Malraux, (Georges-)André (Vol. 9)
Malraux, (Georges-) André 1901–1976
Malraux was a French novelist, diplomat, philosopher, critic, and art historian. Avoiding strictly personal considerations in his writings, Malraux chose to deal with universal themes of the irrevocability of death, human suffering, isolation, dignity, and the search for absolutes. Best known in literary circles for his Man's Fate and The Conquerors, Malraux, an existentialist, saw violence as an unavoidable and elemental aspect of the human condition, for violence is action, human action, before a world that is both inane and solitary. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
The highest forms of art, argues Malraux [in his Psychologie de l'art], are precisely those which underscore the moments of crisis when man becomes acutely aware of his destiny. The universally tragic feeling of revolt is attributed to art as its most noble and ultimate function, both in Malraux's approach to art and art history and in his conception of character, structure, and imagery in relation to his novels. (p. 799)
[If] Malraux discovers in the highest artistic achievements of all ages the desire to justify and defend the self against the finality of death, it is largely in the wake of the collective protest of Romanticism that his attitude is most easily understood…. Romanticism expressed a profound distrust of all that the majority of men held dear: reason, justice, love and decency. Malraux exhibits a strong attachment to this spirit of Romanticism as we find it in Dostoievsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, especially the last, because they embody the Promethean challenge of the universal order of things…. The French writer's thinking contains the mark of a sustained reaction to the rational dissolution upon which the whole of Romanticism was founded, and it is this very reaction which, couched in artistic terms, has exercised such a profound effect on many of his fictional heroes.
Malraux measures the greatness of man by the dignity and courage that accompany his artistic efforts in reducing the universal chaos to some kind of human order which he can make meaningful. That Malraux attempts to make man's life meaningful through revolt demonstrates an obvious affinity with Camus who, in Le Mythe de Sisyphe and L'Homme révolté, rejects suicide in favour of revolt because the latter offers the only posture capable of investing man with some sort of coherence, however fragile. Thus, Malraux sees man as unaided by the gods, impelled by his own imperious will and giving permanency and meaning to his own being by imposing coherence on incoherence, form on formlessness, justice on a sense of betrayal. What attracts Malraux is less the mystery of life than man's recalcitrant attitude in face of that mystery…. The fundamental artistic impulse in man is not to create beauty or harmony, and least of all to stimulate pleasure in the onlooker or reader, however paradoxical this may appear, but rather to deny victory to the nothingness hovering menacingly over each existence.
The general framework of art conceived as a revolt against nothingness and as an anti-destin illuminates the different aspects of Malraux the revolutionary writer, the activist as well as the aesthete, the adventurer and politician as well as the novelist. The quest for the eternal in art, novel writing and political activity, merges into one and the same phenomenon, which explains the very special place he grants to the political revolutionary in his novels…. Malraux assumes a unique role as revolutionary thinker and novelist since he is unquestionably one of the first modern French writers to confer upon the novel the power of indictment against what he considers to be the meretricious values and behaviour of Western civilization, and put that indictment into practice. He illustrates as sharply as any writer the intimate relationship existing between art and politics, literary concern and a social conscience, and this relationship marks him off as a romantic thinker. (pp. 799-800)
Les Conquérants (1928) and La Condition humaine (1933) cannot be considered as novels of communist propaganda although they contain much material and fervent debate supporting Marxist ideology, but as novels of man viewed in his extreme condition, in the compulsive act that brings him as close as possible to the experience of death. Malraux expresses an adherence to the principle of communism but not to the order and discipline it implies; in other words, he declares himself against capitalism but not for communism. This is why Garine, the protagonist in Les Conquérants, although presented as the leader of the propaganda machine in the revolt of 1925 in Canton, is not in fact a communist at all. If anything, he is a fascist. He clings obstinately to his individualism, realizing himself in so far as he exercises constraint over others. His Nietzschean will to power eliminates all necessity for the transformation of society….
