Form and Content
During his richly eventful lifetime, André Malraux achieved recognition as an important and controversial novelist, man of action, art historian, and politician. As an author, Malraux is best known for his novel set in the Chinese Revolution, La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934), which won the Prix Goncourt. As a man of action, Malraux began by espousing leftist (or anti-Fascist) causes: organizing the anticolonialist Jeune Annam movement in French Indochina, rousing a group of European intellectuals to protest Adolf Hitler’s methods, and forming a bomber squadron of international volunteers to support the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Malraux became active among the Maquis and rose to the colonelship of the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade. After the war, Malraux established his reputation as an art historian with his Les Voix du silence (1951; The Voices of Silence, 1953). He also engaged in increasingly anti-Communist and right-wing politics as a supporter of General Charles de Gaulle, who, upon becoming the French head of state, appointed Malraux minister of information (1946), then minister of culture (1959-1969).
The notion of writing Anti-Memoirs came to Malraux in 1965, when de Gaulle sent him as his personal envoy to the leaders of India and the People’s Republic of China, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Tse-tung. Because Malraux was recuperating from an illness, he made the voyage by sea rather than by air. This journey, whose ports of call he had first visited some forty years before, became a voyage not only through space but also through time, memory, and dream, and the age-old pattern of a voyage (for example, Odysseus’ journey, or the quest for the Holy Grail) supplied the form of the present book. Also at work in the book’s structure is a principle of association whereby comparable or contrasting memories are analogically or dialogically juxtaposed. As if to emphasize this pattern, four of the book’s five major parts bear the same titles as four of Malraux’s previous novels: Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (1943; The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, 1952), La Tentation de l’Occident (1926; The Temptation of the West, 1961), La Voie royale (1930; The Royal Way, 1935), and La Condition humaine. The memories evoked, however, are not intended primarily to elucidate the writings, the political actions, or the private life of the author. Rather, in an unconventional disclaimer, Malraux avers, “I do not find myself very interesting.” On the contrary, he says, “What interests me in any man is the human condition . . . , certain characteristics which express not so much an individual personality as a particular relationship with the world.” Hence his book’s title. Neither gossipy revelations nor scandalous confessions will be found here. The events that interest Malraux are those existentially privileged moments of fundamental human experience when, in the face of death, meaninglessness, and absurdity, the “mystery of life appears” to affirm the validity of human existence.
After these preliminaries, the first major part of the book begins, unconventionally for a memoir, with a distilled excerpt from Malraux’s novel The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. This episode deals pessimistically with suicide, madness, and the probable meaninglessness of human existence, but it ends with an epiphany of life’s continuity conveyed in the image of Altenburg’s walnut trees. These varieties of oblivion then call up for Malraux a chain of associations about death evoked by Egyptian pyramids (Cairo being one of his ports of call), which in turn revive memories of Hitler’s Nuremberg Stadium and Mexico’s pyramids. The chain ends, however, with a similarly affirmative image of the magic tree of Queen Sebeth in Senegal. To conclude this part of the book, which is a thematic confrontation of life (meaningfulness) and death (the absurd), Malraux relates his first experience of a return to life from a point of near death, an experience he calls “coming back to earth.” This one had occurred after his 1934 air search for the lost city of Sheba (which he claims to have located in Yemen); on his return flight to France, his airplane became caught in a seemingly fatal storm yet miraculously...
(The entire section is 1781 words.)