Anti-Memoirs Essay - Critical Context

Andre Malraux

Critical Context

The publication of Anti-Memoirs was eagerly awaited in French literary circles and became arguably the prime literary event of the decade of the 1960’s in France. The book was widely reviewed (more than four hundred times) and largely acclaimed in France and throughout the world; indeed, its English translation rights commanded an unusually high price for a book of its kind.

Much of the keen interest aroused by Anti-Memoirs derived from the stature of its author and subject, André Malraux. Rumor had it that he was the eminence grise behind de Gaulle. Clearly, Malraux was an influential intellectual, a man of significant action, and a literary genius. André Gide considered him the most intelligent man in France, the young Jean-Paul Sartre regarded him as an exemplar of existentialism, and the Nobel laureate Albert Camus thought that Malraux was more deserving of the prize than he. Malraux and Lawrence of Arabia were often mentioned in the same breath. Readers therefore turned to Anti-Memoirs to learn more of this multifaceted genius. Some expected it to resolve speculations about Malraux’s involvement in Chinese politics during the 1920’s and about Malraux’s turn from the politics of the Left to those of the Right, a change that had much exercised the imagination and indignation of some French intellectuals. Yet others hoped for some delicious morsels from Malraux’s private life, possibly in refutation of the 1963 memoir of Clara Malraux, his divorced first wife.

Malraux’s book certainly disappointed some of these expectations, especially the hopes for disclosures like those of André Gide’s or Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s autobiographies. Malraux chose to be more metaphysical than personal, focusing as he did on the teleological question whether human existence has meaning and purpose. Malraux also confounded some readers by testing the conventions of the autobiographical genre with his inclusions of fiction in purportedly factual prose.

Anti-Memoirs certainly sheds light on Malraux’s attitudes and values regarding art, death, nature, greatness in men, the fundamental in life, human dignity and human abjectness. Throughout, his confidence in the mystery of the human experience is insistently symbolized in the archetypal “return to the earth.” Upon this mystery Malraux builds his humanistic faith. The intrusion of merely personal matters into concerns of such profundity could only serve to trivialize them—and, true to its author’s intent, Anti-Memoirs does not trifle.