Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296
Lazarus is part of the second volume of The Mirror of Limbo, of which the first volume was Anti-Mémoirs. Jean Lacouture, Malraux’s biographer, says that Malraux was writing Lazarus at the end of January, 1973, following a brush with death in the final months of 1972.
Framed by his illness, Malraux divides his book into three parts. He introduces each part with comments on his physical condition which he follows with a meditation on man’s fate and the subject of brotherhood. In Part I, he is suffering with a so-far unknown illness of which the symptoms are weakness, dizziness, and the threat of paralysis. Concerned that this may be his last book, he returns to an event which he had described in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1948), the gas attack by the Germans on the Russians at Bolgako on the Vistula in 1916. In this event, Malraux sees “a confrontation between fraternity and death and that element in man which today is fumbling for an identity, and is certainly not the individual.”
The material on which his account is based comes from notebooks belonging to his father, Major Berger, who was a witness to the attack in Malraux’s novel, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Robert Payne, in A Portrait of André Malraux, published in 1970, says that “this story is a myth; nothing remotely resembling it ever happened.” Nevertheless, according to Malraux’s account, Major Berger was at the Russian front to observe the first German gas attack. Also present was the inventor of this weapon, a German professor who was one of the small number of experts in this field. The professor was elated with his invention which he saw as completely effective and of great value to the German cause.
After a night passed in waiting, the attack was launched. The gas rose like a wall and grew as it advanced to the Russian trenches. Silence and stillness marked its approach, broken only by a horse on the Russian side which dashed madly into the gaseous mist, veered, whinnied, and was silent. After a sudden firing of the Russian guns, silence returned. The German infantry set out toward the Russians. Through binoculars the observers followed the attack. They were soon surprised to see the Germans returning, each carrying a gassed but living Russian on their shoulders. Berger and the professor left the observation post to go to meet these soldiers. In the zone affected by the gas, the vegetation was reduced to slime and blackness. A German soldier, straining under the load of his Russian, told the Major: “It’s not right; man wasn’t meant to be putrefied!” Berger threw himself into the evacuation, seeking desperately a live Russian to rescue, but those that he encountered were dead or nearly so. The Germans and Berger realized that they, too, were victims of the gas. As they reached the field hospital and the ambulances, Berger asked himself: “What the hell is man doing on this earth!”
Part II of Lazarus opens with another attack, this one characterized by a raging tension, collapse, convulsions, but no pain. The doctors decide on hospitalization at the Salpêtière Hospital in Paris. After settling in and undergoing numerous examinations, Malraux is reassured by his doctors. He remembers military hospitals he has known, and meditates on death, still amazed that there is no pain. He says:The importance I have always attributed to the metaphysical character of death has made people believe that I am obsessed by mortality. One might as well believe that biologists devoted to the study of birth are looking for jobs as wet nurses. Death is not to be confused with my own demise.
He remembers what others have said of death, its association with violence, his illnesses as a soldier, his father’s suicide, religious faith, and the coach museum in Lisbon. He becomes involved with the hospital routine and the days slip by. His earlier life in the Orient and the time he spent in World War II pass before him. His condition improves and he becomes ambulatory. He thinks of suicide objectively, although he does not plan to commit it; he reflects, “Man, born for death, is born to choose his death if he so wishes.” His fever returns, as do his daydreams. He thinks of Montaigne’s phrase, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” but it does not answer his question “Who am I?” except with another question: “What is a life?”
The man in the next room, thought by Malraux to be dying, suddenly knocks at his door. He prefaces his remarks by acknowledging Malraux’s importance and then, wishing to converse, he says: “. . . the point is: people often die here.” Malraux replies: “Not nowadays.” These two words of reassurance evoked heartfelt gratitude from the patient, who did indeed soon die. While this man was in his death throes, Malraux left his bed without turning on the light and got lost in his own room. Trying to find his bed, he found instead a low table on which he tried to stretch out and sleep, awaiting the dawn. Malraux remarks: “Can one conceive of Lazarus remembering his efforts to settle into his tomb?” This experience causes him to see himself as a life without an identity, a state that he had not previously known.
Vertigo obsesses Malraux at the beginning of Part III. He is haunted by the phrase: “to lose one’s foothold on life.” Gradually the experience fades from his consciousness. The chief of the neurologists visits him and brings him only good news about his condition. Malraux questions the doctor on his definition of life and they exchange ideas on the meaning of life and death. For the doctor, the answers concern the human species in general; for Malraux, the particular. The behavior of man, religious faith, scientific progress, and the future of mankind are discussed. Then the doctor returns to the subject of death, saying: “The power of the corpse lies in the realization that I will be this.” He adds that man cannot conceive of applying this to himself.
Initial stimulation arises from this visit, but at its completion Malraux sinks again to morose thoughts and to fraternity, which for him accompanies death. For him, the most striking instance of fraternity comes from his Condition Humaine, in which it is exemplified by Katow who gives his cyanide to Kyo. Other examples of fraternity follow from Malraux’s experiences in Spain and with the Occupation. Even his hospital room encourages his memories of fraternity. He is puzzled at the relationship of fraternity to death.
It is because of his interest in “fundamental man” that he takes up again the subject of the German gas attack on the Vistula, and it is this same interest that causes him to search for man’s essence revealed from the first civilizations to the present age. What he has learned is that man expresses his loftiest quality in fraternity. Not to be confused with mere human warmth, fraternity contains a primitive, instinctive, irrational element which rebels against injustice and suffering. He says that “its true essence will reverberate with the same profound resonance as love, sacrifice, the supernatural, and death.”
Death itself evokes frequent meditation in his hospital room as it has throughout his life. The process of dying occupies his mind as he wonders what part fainting, comas, and suffering have in it. He denies belief in an afterlife but is troubled that death is unknowable. What is truly unthinkable for Malraux is that death implies nothing. He adds: “The inconceivable has no attributes—not even menace.”
Lazarus ends with the author’s physical improvement, with death receding, and with the consolation of escape once again.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36
Atlantic. CCXL, October, 1977, p. 107.
Best Sellers. XXXVII, July 1, 1977, p. 244.
Book World. November 6, 1977, p. E3.
New York Review of Books. XXIV, December 8, 1977, p. 36.
New Yorker. LIII, October 3, 1977, p. 161.
Saturday Review. IV, August 20, 1977, p. 62.
Spectator. CCXL, January 7, 1978, p. 20.
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