Political revolution appears to the early Malraux as the most acute and urgent form of expressing the need for constant movement, the restless regeneration of the self, the refusal to adhere to fixed opinions. In other words, freedom means nothing save the urge to achieve freedom which, once acquired, is transformed paradoxically into a static condition, while it is precisely at this point that Malraux sees the theme of revolt to be rooted in the Western tradition, as opposed to the Eastern vision of the world epitomized by Buddhism, for instance. In his Psychologie de l'art, he contrasts Eastern and Western civilizations in their Buddhist and Christian expressions, manifesting a predilection for the latter which he extols as a dynamic movement, characterized by the eternal awareness of the creative act and the will to power that promotes it. Western art, comments Malraux, is an art of active participation, affirmation of self in motion, in diametrical opposition to the passive, somnolent state of the Buddhist accepting his fate as decreed by the gods…. What seems contradictory in Malraux's Eastern quests is his search for a revolutionary spirit in a land that had never known it, and his abandonment of a civilization whose very essence is intimately associated with the ideal of perpetual movement, recreation and revolt…. (p. 801)
What invests Malraux's writings with such a thrilling resonance is that the man of action can gain access to the reality of action only by living the conquest of art, which explains why many of the dialogues in L'Espoir, for example, emerge from a background of gunfire, smoke and permanent threat of death. Political revolution constitutes an indispensable ingredient in the development of the novels with a regard to their characters and structure because it offers an immediate and complelling arena for the discussions that transcend it. The art of the novel is the means by which Malraux expresses himself against the injustice of existence, man's inhumanity to man and even political ideologies tending to diminish his grandeur. The art becomes all the greater as Malraux opposes danger in all its forms, and despite all the aggressiveness and violence of the novels, Malraux is really creating a defence against existence, instead of an affirmation of it. (p. 802)
Malraux exhibits less an adherence to communism than an aversion to fascism…. It was a curious quirk of fate that, once installed in de Gaulle's post-war government, Malraux found himself subject to accusations of fascism. It is arguable that his cult of the Nietzschean will to power, his ideal of the heroic adventurer detaching himself from the herd, and his doctrine of authority, brought him dangerously close to fascism. Yet, the concepts of France as a supreme cultural force and of the will to power in its aristocratic and artistic acceptation form part of what he calls a cultural democracy founded on art as an anti-destin. (pp. 802-03)
Les Conquérants, La Condition humaine and L'Espoir all terminate in failure, and so for that matter does La Voie royale, because in the final analysis, political revolution proves no more than a myth. T. E. Lawrence had demonstrated the same point before him. Armed revolution, even if successful, cannot deliver man from death, the supreme scourge, and there is certainly nothing permanent about it, which, by way of contrast, underlines the ultimate value of art that can confer upon man a sense of eternity…. Malraux did not write novels of communist propaganda any more than he could have written fiction in the service of the Gaullist cause. He wrote novels, prompted by the deep desire to create. He wanted above all to … give birth to an artistic reality capable of resisting the eternally present image of death. If all art constitutes a revolt against man's fate, Malraux incarnates his revolt in Perken (La Voie royale), Garine (Les Conquérants), Kyo (La Condition humaine) and Kassner (Le Temps du mépris), as well as in numerous figures in L'Espoir, in order to live through the creative act his rebellion against death. Damocles never felt existence so intensely as when he saw the sword above him hanging from a horse-hair, and likewise, Perken never affirms life more than when he approaches the abyss of death. The fascination with death which may be focussed most keenly by the thoughts and impressions of the revolutionary mirrors the hero's defiant attitude vis-à-vis the cosmic forces arrayed against him. The mortal threat providing the texture for Malraux's novels stimulates the development of the highest and noblest qualities in man…. Man must choose the moment when he wishes to die and refuse fate the right to choose for him…. The hypnosis of death is transformed into the supreme test for the man of action who dies participating actively in his last moments because it is the noblest manner of defying the decrees of fate. (p. 803)
The concept of revolt assumes increasing dimensions with each of Malraux's novels. Thus, the gun-running adventurer Perken in La Voie royale pits his indomitable will against the challenge of death in the form of the Moi natives and the Cambodian jungle. Garine, while refusing to identify himself with the communist ideal [in Les Conquérants], at least allows himself to be caught up in a movement greater than himself, and which he cannot therefore control. [In La Condition humaine] Kyo and Katow associate themselves more fully with the Revolution, creating what has become one of Malraux's most exalted and dynamic themes—la fraternité virile. The movement from individual to collective revolt continues in L'Espoir until man is seen to resist not only the tyranny of his oppressor but also that of the huge, unsympathetic and impartial universe. This seems to explain why, for all its disjointedness, L'Espoir is, in many ways, a more successful novel than the preceding ones since it combines three distinct levels of revolt, the individual against death, the collective against human oppression (the Franquist invaders) and a broader collective resistance against the horror of the cosmic spaces…. René Girard comments upon L'Espoir's cosmic style and panoramic vision which lift man from the daily and limited sense of the finality of death and from the political arena, to an implacable, eternal darkness which gives it its backcloth. The intensification of the theme of revolt is correspondingly reflected in man at three distinct technical levels. Firstly, the characters express explicitly their discontent in dialogue form…. Secondly, the characters appear joining battle with the enemy in a limited action…. Finally and most significantly, man in his capacity as pilot assumes the tragic combat with the unheeding universe as he rises up into the infinite spaces…. Although Malraux had used the infinity of space in La Condition humaine as a technique for heightening the feeling of the human struggle, the description of plane warfare in L'Espoir (the Spanish civil war was probably the first war to provide an arena for the plane as a constant means of combat) lends a new dramatic quality to the strife. Man's puny revolt in the face of the 'sérénité géologiqué' and the 'astres morts' becomes all the more admirable because it is situated for the first time in an actual infinity of space. (pp. 805-06)
[If] the keenest moments of revolt are translated by violence and action, the sharp, staccato movement of sentence, paragraph and chapter renders a sudden, recoiling mechanism, an unexpected impression of imminent danger and the unpremeditated urge to combat that danger. Malraux's vivid, elliptical style, written in the same jolting vein as Hemingway's, and for similar reasons, plunges the reader into a vital, forward movement…. The strong passion for the abrupt, often half-finished and self-contained sentence informs the general construction of Malraux's novels…. [His] scene construction … is really composed of a series of isolated images, unlinked by a proper, transitional sentence or sentences. The elliptical nature of Malraux's sentence and scene construction suggests a naked confrontation between man and an inimical universe, while it is precisely this constant jabbing effect that lays emphasis on man's recalcitrance. Malraux's refusal to conform to a world order, whether it be based on God, nature or reason, emerges from his sentence and scene construction which aims not at Flaubertian beauty, harmony and equilibrium, but at the very opposite, that is disjointedness and the magnification of the act of rebellion.
