Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339
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 time, including Pablo Picasso. Malraux held that all forms of art, whether painting, photography, stone cuttings, or voodoo dolls, were all expressions of some sort of unified whole wherein lay truth and wherein it became possible for one human being to communicate with another. Accordingly, he found common qualities and characteristics in all art, and he discounted fashionable explanations that saw differences in art as explainable in terms of differences in time and culture. He also applied this understanding to literature, finding common features in totally different works. For him, literature was one form of artistic expression and merely one part of a coherent, unified wholeness.
Malraux believed that political beliefs require action more than study, just as in literature and art he argued that appreciation required production. Accordingly, he was politically active throughout his life for one cause or another; yet, his pursuits were always intelligent, defensible ones. He served as a soldier, diplomat, spokesman, speech writer, and speech giver, among other things, never really turning down an opportunity to be politically involved. As a close friend to Charles de Gaulle, he always found such opportunities available.
A chronology of Malraux’s life demonstrates these various endeavors and accomplishments. From 1923 to 1926, he was involved with archaeological studies and political intrigue in French Indochina. In 1926, he returned to Paris to write of his experiences in Asia and published The Conquerors in 1928. For the next three years, he and Clara traveled extensively throughout the world, visiting Iran, Afghanistan, India, Japan, China, and the United States. He organized art exhibitions of Gothic, Buddhist, Greek, and Hindu works, placing these various works beside one another in the same showings. In 1931, Leon Trotsky and he debated The Conquerors. In 1933, Malraux wrote a preface for William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), his daughter Florence was born, and he was subsequently divorced from Clara.
In 1934, Malraux used the money from the Prix Goncourt to search for the location of the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba in the Middle East. He became president of the World Committee against War and Fascism and gave a speech at the first Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow, where he met Boris Pasternak, Maxim Gorky, and Joseph Stalin. Two years later, he became active in the Spanish Civil War, where he organized and led the Escuadrilla España; he participated in dozens of military operations in the air and was wounded twice. After recovering from these wounds, he went to the United States to raise money for the Republican cause in Spain; in the United States he met Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, and Robert Oppenheimer.
At the outset of World War II, Malraux joined the French Tank Corps as a private and was again wounded in battle. He was taken prisoner and escaped five months later. During the war, his second wife, Josette Clotis, also a writer, was killed in a train accident. (His two children by this marriage, Gautier and Vincent, were killed in an automobile accident in 1961.) In 1944, now serving in the army under the pseudonym “Colonel Berger,” he was wounded and captured a second time to be interrogated by the Gestapo, which threatened to kill him. After the war, he met and befriended Charles de Gaulle, for whom he served as minister of information. He received an award from the Legion of Honor, and he completed his film Espoir (1947; Man’s Hope), which won the Prix Louis Delluc.
During the next thirty years, Malraux continued to be relentlessly active in every way. He gave dozens of speeches, both political and literary; he wrote dozens of reviews and published another twelve or so book-length studies and works of fiction; he traveled extensively both on behalf of the French government and in pursuit of his own interests. His third marriage (1950) was to Marie-Madeleine Lioux, a concert pianist and widow of his half-brother Roland, who had been killed in the war. Most noteworthy of his sundry accomplishments during these years include his service as minister of information (1958) and minister for cultural affairs (1959-1969) during de Gaulle’s second administration. He visited two American presidents: John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Richard Nixon in 1972 before Nixon’s visit to China. (In 1965 Malraux had gone to China to meet Chou En-lai and Mao Zedong.) His most important work from these later years was Antimémoires (1967; Anti-Memoirs, 1968). He died in Paris in 1976 of pulmonary congestion, having just turned seventy-five years old.
André Malraux’s life and accomplishments are exemplary of the struggle to find meaning in life in the twentieth century and formed a prelude to coming historical events and intellectual thought. His multifaceted activities well served his beliefs about action being necessary to give meaning to study and thought. In his greatest work, Man’s Fate, Malraux has the main character say “What am I? A kind of absolute, the affirmation of an idiot: an intensity greater than that of all the rest.” The character, like Malraux himself as representative of modern man, recognizes his existential limitations and the requirements placed upon him if he is to escape idiocy by becoming more intense than others who suffer the disease of idiocy. In another place, the character comments that “his mythomania is a means of denying life, don’t you see, of denying, and not of forgetting. Beware of logic in these matters. . . .” That man exists as a madman is commonplace enough in modern literature, but perhaps only in the works and life of Malraux is there such possibility of hope for escaping the madness through understanding it and taking purposeful action—if that can be defined. Malraux believed that only in art, literature, and activity could man transcend the bounds of futile existence. As in the literature of other leading twentieth century figures, characters and people are alone; yet through art and literature this entrapment in aloneness can be meaningfully lived with if not escaped. Malraux believed that the fact of alienation is the source of mythomania and idiocy and that the mythomania is the source of whatever salvation from it there may be.
Blumenthal, Gerda. André Malraux: The Conquest of Dread. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960. Blumenthal’s scholarly study focuses on the darkness and alienation of modern life as it appears in Malraux’s major works. She traces the theme of the dread of death as an impetus for finding creativity and meaning in life.
Courcel, Martine de, ed. Malraux: Life and Work. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. This book is a collection of essays written by people who knew well Malraux’s life and works. It is perhaps the best available overall guide to his work and life, as the essays have a bent toward the biographical and treat the various aspects of his pursuits.
Dorenlot, Françoise, and Micheline Tison-Braun, eds. André Malraux: Metamorphosis and Imagination. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1979. The essays collected in this volume focus on the matter of “transformation of life into art.” In so doing, “imagination” is held as the common denominator in the production of literature and art. The work contains a most useful chronology of Malraux’s life and a bibliography of secondary sources.
Frohook, W. M. André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1952. This study focuses primarily upon Malraux’s actions and productivity within the context of the intellectual. The criticism is highly biographical and political; Frohook’s discussion of the three main novels is valuable.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. André Malraux. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1960. Hartman discusses the “adventure” aspects of Malraux’s life, arguing that he was something of a universal, timeless man. The treatment of his political activities is not in-depth.
Hewitt, James Robert. André Malraux. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. This study is an amalgam of approaches to Malraux’s life. Criticism, biography, theory, and fact are all joined to interpret the meaning of Malraux’s life and accomplishments.
Horvath, Violet M. André Malraux: The Human Adventure. New York: New York University Press, 1969. Horvath’s rather well-written book focuses upon Malraux’s art and politics and does not emphasize the literature. The chapter on the Anti-Memoirs is especially lucid.
Jenkins, Cecil. André Malraux. New York: Twayne, 1972. Jenkins argues that Malraux’s greatest accomplishments were in literature; thus, the writer’s pursuits of art, politics, journalism, and so forth are all treated as of lesser import.
Kline, Thomas Jefferson. André Malraux and the Metamorphosis of Death. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973. Kline analyzes the style and structure of Malraux’s works in order to comment about their philosophical and moral meanings. The bibliography is especially thorough.
Lewis, R. W. B., ed. Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. This collection brings together much of the valuable pieces of criticism on Malraux, including selections from Leon Trotsky, Edmund Wilson, and Maurice Blanchot.