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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

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Although the lines may seem at first tenuous, Malraux keeps to his stated purpose of probing his life experiences for what they adduce about the human condition, and he steadfastly refuses to delve into the merely personal as most memoirs do. He omits childhood memories and references to marriages (he had three), family tragedies (his two teenage sons were killed in an automobile accident), and love affairs (most notably with Louise de Vilmorin). In avoiding the personal, Malraux is true to his belief that, since the advent of psychoanalysis, the essence of individual identity has too often been thought of as a heap of petty personal secrets. Instead, Malraux claims in a more existential vein, attention must be paid to an individual’s actions. Hence, much of Malraux’s book is concerned with men whose actions have made a difference to a significant cross section of humanity: General de Gaulle, Nehru, and Mao.

In depicting these figures, Malraux provides not only dramatized portraits of their historical significance but also personalized views regarding their achievements (which he analyzes and upon which he speculates). For example, Mao’s version of the Mao-Malraux interview (published in Chinese) is a comparatively brief, dry, factual record. Malraux’s version is vivified and deepened by an interior unspoken commentary, by descriptions of the facial expressions of the interlocutors, by recollections of past incidents in Mao’s life that tease out the implications and resonances in some of his remarks. Such techniques of narration are more commonly to be found in the novelist’s repertoire than in the historian’s. Indeed, using his novelist’s expertise, Malraux enlivens his subject by presenting telling details. For example, he describes Nehru amid his furniture: “Two enormous carved elephant’s tusks, a Romanesque Virgin presented by France. . . . He moved among his . . . furniture like a Siamese cat—but also like the muse of history through the columns of newspapers.” In his treatment of these figures, Malraux often makes them larger than life (in his comparison of Nehru to the muse of history, for example). He skillfully creates an epic aura about them, defamiliarizing their merely personal traits, and he mythopoetizes his subject by the judicious use of tropes— for example, describing Mao as “the Old Man of the Mountain.”

The fundamental in humanity is not exclusively identifiable, however, in great national leaders. Commoners, too, can become heroes or saints. Such is the case in Malraux’s memoirs with nearly anonymous personages such as Prade, a simple, courageous tank crewman who worries about his son’s education even as he goes into battle. Such, too, is the saintly, ironic chaplain from Vercors who died fighting the Nazis and whose words haunt Malraux like a leitmotif throughout the book. Personages such as these, Malraux asserts, also experience the profound fundamental mystery of life, the confidence and faith in the human experience that is as strong as death itself and that Malraux himself felt in his privileged moments of “the return to the earth.”

Implicit in Malraux’s book is his belief that the best art, be it verbal or visual, seeks to convey and preserve this fundamental human experience. The continuity and appeal of an art object through historical time and across geographical space, despite differences in aesthetic tastes and expressive styles, demonstrates the ability of human creativity to capture and communicate the fundamental. Hence, a religious work such as a cathedral erected in the Age of Faith becomes metamorphosed into an aesthetic object in the Age of Science. This metamorphosis (or renascence or reincarnation) is the means by which art eludes death.

A rather different point about the powerful mystery interconnecting art and life is Malraux’s experience of art prefiguring life. For example, Malraux is struck by the coincidence that after having written fiction about imprisonment and torture, he found himself imprisoned and facing torture by the Gestapo. Furthermore, after he created the fictional Alsatian character Vincent Berger in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, he found himself adopting the nom de guerre Berger during World War II, and, although he is from Flanders, he was given the command of the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade, which liberated Strasbourg, the chief city of Alsace. This eerie type of experience may have fed Malraux’s interest in the farfelu (the fantastic, romantic, mythomaniacal)—a fascination that is rather unexpected in an author who is otherwise known for his violent realism and existential tragedy.


Critical Context