Although the style of Les Noyers de l'Altenburg differs considerably from that of the preceding novels, the theme of revolt still remains as the central preoccupation. The stress is transferred in the last of Malraux's novels, less successful on account of its excessively intellectual and discursive content, from the spatial dimension of the universe to the historical and artistic development of man. Set in the context of passing time reflected in the three Berger generations, that is, the narrator, his father Vincent Berger and his grandfather, Les Noyers de l'Altenburg is organized around a group of eminent intellectuals invited to a colloquy to discuss … [whether there exists] a permanent characteristic in man, despite the varying opinions, the changing civilizations and the fatality of death? The only answer that appears to crystallize in the complex discussion is that the one irreducible and invariable feature in man is not that the protests at his sensitive and vulnerable position in a universe of disorder, but that he has been able to transmit to succeeding generations from the most remote past an artistic expression of resistance to the fatality of time and death, and that this resistance has assumed a definite and permanent shape in the Western tradition. Vincent Berger underlines the centrality of the Christian presence in the Western tradition because it highlights the essential suffering of man in terms of original sin and man's refusal to conform to that suffering. Christianity's most important function, 'c'est d'avoir installé la fatalité dans l'homme' …, and it is the sense of the fatality of sin in the individual life which elicits the rebelliousness in man's nature. One of the greatest factors in the history of Western art is that man has continually refused to acknowledge the implications of original sin, namely that he must needs depend on a Creator to absolve him and that the rejection of God's presence in the individual's life constitutes sin. The artist is a direct descendant of what Camus in his L'Homme révolté calls 'Les Fils de Caïn', endeavouring to deny God his supreme privilege as Creator, attempting by the very creative act to supplant God Himself…. Malraux's attribution of the Promethean motive to artistic creation accounts for what many critics agree to be one of the finest of the novelist's images, that of Nietzsche who, following the onset of madness in Turin, is brought back by train to Basle by Franz Overbeck, his real life friend, and Walter Berger who relates the episode. Passing through the darkness of … [a] tunnel, Nietzsche starts singing his poem Venice the words of which rise invincibly above the clatter of the train. For all the mediocrity of his singing, Nietzsche's song is 'sublime', capturing the very essence of artistic life and feeling, translating the dignity and rebellion of the overman who assumes a dimension all the greater because he finds no final answer to the prison of life symbolized by the blackness of the tunnel. Nietzsche reacts in exactly the same way as Cervantes, Daniel Defoe and Dostoievsky who all experienced the more frightening aspects of prison life. Appropriately, Malraux does not interpret Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and The Idiot as mere transpositions of prison life but much more as a refusal in art form to bow before man's humiliation and shame. It is because the three novels in question were written by authors having undergone the extreme suffering of prison life that they are the very novels Walter Berger's friend would have selected to help him resist the prison atmosphere…. Significantly, the New Testament is rejected as a companion for prison life, no doubt because, emphasizing the virtues of love and humility, it does not inspire the creative impulse and the heroic desire to conquer the world…. Malraux's movement of revolt is deprived of an ultimate ethical meaning, despite his apparent concern, in the 1920s and 1930s, for the disinherited and the persecuted…. It is at this point that the essential difference becomes clear between Malraux and Camus (a figure who inevitably comes to mind in any consideration of revolt in a contemporary French context), for the latter, in his role as moralist, seeks what unites men…. In contrast, Malraux singles out what is unique in man, what marks off the achievements of a particular individual from the rest, and these achievements are always interpreted by him as the artistic expression of the most dignified part in man, his radical dissent when faced with his ultimate fate of death. Malraux's urge to revolt appears to discard the needs of the common herd, rooted in a kind of romantic titanism where the will to create is all and otherness becomes nothing. The writer's conception of the artist, which is equally valid in any interpretation of the novels …, presents the individual creating, by dint of sheer will-power, an artistic form capable of resisting the passing of time. Man assumes art as his final defence in an implacable universe, investing it with a Nietzschean, warrior-like quality causing him to scorn the ethical passion. This bellicose element in Malraux's art philosophy finds its most fitting context in the background of war and revolution, filling the novels with frenzied action and violence. The fundamental instinct of action which is revealed as man's privileged method of smothering temporarily his metaphysical problems and the only reality able to impart meaning to life, indicates the astonishing discovery of the Greeks who were the first people to ascribe to art the concepts of movement and conquest. Claude's archaeological quest in La Voie royale, the frantic demoniacal urge of Tchen in La Condition humaine, the Altenburg colloquy, together with Malraux's books on art philosophy, all point to the questioning of the significance of the world which, when exposed as hostile and even inhuman, elicits from man the sole authentic attitude, that of revolt which confers upon him his fundamental glory as creator—for Nietzsche and Malraux the highest form of man in the present era. (pp. 806-09)
R. Batchelor, "André Malraux and the Concept of Revolt," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1972), October, 1972, pp. 799-809.
