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...
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