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.

Yet the dissension I found in Paris extends as far as Chicago. Introducing The Conquerors, Malraux’s 1928 novel of the 1925 Canton uprising, Herbert Lottman takes a far more abrasive tone than his two colleagues. ‘The Con-querors,’ he says, ‘has been called ... the “least good” of the author’s books. If so, where to place Man’s Hope, Days of Wrath, and the post-Word War Two self-advertisements and hagiographies of General De Gaulle?’ For Lottman, the book is ‘a well-built narrative account of a revolutionary episode as it might have happened, with convincing personae who might reasonably have taken part in it’. Faint praise indeed. But then, ‘all his life long Malraux was an actor playing Malraux.’

A conscious echo, no doubt, of Jean Cocteau’s remark that ‘Victor Hugo was a mad-man who thought he was Victor Hugo.’ But Lottman’s – and others’ – objection to Malraux was less that he was mad than that he was misleading. ‘For all of his life André Malraux let it be believed, by allusions, knowing nods, sometimes by outright fabulation, that he had been part of the Bolshevik task force of Mikhail Borodin in Canton in 1925. A brief biographical note distributed with the first German translation of The Conquerors in 1928, clearly composed by Malraux himself, described the author as a propaganda aide to Communist International operative Borodin, and Malraux would say no less to interviewers and critics, even in writing (notably to Edmund Wilson).

In fact, Malraux may scarcely have set foot on the Chinese mainland when he wrote The Conquerors. Yet the book convinced no less a reader than Leon Trotsky that it was based on first-hand experience. It even convinced an old China hand like Jean Fontenoy, editor of Le Journal de Shanghai. ‘I do not know André Malraux,’ he conceded, ‘but I have reason to suppose that he took part in this whole Cantonese affair.’ Probably, Malraux almost convinced himself. ‘Sometimes for him,’ said one of his younger Paris friends, ‘imagination can become a kind of experience: that’s perhaps the answer.’ A slightly hangdog answer, one might think, on behalf of a mythmaker unmasked: but a tribute, however backhanded, to his writing’s imaginative power.

The doubts surrounding Malraux’s supposed Chinese exploits are only part of the bill of indictment drawn up by his critics. More reprehensible than mythmaking was his earlier expedition, with his first wife Clara, to excavate Cambodian antiquities with a view to selling them in the United States. ‘In a sense,’ his biographer Jean Lacouture admitted to me, ‘they were thieves.’ And indeed, they were apprehended. Malraux was tried and convicted, although his sentence was later suspended after protests from Paris, organised partly by his wife. At the time, however, he was only twenty and almost penniless – much more a dilettante than a plunderer. His adventure led on, moreover, to his running an anti-colonialist newspaper in Saigon. Without that experience, he would probably never have written The Conquerors or, five years later, his Gon-court Prize-winning novel Man’s Estate.

Malraux’s subsequent role in the Spanish Civil War against Franco has also been questioned, largely because he threw in his lot with the Communists – although he continued to criticise them elsewhere. But he did raise money for the Republicans; he did organise the España air squadron; and he did risk his life. Equally, he brought back from the conflict the novel Man’s Hope (L’ Espoir) and the film based on part of it. In Herbert Lottman’s view, ‘he was most effective in Man’s Fate (La Condition humaine) and in The Conquerors, both set in a China he didn’t know, in whose revolution he had not participated, least in Man’s Hope (L’Espoir), about a Spain he knew and fought for.’

This is a judgment open to appeal. Page after page of Man’s Hope, as of Man’s Estate, still crackle with authenticity – not least the account of a Fascist firing-squad, whose victims look to the spectators as if they have jumped backwards into the ditch to escape the shots. ‘They had not escaped,’ adds Malraux coldly. ‘The onlookers had seen them jump first – but the squad had already fired.’

Malraux’s film, likewise, has a raw, rough, convincing edge to it: one can almost smell sweat, oil and smoke. The critic and film historian Michel Ciment sees it as a forerunner of Italian neo-realism. But although Malraux wrote a ‘Sketch for a Psychology of the Cinema’ and later wondered whether films might not supersede novels, he never allowed the camera to seduce him from the pen. For two and a half years after the fall of France in World War Two, in fact, he settled in the so-called ‘Free Zone’ in the South to write The Walnut Trees of Altenburg.

This fact, for Malraux’s critics, is a further count against him. Here he was, living in some style at St Jean-Cap-Ferrat with his new companion Josette Clotis, and writing a partly historical novel whose intellectual core was what Conor Cruise O’Brien calls ‘a Franco-German colloquium’. But this book, too, contains passages of incomparable power. ‘The description of the gas attack on the Russian front in 1915,’ says O’Brien, ‘will never be forgotten by anyone who has read it.’ He adds: ‘The reader’s horror ... is deepened by knowledge of something of which Malraux himself was almost certainly unconscious at the time he wrote that description. On 20 January 1942, the conference at Wannsee, Berlin, coordinated the execution of the Final Solution. While Malraux was writing that description in Southern France, the gassing of millions of human beings, of both sexes and all ages, had already begun in German-occupied Eastern Europe.’