Following the Second World War, when André Malraux turned from novels to aesthetics and politics, he often had occasion to speak of History, with a capital "H." Although he has not always been absolutely consistent in his vocabulary, for him History seems to be rather closely linked to the Destiny or Fate against which men gain their fullest measure of dignity by rebellion. However, in the period before 1939—when he was known primarily as a brilliant young novelist—it was history with a small "h" which was most central to his concerns. This preoccupation became evident with the 1928 publication of his first serious work, Les Conquérants, based on certain contemporary incidents in China; it reached a climax nine years later in what many critics consider to be his masterpiece, L'Espoir, centering on the early months of the Spanish Civil War. (p. 345)
[When Les Conquérants appeared] some critics immediately protested that Malraux's novel was not so much a work of creative fiction as it was a "rapportage," a direct presentation of certain individuals and events that the author had come to know first-hand during his 1924–25 stay in Asia. Other commentators went to the opposite extreme, loudly denouncing the book as a gross falsification in which the real facts of history had been altered or tailored to suit Leftist propaganda needs. The degree to which the author was actually a creative artist serving an aesthetic and ethical purpose (while using historical events as the materials for his creation) was obviously central to the discussion. During the next decade this whole question grew even more important—and more hotly debated—as Malraux produced a number of other novels that were closely linked to contemporary happenings. (pp. 345-46)
[Speaking of Les Conquérants, Malraux] denied that he had falsified history, and he emphasized the basic authenticity and accuracy of his novel…. [Admittedly], Garine was not a real person but a literary creation in the best sense of the term: an amalgamation of a number of actual and imagined personalities. As a hero, he epitomized the spirit of one type of revolutionary leader involved in the rebellion in China.
Most important of all, Malraux's comments about Les Conquérants clearly indicate that he had used the historical real in his novel not only for aesthetic and political reasons. For him, no work except one closely linked to history could be so meaningful to modern readers on an ethical level. (p. 346)
[This] whole matter was increasingly complicated by the fact that Malraux himself came to play a larger and larger role in certain contemporary historical events. Indeed the facts of history, together with the legends of his personal biography, often became so closely linked to his literary creations that it became almost impossible to study the relationship between art and reality in his works. This is particularly true in the case of L'Espoir, his most overtly historical novel. (p. 347)
Malraux has always incorporated a great deal of real history and personal experience into his literary works. But he is first and foremost a literary artist whose creative imagination always modifies or transforms the real into the components of a work of art. Thus, [an] actual incident [, that] of the Olmedo farmer, undergoes a number of changes before it finally emerges as a central element in his novel, L'Espoir. (p. 351)
There is no extraneous or peripheral material in [his 1937 Literary Digest] account of the Olmedo raid, not even information about the flight to the target area or comments about weather conditions encountered en route, nor does it contain any lyric or personal elements. The narrative is a strictly factual presentation of the destruction of an important military target. In tone and content it is probably very close to the official report of the mission which Malraux—as observer on the original Olmedo sortie and the commander of the Escadrille—must have turned in to his superiors at the War Ministry in Madrid. Certainly the text offers no hint of the literary use that he would subsequently make of the incident. (pp. 353-54)
[In a later Collier's version, a] change in the role of the farmer and in the importance of the bombing raid to the Republican cause suggests that Malraux was now beginning to see events like the Olmedo sortie not as isolated incidents, but as part of a bigger whole—the unity of all those who were fighting against Franco and what he represented. As yet, however, this broader dimension of the text appears only briefly.
