Malraux, (Georges-)André 1901–1976
A French novelist and critic, Malraux unceasingly pursued the possibility of the individual's transcendence of his mortal fate, his triumph over silence and death, and his subsequent ennoblement. He viewed Art as man's dynamic search for absolutes. His fiercely intelligent novels of ideas are considered among the world's most important contemporary works. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Everything [in The Conquerors]—its dense and beautiful style, the keen eye of the artist, the original and daring observations—contributes to making this a novel of exceptional importance. If I speak of it at this time, it is not because the novel is filled with talent, though this is not a negligible fact, but because it is a most valuable source of political lessons. Do they stem from Malraux? No, they emerge from the story itself, unbeknown to the author, and testify against him, which does honor both to the observer and to the artist in him, but not to the revolutionary. However, we are justified in appreciating Malraux from this point of view: neither in his own name, nor, and above all, in the name of Garine his second self, is the author stingy with his judgments on the revolution.
The book is called a novel. What in fact we have before us is a fictionalized chronicle of the Chinese revolution during its first period, the Canton period. The chronicle is incomplete. It is in some cases deficient in its grasp of the social reality. By contrast, the reader sees not only luminous episodes of the revolution, but also clearly delineated silhouettes that engrave themselves in one's memory like social symbols.
By little touches of color, in the manner of the pointillistes, Malraux paints an unforgettable picture of the general strike, not, of course, as seen from below, as it is carried on, but as seen from above—the European colony is without luncheon, it suffocates from heat: the Chinese have stopped work in the kitchens and have ceased operating the ventilators. This is not by way of reproach to the author. The foreign artist could doubtlessly not have handled his themes otherwise. But another criticism can be made that is indeed important: the book lacks a natural affinity between the author, in spite of all he knows and understands, and his heroine, the Revolution.
The author's truly profound sympathy for insurrectionist China is undebatable. But it is corrupted by excesses of individualism and of esthetic caprice. In reading the book with sustained attention, one sometimes feels resentful when, from the tone of the writing, one perceives a note of patronizing irony toward these barbarians capable of enthusiasm. That China is backward, that certain of her political manifestations seem primitive, are not factors one asks be overlooked. But there should be a true perspective that puts everything in its proper place. The Chinese events that provide the backdrop for Malraux's novel are incomparably more significant for the future destiny of human culture than the vain and pathetic blustering of European parliaments and the mountains of literary products...
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[La Condition Humaine (Man's Fate)] develops in a more explicit way the ideas implicit in Les Conquérants. La Condition Humaine is a much more ambitious and a more remarkable book than Les Conquérants. In the latter, Garine pretty well holds the spotlight, and there is an "I" who plays the role of Dr. Watson, deeply agitated by his hero's every utterance and standing by, indefatigably wide-eyed, while Garine receives portentous telegrams. He also plays the role of Conrad's Marlow. He is, in fact, our old friend the fictional observer who, from a more or less conventional point of view, looks on at a mystery or a moral problem. In [La Condition Humaine], however, the novelist gets rid of his European observer and, meeting Trotsky's challenge [see excerpt above], attacks the revolution directly. Dealing with cultures the most diverse, moral systems the most irreconcilable, he establishes a position outside them which enables him to dispense with the formulas alike of the "academic mandarins" and of the orthodox Communists. I do not know of any modern book which dramatizes so successfully such varied national and social types. Beside it, even E. M. Forster's admirable A Passage to India appears a little provincial; you even—what rarely happens nowadays to the reader of a French novel—forget that author is French…. The personalities of Malraux's characters are organically created and thoroughly explored. We not only witness their acts and see them in relation to the forces of the social-political scene: we share their most intimate sensations. (p. 27)
The device of presenting in dramatic scenes the exposition of political events, to which we owe Garine and his eternal dispatches, here appears as a series of conversations...
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[André Malraux] is often called a "tragic humanist," because in novels like Man's Fate, in particular, he was obsessed with the inherent tragedy of the human predicament. His characters were trapped by our common inability to transcend our human limitations, beginning with our mortality. But in later years his emphasis has changed somewhat: our metaphysical situation, as he sees it, remains tragic in essence, but his way of feeling it is less dramatic and he no longer writes tragic novels. He prefers to think of himself as a kind of "witness." (pp. 3-4)
The meaning of "witness" appropriate here emerges from a consideration of the Anti-memoirs. Nothing else explains the juxtaposition of brilliant passages from The Walnut Trees with accounts of interviews with Nehru, Mao, and de Gaulle, with a report of Malraux's own somewhat harebrained search for the lost capital of the Queen of Sheba…. (p. 4)
[In Man's Fate] Malraux uses an unidentified narrating voice that is free to assume various points of view as need arises. The action is concentrated in two spaces of time measurable in hours, with a lull separating them while the leaders go to Hangkow, so that the episodes take place either simultaneously or so nearly so that no single eye could plausibly observe them all. For a novel in which each character's "destiny" is equated with his particular Angst, Malraux's strategy permits him to avoid the two-dimensional, somewhat allegorical effect some readers find in the novels that preceded Man's Fate. Each tortured character, in other words, can be viewed through the eyes of various other, equally tortured ones, and made to appear more nearly in the round. (p. 18)
Man's Fate made Malraux an international figure, but is no more an orthodox Communist novel than The Conquerors: revolution again appears as an escape from personal anguish; the class struggle hardly figures in it; most of the characters are again alienated middle-class intellectuals—certainly not workers. And if a political lesson can be derived from the story, it is that the Internationale sets expediency above human values: the office in Hangkow is willing to let men like Malraux's heroes die rather than take a risk itself. (p. 21)
Days of Wrath is an excellent example of an essentially political emotion transmuted into an aesthetic object. It tells about a Communist imprisoned by the Nazis and his subsequent escape. (p. 22)
Malraux considers Days of Wrath "a botched job," quite possibly because it uses so much he had used before. He had tried to reduce his story to the ultimate essentials of tragedy—"one man and his destiny," as he has it in his introductory note—with the hero as a kind of Everyman, matching the resources of the human against the inhumanity represented by the Nazis. But stripped to its abstract schematic structure, Days of Wrath is strikingly like The Royal Way: each pits the human against the inhuman; the human wins, but the victory is temporary in each case. (pp. 22-3)
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[All Malraux's] novels, with the possible exception of La Voie royale, are set in contemporary history, telling of revolution and war. Malraux seems to rival the news reporter, indeed he uses reportage techniques. Incidents and scenes are dated: 5 June Shanghai, Madrid, Teruel, Guadalajara and so on. (p. 10)
The detail and the march of events may prove confusing at first reading—and this has been seen as a weakness in Malraux's narrative technique. He is not concerned with reporting or history; though some of the events happened, the actors are imagined and the testimony is not that of the eyewitness but of the analyst. While it has been said that Malraux's story offers the best account of...
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André Malraux wrote about men and places. The men were larger than life and the places distant. Women scarcely figured in his books, and when they did they functioned as backdrops which reflected and glorified their men….
[For] Malraux, the novelist and the man, political controversies have always provided the pretext to confront larger, more metaphysical problems. The French title for Man's Fate is La Condition humaine, and this phrase, gleaned from Pascal, bespeaks a concern with broader issues than what political group would take over China. This novel's real theme is alienation; which Malraux highlights by having each character, no matter what his nationality, somehow...
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