Admittedly, Malraux came late to the French Resistance. At the beginning of the war, serving in a tank regiment, he had been captured – an experience echoed in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg – but soon escaped. In 1944, in the Maquis, he was captured again, and again released; finally, he commanded the Alsace Lorraine Brigade in Eastern France, and fought with reckless courage. A famous photograph shows him after the Brigade had liberated Sainte-Odile, in beret, knee-boots and fur-collared combat jacket, a cigarette between his fingers. His face is bitter and dejected. As well it might be. Not long before, Josette Clotis had died in a senseless accident, falling under a train. She left him two sons. Soon afterwards, death struck again. Malraux’s two brothers were killed – one of them absurdly, when the Allies bombed his Nazi prison ship. Malraux then married his brother’s widow Madeleine, and adopted her son (his nephew Alain) to be brought up with the sons he had by Josette Clotis.

Madeleine and Alain described to me the private face of André Malraux – shyer, more vulnerable and more self-critical than the public mask. He was awkward with his children, but he could be playful and witty. At odd moments while working he drew doodles of cats and devils which he gave to Madeleine, who collected them in a scrapbook, now published and exhibited briefly in a gallery in the Palais-Royal. In one of them, Malraux mocked himself as ‘the Critic of Modern Art’.

By that time, after World War Two, he had acquired his new persona as the theorist of ‘the imaginary museum’ – that mental pantheon now accessible to everyone through new techniques of colour reproduction in Skira and other books on art. Malraux’s voluminous aesthetic writings, in The Voices of Silence and elsewhere, are still criticised on technical grounds by art historians like Ernst Gombrich, notably for making far-fetched comparisons between works from different epochs and civilisations. But they belong to an honoured French literary tradition which includes Diderot, Baudelaire and the Goncourt brothers; and, like Malraux’s voluble conversation, they include remarkable insights. As Pierre Rosenberg, a curator at the Louvre, put it: ‘Suddenly in this torrent of words you find a sort of diamond.’

The final reproach addressed to André Malraux was that from 1945 onwards he threw in his lot with General Charles De Gaulle, first as Minister of Information, then (from 1959 to 1969) as Minister of State for Cultural Affairs. This new-found allegiance particularly troubled his former allies on the Left. But even a critic on the Centre-Right, Jean-François Revel, shares Herbert Lottman’s dislike of the Gaullist ‘hagiography’ in Malraux’s Fallen Oaks (Les Chênes qu’on abat) – supposedly based on one last conversation with the General ‘it reminds me,’ said Revel, chuckling, ‘of those themes for literary dissertations that were often given for the Baccalauréat: “Imagine Goethe and Sophocles meeting and talking about Shakespeare.” ’ Yet in his own Memoirs the General paid special tribute to Malraux, ‘this brilliant friend’; and Maurice Schumann, his Foreign Minister, assured me that the portrait in Fallen Oaks was ‘the way the General would have liked to be remembered’.

Malraux’s role as Minister for Culture was no less controversial. The Maisons de la Culture that he established in the provinces are now generally seen as expensive fiascos. Professor Marc Fumaroli of the Collège de France recently published a polemical book, L’Etat culturel, attacking the whole idea of French government backing for the arts as championed by Malraux – a self-glorifying state policy, he argued, dating back to the 1789 Revolution and to the nationalist propaganda of Stalin’s and Hitler’s régimes. What was more, Fumaroli told me, Malraux ‘managed to destroy not only the traditional edifice of art education but also the Commission Nationale des Bâtiments de France’ – both, in Fumaroli’s eyes, useful buffers against the overweening state. Malraux was also blamed, almost universally, for removing France’s great film library, the Cinémathèque, from day-to-day control by its eccentric, disorganised and brilliant founder, Henri Langlois.

Even on this point, however, Malraux has his advocates – and they include some admirers of Langlois. About 95 per cent of the Cinémathèque’s funds came from government subsidy. Under Langlois, its films were sometimes ill-preserved and its finances ill-prepared. What was more, as Minister for Culture Malraux set up in 1960 the Avance sur recettes system that still ploughs a percentage of box-office receipts back into French filmmaking. ‘Without that,’ said Michel Ciment, ‘the French cinema would probably be in the same state as the British cinema today.’

Other witnesses praised Malraux’s support for French music and – almost unanimously – his insistence that the sooty stonework of Paris be cleaned. Nor, pace Fumaroli, had Malraux the Minister been a mere mouthpiece for the state. On several occasions, he defended ‘subversive’ writers like Jean Genet or Henri Alleg against right-wing censorship – at least once joining forces for the purpose with his ideological opponents in the shape of Louis Aragon and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Paradoxically, a thin hidden thread of influence linked Malraux with Sartre and Camus. It was Malraux, in The Conquerors, who first gave expression in Prance to that sense of ‘the absurd’ which later became the hall-mark of Existentialism. His self-doubting hero Garine drew his strength, said the book’s narrator, ‘from his deep feeling that human existence is absurd.’

It certainly proved so for Malraux. In 1961, death dealt him yet another blow: both his sons were killed in a car crash. ‘Let’s speak of something else,’ he told one friend just after the tragedy. But to another, years later, he said: ‘When your sons die, you cannot understand a word in this world.’

I used to see Malraux, in his later years, attending De Gaulle’s majestic press conferences. Grim and solid, racked by nervous tics, he looked like some great Medieval abbot, possibly unfrocked. ‘Yes, yes,’ agreed Jean Lacouture: ‘He had the face of a heretic priest. The man who invented great heresies could have the same face, the same passion and the same troubles, the same haunted face.’ He was, in fact, an agnostic, haunted by mortality almost all his life, since his father and perhaps his grandfather had committed suicide. No wonder, then, as Conor Cruise O’Brien points out in his Foreword to The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, that ‘Malraux’s affirmations of Life ring a bit hollow. What he writes well about is Death.’ On that, I imagine, even his detractors are agreed.