The Collier's version is also noteworthy for the new tone which is evident in much of the narrative, a tone which might best be characterized as Romantic. The purely factual—almost journalistic—earlier Digest account here takes on lyric color when Malraux depicts certain high points of the mission, as—for example—in the long passage cited above describing the flight over the clouds. This kind of writing—like certain parts of La Voie royale and the account of the 1934 Saba flight—reminds us that Malraux has always been someone for whom experience (particularly exciting experience) is attractive in large part because it gives rise to powerful new sensations. Indeed, many of the major experiences of his life doubtless presented themselves to him initially in strongly emotional terms, whose "higher" meaning was not perceived or sought until later. In his sense, one may consider the Collier's text as kind of lyric version or transformation of the real Olmedo raid. The Romantic "I" of the narrator is central, and the flight is experienced in large part as a vivid personal adventure. Malraux has not yet placed it within the framework of a larger whole, nor given it the philosophical resonance that characterizes his mature novels. (pp. 358-59)
The incident of the Olmedo farmer in its final literary form appears in the first half of the third chapter of the concluding portion of [L'Espoir], a section originally entitled "Les Paysans," but subsequently modified to "L'Espoir." (p. 359)
Most of the minor alterations that Malraux makes in this final adaptation of the Olmedo incident are essentially stylistic in character…. However there are several major changes that deserve closer examination. The first of these is purely factual…. Just why did Malraux wish to make the Olmedo raid a part of [a later campaign, by changing its date and location]? The reason seems clear. The original event had taken place very early in the war. The exaggerated accounts in the Spanish press cannot hide the fact that it was really just one more minor skirmish in the unsuccessful Republican attempt to stop Franco's advance toward Madrid. However, by the spring of the following year (when Malraux was actually writing his novel), the celebrated Loyalist victories … seemed to indicate that at last the tide had really begun to turn against the Fascists. Now the Republicans could reasonably begin to hope that they would eventually win the civil war. By re-dating the Olmedo event Malraux is able to use it to help generate the feeling of optimism he wanted for the final section of his novel. (pp. 363-64)
To center attention on the actual destruction of the field, Malraux trims his text to eliminate a good deal of the peripheral or descriptive material found in the previous Collier's version. His pruning is most evident in the section dealing with the flight over the mountains, where several pages are reduced to little more than a paragraph.
In focusing his text in this way, Malraux also gives it a somewhat different tone from the version which had appeared in the American magazine. This change is in keeping with the new meaning he sees in the incident. By removing many of the passages of description and personal reflection, he no longer presents the raid as a kind of lyric personal adventure, but rather as a major military mission. Here again this is particularly evident in the revision of the text describing the flight over the mountains. But while almost nothing of the previous lyricism of the passage remains, the philosophical overtones of the experience—only barely suggested before—now are emphasized. Malraux wishes to point up the sense of human solidarity—the unselfish fraternal commitment to a higher common cause—which the mission represents.
Indeed, it is to emphasize this fundamental message of the novel—and to prepare its most striking formulation: the scene of the descent from the mountain—that Malraux makes a final and highly significant alteration in the original Olmedo material. He changes the basic plan of the mission so that it will require a pre-dawn takeoff. This, in turn, necessitates finding some way to light the airfield for the pilots. A major proportion of L'Espoir centers about certain individuals, each of whom in some way represents one of the various factions supporting the Republic. But Malraux evidently felt that he had not adequately presented the largest group of those who were involved in the struggle—the vast laboring masses of rural Spain, the farmers upon whom the burden of war fell most heavily. He admired the quiet courage and steadfastness with which these long-suffering individuals faced their harsh destiny, and he decided that they would figure in the climax of his novel in a direct and dramatic way. Magnin's search for vehicles with headlights to illuminate the field provides just such an opportunity.
As Magnin returns to his base to prepare the takeoff of the mission. he passes through a village he had visited several hours earlier. In the central square he sees some men … who carry huge sacks into a building evidently being used as a warehouse. It is a group of volunteers unloading a shipment of food. When Magnin asks why such heavy loads must be carried on men's backs, he is told that no other transportation is available…. He is very moved by this show of solidarity [because all vehicles had been sent to help light the Republican airfield.]… Thus the addition of this incident to the original Olmedo material enables Malraux to portray the Escadrille and its flyers as the delegates "de toute la paysannerie d'Espagne." When one of the planes crashes on the return from this mission, it is particularly fitting that it be these same farmers who shelter and protect the wounded pilots; it is also they who bear them in a long cortege down the mountain, expressing their respect, affection and gratitude with the simple gesture of a silent salute. Most critics agree that Malraux's belief in the brotherhood of suffering mankind has had no finer literary expression than in this climatic scene near the end of L'Espoir.
