unfailingly eloquent. Ceremonial he loved – he must be the only writer since Bossuet to have published a collection of funeral orations – and the travelling, all the more fulfilling now that his own prestige was seconded by that of the General. According to Todd, he may have had serious hopes of actually succeeding de Gaulle when the time came.

When the time did come, however, in 1969, France got the ponderous Pompidou, not the slim and glittering Malraux. The May events of the previous year had at once stirred him – he decided in his best 1920s manner that this was a ‘crise de civilisation planétaire’ – and also cut the ground from under him, because he sensed that they heralded his own final expulsion from the political sphere. He remained a public figure, clocking up an astonishing 87 appearances on radio or television between 1967 and the year of his death, but was also a man in depression, off the alcohol of which for years he’d been drinking too much, but in regular need of medication: when he wanted sleeping pills, he insisted they be the ones Hitler had got off on. Todd follows him attentively but never pruriently down the last none too happy declivity of his life.

It won’t have been easy tracking Malraux down in the numerous environments, geographical, political, literary, commercial and domestic, in which he operated. But Todd has done it, as thoroughly as anyone could possibly want. His subject’s admirers certainly won’t like the tone of the book, which is often sardonic, as if Todd can’t believe that Malraux should have imposed himself for so long on a supposedly sceptical community – though Todd’s suggestion that he wouldn’t have got away with it in a truly sceptical community of Anglo-Saxons looks less flattering than illusory in the light of Jeffrey Archer’s trial. This admirable biography has persuaded me for one that there’s more to be got nowadays from reading about Malraux’s remarkable life than there is from returning to his oeuvre.