André Malraux

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

André Malraux died November 23, 1976, a year after the publication of Jean Lacouture’s biography. In a message to Malraux’s daughter, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing referred to Malraux’s “life of commitment, marked by an exceptional dialogue between creative work and action” and to his “vision of man, with which he lived and for which he fought.” (New York Times, November 23, 1976) Malraux’s creative work included novels, art history, essays, memoirs, films, speech-making, and editorial work. The action of his life preceded, was contemporary with, or followed the experiences described in his writings. So great were his energy, his ability, and his accomplishments, that in his own lifetime, he became a legend—a legend which he helped to exaggerate and to contradict.

Born in Paris on November 3, 1901, Malraux decided before he left school at seventeen that he wanted to be a writer. To prepare himself he read voraciously. The Three Musketeers and the works of Flaubert and Shakespeare were early favorites. To support himself he became a buyer for a bookstore. The owner recognized his exceptional intellectual gifts and invited him to help him launch a review. It was in this journal—La Connaissance—that Malraux published his first article: “Les origines de la poésie cubiste.” Work with other journals followed. He came to know through them many important literary figures who remained of lasting importance to him. An article on André Gide in Action brought a letter from Gide himself.

Action brought together Malraux and Clara Goldschmidt, his future wife, in 1920. They had many interests to share: painters and poets, novelists and philosophers, museums, travel and learning. Malraux paid her a high compliment: “I know only one person as intelligent as you—Max Jacob.” High praise indeed, for Jacob was Malraux’s idol in the early postwar years. André and Clara became lovers and wanted to marry immediately, but Malraux’s father refused to give his permission. The couple went to Italy, nevertheless, feasting on intellectual and artistic delights, and were married upon their return. Their wedding trip took them to Prague, Berlin, and Antwerp, a foretaste of the life they were to lead.

Malraux had vastly broadened his horizons through his adventures with Clara, the daughter of naturalized Jewish immigrants who were also wealthy. But his appetite had merely been whetted. Partly as a result of lectures that he had attended at the Ecole des langues orientales, partly from visits to the Musée du Trocadero, and partly from research he had done, Malraux conceived the idea of going to Cambodia for aesthetic and monetary profit. He had discovered that many temples of great artistic worth were being claimed by the jungle. He was confident that rich Americans would welcome the chance to buy them if he and Clara could get them out of their fastnesses. To this end, the Malrauxs initiated correspondence with German and American dealers and embarked for Cambodia in late 1923. Upon arriving in French Indochina in November, they were granted permission to visit the temples but were enjoined from removing any part of them. Ignoring such admonitions, they proceeded to one of the most beautiful, sawed it, packed it, and loaded it onto a ship which took them to Phnom Penh where they were arrested. They were found guilty but not jailed. Clara returned to France to raise money for an appeal. The six months of the police investigation allowed Malraux time to examine the structure and merits of French colonialism. From this moment on, he expressed himself loudly and constantly on the subject of freedom. Given a suspended sentence of one year, Malraux left for Paris in November, 1924. Back in Paris, he announced to Clara their imminent return to Saigon to establish a newspaper. The adventure they had undergone gave them a commitment. They must topple colonialism and aid the oppressed.

Prior to departure for Saigon, Malraux had received a contract from Grasset for three books based on his Indochina experiences, largely through the good offices of François Mauriac. He and Clara were to stay in Saigon until all their funds were exhausted—in 1925. They were not successful in overthrowing or reforming the colonial system, but they learned a great deal. When their press was confiscated, they went to Hong Kong for four or five days, as tourists, to try to obtain type. This was Malraux’s only visit to (geographical) China before 1931. He and Clara returned to France in January 1926 and he carried with him the inspiration for his early books: La Tentation de l’occident, Les Conquérants, La Voie royale, and La Condition humaine. Malraux needed and found a great imagination to so intensify the impressions of his brief visit to Hong Kong that he could write of the Shanghai events of the Chinese revolution of 1927 as if he were an observer.

Back in Paris, Malraux devoted himself to literary pursuits which produced four works between 1926 and 1927. These efforts brought him to the attention of the intellectual world but although the works dealt with the Indochina situation, they were hardly the overt efforts against colonialism that he had led friends in Saigon to expect. That would have to wait until 1933 and S.O.S. In 1928 Les Conquerants was published in five installments in the prestigious Nouvelle Revue française, and appeared in book form the same year. This work of dramatic realism was hailed by Waldemar George in La Presse as “’more than a new form of art,’ it was ’a new vision.’” It was a vision of the revolutionary who flees the absurd while seeking the human. It involved an account of the activities of Borodin, a Russian envoy, and Garine, a creation of Malraux’s imagination, in the strike at Canton and Hong Kong in 1925.

1933 saw the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXIX. February 28, 1976, p. 163.

Christian Century. XCIII, January 28, 1976, p. 75.

Commonweal. CIII, July 2, 1976, p. 442.

New York Review of Books. XXIII, March 4, 1976, p. 10.

New York Times Book Review. January 11, 1976, p. 1.

Saturday Review. III, January 24, 1976, p. 34.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Spring, 1976, p. 55.