Art is often defined as a transformation of the real. Malraux is a man who has had many exciting and unusual experiences in his life, but as an artist he always transforms and adapts them to fit into the larger whole of an aesthetic creation. For him, as for all artists, the real is less important than the truth that underlies reality…. Malraux's book makes it very clear that he himself had transformed his experience as a squadron commander in Spain not only into a work of art, but into a "conscience," a fuller awareness of the dimensions of the human condition. The successive changes he made in the single incident of the mission to Olmedo faithfully mirror such a higher ordering and confirm once again his lifelong commitment to certain humane values. (pp. 364-66)
Walter Langlois, "The Novelist Malraux and History," in L'Esprit Créateur (copyright © 1975 by L'Esprit Créateur), Fall, 1975, pp. 345-66.
Malraux throughout his life has mixed truth with untruth the way painters mix oil colors with turpentine. And when dealing with ideas of an exalted, all-circumscribing sort, he may well often remind us of an automobile which has sixteen cylinders and no steering wheel….
What we are dealing with in this peculiar case is the lie as a source of vital energy: as an indispensable part, in other words, of the persona that drives a writer to write….
Malraux is not in the class of Stendhal as a novelist, and we may doubt that he was in the class of Chateaubriand when it came to diplomatic realities; but the claims which he makes for himself are in many cases so dotty as hardly to call for rebuttal. Pending a final judgment on the career which they seem to have helped to make possible, we can most profitably regard them as a kind of pneumatic make-believe with which Malraux has felt the need to support himself. (It would also, by the way, be a mistake to assume that because some of his claims are untrue all of his claims are untrue. No man who gets the Croix de Guerre four times over, between 1944 and 1946, can be altogether a fraud.)
The matter of Malraux's Great Thoughts is likewise one on which judgment can be passed too hastily. One problem is that Malraux is a lifelong allusionist….
We may even suspect that the allusionism is a device for never staying long enough in any one place to be able to tell sense from nonsense. It may or may not be true, as Malraux said already in 1922, that "we shall understand more about the Greek genius by comparing a Greek statue with an Egyptian or an Asiatic statue than by getting to know any number of other Greek statues." What is true beyond a doubt is that this belief absolves us from the discipline that is required if we want to discuss one Greek statue in relation to another Greek statue. This nonchalant aerial purview has got Malraux in trouble with art historians. "There is no evidence," E. H. Gombrich wrote in 1954, "that Malraux has done a day's consecutive reading in a library or that he has even tried to hunt up a new fact."
But when that has been said it remains true that along with much that is gaseous and impenetrable in Malraux's writings on art, as on everything else, there are surprising observations that come not from "a day's consecutive reading in a library" but from the first-hand experience of one of the oddest men of this century. Malraux writes like a man who wants to write what he once called "the first complete history of mankind" and believes from time to time that he almost has it within his grasp. Whence the giddy, all-risking character of the adventure which he proposes to us, and the difficulty—and, in some cases, the resentment and the exasperation—with which we debrief ourselves at the end of it. (p. 10)
[Malraux] is, as he has often said, someone who "married France" or "had a contract with France." On the other hand, he knows that the world is growing up—not without all the difficulties which that phrase implies—and he takes a long view of the incidental adjustments which have to be made…. There is nothing narrow about his allegiances, and in the end it may well be the notion of "one world, one civilization" which is closest to him. But he is also a shrewd observer of the world as it actually is. "For all your talk of negritude," he said to Senghor, "it is for Senegal that you live. The notion of nationhood was born here, now, and today. Nietzsche has got the better of Marx."
Malraux did nothing for the theater when he was minister of culture, but in his own writings he is a great stage director. Hôtes de Passage includes one of his finest short historical romances: the story of how he looked into the suggestion that a piece of textile which had been offered to the Louvre was stained with the blood of Alexander the Great. The narrative skill, the heightened sense of the past, the headlong commitment to what might have been—all these may make us regret that Malraux has for so much of the last thirty years been more a public figure than a writer.
This feeling will be enhanced if we turn to Lazare, a book prompted in the first place by a disagreeable few days in the Salpetrière hospital…. [In] the first part of the book he represents a famous but now almost irrecoverable episode from Les Noyers de l'Altenburg, the novel or part of a novel which he wrote during World War II and published in Switzerland in 1943. (p. 13)
Malraux was one of the first consequential writers to be influenced by the cinema. In Lazare there is an image of a runaway horse that is as vivid in its way as the image of the dead white horse which slides down the bridge in October. Malraux uses the quick cut, the close-up, the long shot, the slow pan much as Pudovkin and Eisenstein used them in the films that he saw in his early twenties. But the long passage has also a moral power which can be called "Tolstoyan" without exaggeration; Malraux convinces us that this was the moment at which something went irreversibly wrong with mankind….
