Article abstract: Malraux was a multifaceted twentieth century intellectual who had significant accomplishments in three worthy pursuits: As a novelist he produced some of the best fiction written in French during the century; in politics, he functioned successfully as a right-hand man to French President Charles de Gaulle; as an art critic, collector, and theorist, he also made noteworthy advancements.
Georges André Malraux was born in the Montmartre section of Paris on November 3, 1901, to Fernand Malraux and Berthe Lamy Malraux, middle-class parents who were ill-matched. When Malraux was four years old, his parents permanently separated and later divorced. At that time, the child and his mother went to Bondy to live with Andrienne Romania, his Italian maternal grandmother. Generally, he was reared by these two women and had minimal contact with his father. Perhaps the best part of his childhood was his frequent visits to Dunkerque, a coastal town in northern France, where he visited his grandfather, Alphonse Émile, a working-class industrialist with various seafaring business interests.
His education was received almost entirely in Bondy. Reportedly, he was quite bored most of the time in school, finding little in the curriculum to challenge his acute mind. In 1915, he applied for a scholarship at a private institution, the École Turgot, in Paris; this pursuit was successful, and he attended school there until 1918. Again, he was not entirely happy, although he did rather well. His interests, aptitudes, and energies were usually directed toward the study of literature and art, and he displayed a fascination with world history, civilizations, and cultures as well. Perhaps his dissatisfaction with educational institutions explains why he did not attempt to obtain a college degree.
Between 1918 and 1923, he worked for a bookseller in Paris, an activity that gave rise to his later editing and publishing, which, in turn, accounts for his early contact with numerous influential writers in Paris at the time, such as André Gide. During these years, he often attended lectures, visited and studied at museums and art galleries, and began to circulate in literary and art circles. In 1921, he published his first book, Lunes en papier (1921; paper moons), a work of fantasy written as a prose poem. During this same year, he married his first of three wives, Clara Goldschmidt, a well-to-do Jew who was in many respects his intellectual equal; subsequent to the marriage they traveled to Italy.
In 1923, Malraux and his wife traveled to Indochina, where they expected to find artifacts of the ancient Khmer civilization. During their search in Cambodia, Malraux, following the example of accepted precedent and practice, removed several figures from ancient stone ruins. The action was illegal and, as it happened, Malraux was caught by local authorities before the remnants were removed from the country. The twenty-two-year-old Malraux was arrested and went through a series of trials and appeals before the matter was finally dropped some six to eight years later. During this first trip to Indochina, Malraux learned about more than the ancient ruins that he sought: He saw at first hand the corruption of the French in their control of Indochina, and in 1925 he helped found a short-lived newspaper, L’Indochine, which was quite severe in its criticism of those in power in the colony.
For the rest of his life, Malraux displayed success after success in his pursuits of literature, art, and politics. To him, these areas were all different focuses of an overriding belief about the nature of man. Discovery of an existential self required expression in literature and art as well as action to right social wrongs and corrupt, even faulty, systems of government. He lived primarily as a radical and revolutionary yet almost always at the center of the influential figures and powerful leaders, not only in France but also throughout the world.
In retrospect, it is clear that his most outstanding contributions are in literature. His greatest novels were recognized as such at their initial publication: Les Conquérants (1928, 1949; The Conquerors, 1929, 1956), La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934; also as Storm in Shanghai, 1934), and L’Espoir (1937; Days of Hope, 1938; also as Man’s Hope, 1938). In each of these novels, he deals with the connection between identity and meaning for mankind in a context of revolution, which becomes the means of self-expression and assertion that can possibly transform one’s life from being meaningless to meaningful. Collectively, these three novels established Malraux as chief communist spokesman in Europe, although he later renounced and abandoned communist social and political theory. These novels were never communist propaganda pieces, as their conception and execution transcend matters of the state so as to dwell on the individualistic purposes of the main characters; specifically, characters try to escape their mortality by coming to terms with it—thus revolution in China, for example, as is the case for Man’s Fate, provides an appropriate setting and backdrop. Malraux never received the Nobel Prize, but he was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1933 for Man’s Fate.
In matters of art, Malraux, while deeply engrossed in contemporaneous productions, was more caught up with accomplishments of earlier civilizations. He joined or conducted several archaeological explorations, wrote numerous reviews, and befriended the most important artists of his...
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