Malraux, (Georges-)André 1901–1976
A French novelist and critic, Malraux unceasingly pursued the possibility of the individual's transcendence over mortality, triumph over silence and death, and subsequent ennoblement. He viewed Art as an integral part of humanity'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, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Behind the many masks of eroticism and heroism—whether he seems momentarily to express Communist or Gaullist ideology, whether he chooses the novel or the essay as his means of expression—Malraux (perhaps like most great writers) has reiterated only one point under the most diverse forms: the absolute impossibility for any individual to communicate with any other, even with those who belong to the same group….
The book in which this message, the inexorability of human solitude, appears most clearly—and which is also the most successful of his novels—is without a doubt La Condition Humaine. (p. 117)
Malraux's fictionally individualized characters are nomads, like islands separated by uncrossable abysses; even when their will is not … driven to affirm itself against everything else and to emphasize its distinction, they never succeed in meeting except for brief moments and usually derisively….
In La Condition Humaine, the incommunicability between men reappears at every level, in every form, as an obsessive certitude, the only one there is, along with death, of which it is doubtless the epiphany. Men are fundamentally separated one from the other by being distinct individuals. But this enormous misunderstanding reappears between human groupings and the forms of life they incarnate: the Communists, Ferral's consortium, and the Kuomintang are irreconcilable, not only on the economic or political level, but in their social and ideological structure; these are metaphysically incompatible existences. (p. 119)
The impossibility of communication through intelligence, love, or death is expressed by Malraux's novelistic technique in both the manipulation of episodes and his style.
As early as La Tentation de l'Occident—a book significant in subject and even in technique, since it is a dialogue between a European and an Oriental in letters which never really reply to one another—the rhythm evokes the cadence, line structure, and even the punctuation of Rimbaud's Illuminations. (p. 120)
One recognizes in [the] jerky cadence, in [the] sentences that deliberately ignore the rules of antecedents and clauses, subordinate or connecting, the aphoristic style that will develop into the great essays, the preface to Sanctuary, the essay on Les Liaisons dangereuses, and La Psychologie de l'Art….
Jean Cassou, I believe, has said of Éluard's poetry that it was composed entirely of stresses. One might say of Malraux's essays that they, too, are made up of a series of stresses. Juxtaposed disconnected affirmations are held together by no logic, no syntax, but by the rhetoric of periods and paragraphs, just as his novels set up characters beside and in front of one another (often too, at least in conclusion, one against the other) each of whom is a unique existence, imprisoned at times unwittingly in the separateness that makes him fundamentally incapable of living harmoniously with others. (p. 121)
The disjointedness that exists in the sentence and in the style reappears in the composition of whole works. Even the most hurried reader of the novels cannot fail to notice that the classic continuity of plot is replaced by a juxtaposition of sometimes simultaneous, more often successive scenes that unfold in various places and involve various characters. One passes without transition from one to the other, as in the projection of slides, by means of a series of flashes, and this choppy quality of the narration (which does not clarify the sequence of events) is further heightened by the breaking up, within each episode, of the scene described into a series of shots, similar to those in the movies, and doubtless inspired by them. This cutting up heightens the relief of the story at the cost of its continuity, the mind being less able than the eye to recompose what it has perceived in flashes. Clearly what is involved is not a mere artifice, and the novel is elevated above mere story-telling by this clash of episodes that the author deliberately, so to speak, brings into collision in order to compose from the various sparks and noises the meaning of his book, to be extracted by the reader. This discursiveness, however, seems fundamental to Malraux, who is probably incapable of saying what he means in any way other than in the exclusively aphoristic style of his essays, or in such beautiful, disconnected, and truly disordered novels as Les Conquérants, La Condition Humaine, L'Espoir and Les Noyers de l'Altenburg…. [With Les Conquérants] begins a truly revolutionary concept of literature which no longer entails simple consumption, but achieves a kind of cooperation between the author's production and the public. The latter are invited to contribute to the creation of the work through an effort at prolongation and reconstruction, since the book exists beyond its material aspect, and has become not only a novel but a super-novel; it is anything but an object of precise specification. Defined once and for all, it is an invitation to our participation. (pp. 121-22)
All Malraux's works are … torn, without hope of resolution, between at least two positions: a basic antihumanism (which is represented, depending on the circumstance, by intellectual pride, the will to power, eroticism, and so on), and an ultimately irrational aspiration toward charity, a rationally unjustifiable choice in favor of man.
The energy he exerts in placing metaphysically irreconcilable positions face to face without betraying them, or demeaning them, and in allowing them to preserve all their virulence and stamina, creates the power of Malraux's novels and gives them their quality of shock, of gripping violence; it also accounts for the weakness of the position, taken as a whole, in his essays. It was Gaëtan Picon, I believe, who first commented on the total absence in Malraux of truly evil characters. Few writers since Corneille have revealed themselves so totally inept at representing low, vile, or even simply nasty characters…. One might say that Malraux refuses to grant...
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[Malraux] has founded the Human in a rigorous geometry of differences. Whereas animals appear to ignore their impending death or to accept it as part of a larger natural process of continuity, Man posits his identity on the knowledge of his death as a radical rupture of his own continuity. Man is a consciousness of pure opposition to death or destin, and thus the activities which define him are termed anti-destin. Traditionally Malraux's novelistic evolution has been seen as a long and increasingly successful quest for authentic values which would serve as such an anti-destin. His early essays and novels make it clear that traditional Western social organizations are themselves incapable of providing authentic values, are simply absurd. Malraux's protagonists from Garine to Berger pursue an increasingly elusive ideal; they move from adventurous cynicism through Marxist idealism to a socratic pessimism and finally to contemplative resignation. Yet it is precisely when a peaceful sense of contemplation replaces a frustrated active idealism that Malraux's novelistic universe fails. However satisfying philosophically, Berger's contemplation of a new, yet ageless man comfortably ensconced in a life-and-death cycle fails as a novel. Les Noyers has been cast by its author into an enfer, stricken from the happy register of his official Oeuvres complètes.
Why should so apparently satisfying a human solution be so devastatingly unsatisfactory in a novel? Until the publication of Lazare, Malraux's work did not really provide an answer to this question…. (pp. 372-73)
[Lazare] is first of all a text about the death, impending and/or imagined, of its own narrator/author. Malraux, face to face with his own destin, the certainty of his own individual death, has usurped the role once accorded Perken, Garine, Kyo et al and narrates a personal death, here unmediated either by projection into another or by the comforting collective philosophy that merged from Les Noyers. The text as "mémoire-fiction" then, constitutes the best key we have to Malraux's fictions-mémoires. Inscribed under the general heading Le Miroir des limbes, Lazare purports to be a mythic reportage à la Stendhal from the realm beyond death…. (p. 373)
Death as a state to be entered exercises a powerful fascination on [Malraux]…. [Death] is a vacuum which exercises a powerful pull. The possibility of return expressed in the Lazarus myth serves merely as a pretext to an unbridled death-wish. DEATH WISH! The very term must at first seem preposterous when applied to a writer whose protagonists have so vehemently pursued a quest for an anti-destin. Yet the shock of this revelation is a revelation in itself. The explicit anti-destin roles taken by Malraux's characters from Perken to Berger notwithstanding, the discovery of so powerful a death-wish in Lazare casts a new light on their motivations…. [As Freud noted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:] "The instinctual aim of life is death, but external historical influences have forced the organism to take circuitous paths to get there."
Malraux's protagonists may indeed have been motivated by the very opposite of what has previously been advanced. The expression of their death-wish, in many instances, is not even terribly circuitous…. In almost every case, rather than obeying "la force...
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