Reading Hôtes de Passage, we … find something obnoxious in the insouciance with which in May 1968 Malraux goes on talking of old times in Spain with a fellow-survivor of the period while civil servants come in and out with bulletins of the fighting in the streets. "Four Hundred and Fifty Wounded," one message reads. "Nobody killed yet. Rather interesting, isn't it?" and the two old gentlemen go on with their chat. It is as if Malraux for ten years had been so dazzled by the lights around his lectern that he never once looked at the actual French men and women who turned out to hear him….
For Malraux, certain beliefs are indispensable to a full human life. If those beliefs are not defined, they cannot be acted upon and will die. The difficulty with this particular belief is that it has been so often perverted…. But that is no reason to discard it. Fraternity of the kind that Malraux had in mind finds an unmatched beauty of expression in Verdi's operas, for instance. When tenor and baritone are united we sense immediately that something of incalculable importance is being set before us by a man whose basic instincts are entirely good. Fraternity as it has been systematized in our century is almost always a curse: so much so that we shrink from the word. But there are concepts which should be formulated against all the odds, and this is one of them.
Malraux has never been odder, more eloquent, more completely himself, than in [his] late works. Anyone who has ever managed to get beyond the first pages of The Psychology of Art will treasure, for instance, the long passage in Tête d'obsidienne in which Malraux discusses the concept of the "museum without walls" with Picasso. Malraux had not yet gone into print on the subject, but Picasso knew that what he had in mind was "not a Museum of Preferences, but a museum in which the works of art choose us more than we choose them." No one could have been more sensitive to that idea than Picasso. (p. 14)
John Russell, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), March 4, 1976.
As he observes in "Picasso's Mask," a pompous yet deeply informative tribute to the genius of modern art: "I was twenty-two when I met Braque, and sixty-two when I transformed the colonnade of the Louvre into two wings for the vigil of his funeral service."… Although Malraux's great period of art appreciation did not begin till around 1938—after such political novels as "Man's Fate" and "Man's Hope" and his combat against fascism in the Spanish Civil War—his attempt since then to formulate a grand and aggressive apologia for modernism never ceased.
"Picasso's Mask" continues an epic venture that has made pictures and statues from all over the world speak with each other and to us. Malraux's animating force is remarkable; and this time it is the turn of Negro art to be given its voice. Malraux's secret is that he does not try to fix the exact or historical meaning of works that may be, in any case, "beyond history," but views them instead through the paintings of artists who have been influenced by them and so helped them to survive. The present book reconstructs Picasso's discovery and appropriation of the tribal arts after seeing African masks at the old Trocadéro museum early in the century.
"Picasso's Mask" is also, however, a meditation on a skull. Haunted by the analogy between primitive art and the "austere style" of painting after Cézanne, Malraux recalls a death's-head of black quartz in Mexico City's National Museum. This "obsidian head" is encased in a glass shrine backed by a mirror, so that those who look at it see their reflection and death's image together. As if it were a Black Virgin, Malraux surrounds this pre-Columbian fetish with votive memories of his visit to the private collection Picasso bequeathed to France, and with an elaborate account of the sumptuous Fondation Maeght show on "Malraux and the Museum Without Walls" in 1973, the year of Picasso's death. (pp. 25-6)
In the most original pages of this book, Malraux returns to the subject of oriental art and wonders if our present style of painting can absorb the impact of such Japanese masterpieces as Takanobu's portrait of the statesman Shigemori (ca. 1200).
For Malraux what matters is not the esthetic or the beautiful, but the distortions of an art rising from death like fetishes or ruined statues—an art surrounded by the dark halo of an unknown function we somewhat helplessly define as "sacred" or "demonic." His own prose, paradoxically, is not at all austere, but baroque, time-obsessed and aswim with strange names and places. Yet it may survive its thesis, which is now a commonplace. The modern movement, Malraux insists, produced in conjunction with photography a new way of understanding the art of the past. Picasso's changeable style expressed a capacity for metamorphosis which has now overtaken all originally divine or cultic objects. It has transformed gods into museum pieces, and by resurrecting as art all those primitive sacred images, it has created a new, world-wide and humanistic culture. (p. 26)
Joseph Conrad's ["Heart of Darkness"] was an actual influence on Malraux; but I allude to it here because it helps to raise a question about his achievement. This conspicuous redemption and reappropriation of art is, as we scan Malraux's opulent books, shadowed by a doubt. May not his idealistic view of the fraternity of primitive and modern prove merely that the modern works are fetishes too? Not only in the sense that Picasso expressed when he said that the African masks were "intercessors" against unknown or threatening spirits, and that his "Demoiselles d'Avignon" was—likewise—an "exorcism-painting." But also in the sense that they are commodities, whose value resides in our wish to own them as investments or display them for that purpose. (p. 27)
One honors Malraux's missionary fervor on behalf of magic masks, nail-studded fetishes and fertility objects, but one cannot overlook the fact that the esthetic revolution he celebrates is also a revolution in an art market that has become more sanctimonious and profitable than the ivory trade. (p. 28)
Geoffrey H. Hartman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1976.
Most writers, and indeed probably all of us, would like to know what happens beyond that bourn from which no traveler returns—provided, of course, we could in fact return to tell our traveler's tale. This desire was exceptionally strong in André Malraux, who was death-obsessed all his life and never ceased referring to our mortality in his novels, his art criticism and his autobiographical writings. If any "hack of academe" cares to do a comparative word-count of the use of mourir and la mort in Malraux's works, he or she can be confident of discovering that the late Gaullist Minister for Culture holds some sort of record. I can think of no other writer who so constantly tried to measure life against death, or who has written so vividly about killing and dying.
Without being heartless we can say, then, that he was no doubt quite lucky, in 1973, to experience a dress-rehearsal for his own extinction three years before he actually died at the age of 75. He became afflicted with a disturbance of the cerebellum accompanied by a high temperature; rushed to the hospital, he lay there suspended for a time between this world and the problematical next. We are to understand that, like the inveterate writer he was, he had taken his notebook with him and had made jottings which were later worked up into "Lazarus." According to the Gospel of St. John, the original Lazarus said nothing when he emerged from the tomb; and all the painters who have dealt with the scene show him as being bloodless and ghostlike. What is so striking about Malraux's Lazarus is the volubility and the full-blooded intellectual glee with which he recounts his experience. Nearer my death to thee and the more urgently lyrical I become…. (p. 12)
The book may, at first sight, seem rather incoherent, because it supposes a knowledge of Malraux's past and an acceptance of his usual literary procedure. When illness interrupted him, he was busy on his memoirs, "Le Miroir des Limbes" (The Mirror of Limbo), of which "Lazare" now forms the final section in the Pléiade edition of his works. These memoirs are unique in that they make no attempt to distinguish between the original "facts" of his life as they may have existed and their fictional representation in the works. It is almost as if Malraux had forgotten what he had lived through in reality as distinct from what he had experienced imaginatively in writing his novels; or as if on principle he refused to see any dividing line between the real and the imaginary. He therefore works chunks of his novels into his memoirs, with the hero or heroes acting as projections of himself; or again, he writes up certain episodes of his life—for instance, his discussions with de Gaulle at Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises—as half-fictional purple-prose passages of significant exchange. At any moment, too, he may make sudden cross-references to some part of the mythic pattern of his career: his adventures in Indochina or the Spanish Civil War; his search for the lost city of the Queen of Sheba; his Resistance experiences and his arrest by the Gestapo; his conversations with Nehru, Mao, Trotsky, et al. He sees himself unashamedly as a great man, and he operates instinctively on the level of the sublime, like the two Romantic predecessors he most obviously resembles, Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo.
This explains why one quarter of "Lazarus" has nothing to do with his stay at the Saltpêtrière hospital, but is a long extract, with some minor modifications, from Malraux's last novel, "Les Noyers de l'Altenburg."…
The logical relationship between [an episode from "Les Noyers d'Altenberg" depicting the first German gas attack on the Russian lines during World War I] and Malraux's own predicament in facing death from natural causes is not clear to me, and perhaps it is not meant to exist. On general principle, I think it is a mistake for Malraux to reintroduce sections from his novels into his memoirs; they gain nothing through being removed from their original contexts. The more relevant part of "Lazarus" is a long debate with the doctor who is looking after him, a debate that may have some foundation in fact, but also has all the signs of being an exemplary "imaginary conversation," reminiscent of Malraux's encounters with de Gaulle.
It must be confessed, however, that in spite of the lofty, excited tone in which Malraux writes, nothing that he or the doctor says on the subject takes us much further than Pascal's acute sense of the mystery of life and death, or of the Absurd which that philosopher experienced before making his leap into faith. In other words, "Lazarus" as a title is slightly meretricious, slightly mythic, in keeping with Malraux's usual penchant for self-dramatization. He has not really gone over the edge into death and come back again; he has stayed on the hither side of extinction, and what he has to tell us we may already have read elsewhere, or even experienced for ourselves in less extreme circumstances. All of us, in moments of illness or on waking in the small hours, may have felt that pure sense of being, "I-without-the-ego," which he defines as the threshold of death. All of us at some time may have reflected that, even if man were immortal, life would not be more comprehensible, so long as "God" did not let us into the secret of why we are here at all. Malraux poses the fundamental question again and again, and gives it a vast, universal human resonance to make up for the absence of any divine reply. (pp. 12-13, 36)
John Weightman, "No News from Beyond," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1977, pp. 12-13, 36.