André Malraux incarnated a certain ideal of “the French intellectual.” A writer of international renown, he distinguished himself as a man of action before going on to become an eye-catching politician. But above all, Malraux was a world-class fantasist. Having invented himself, he then constantly reinvented a past commensurate with the stature he imagined himself to have attained. General de Gaulle said that by having Malraux at his right hand he was “shielded from the commonplace.” That was indeed Malraux’s specialty. What he represented–politically, artistically, humanly–was transcendence of the mundane. He regarded his first duty to himself to be that of escaping from the petty. The nouns in his life all had to have capital letters. The great novel or epic that his career always strove to become needed to be freed from the entangling minutiae of history so that he could take his place in History. Malraux was on intimate terms with Mankind; his diary was filled with dates with Posterity. The day-to-day was tiresome, the Eternal exhilarating. One did not belong among pygmies.
Malraux gave himself airs so that others could more easily recognize his greatness. He never answered the telephone, even at home; it was not consistent with his dignity. “Nobody disturbs General de Gaulle on the telephone,” he commented, justifying his affectation by placing himself in the only company he thought appropriate. His relationship with de Gaulle is the key to the second half of Malraux’s life. After the liberation of France in 1944, Malraux supported de Gaulle against the Communists in the struggle to become the legitimate representatives of post-Vichy France. Thereafter, it suited de Gaulle to have the unconditional allegiance of a leading writer and intellectual who was also an accredited hero. Malraux gave de Gaulle a certain cultural legitimacy, just as de Gaulle gave Malraux a certain political protection.
In turn, Malraux provides a clue to understanding what outsiders often find so baffling about the behavior of the French state. Occupying lead roles in the theater of appearances, both de Gaulle and Malraux were more exercised by the need to cut a fine, and wholly French, figure than by the obligation to pursue the least bad course of action. The ambition was partly individual, but it was also historical and collective, a tradition of conceiving politics more in terms of la gloire than of GNP. Moreover, it is a recurring vanity in French leaders to want to be thought of as writers as well as statesmen: One aims to shape History but also to shape the history books. Malraux encouraged de Gaulle to think that he was penning the national epic; de Gaulle encouraged Malraux to believe that he was an actor on the world stage. In either case, one does not fulfill one’s tryst with destiny by scrabbling about among the footnotes. One embodies one’s Country, one expresses one’s Country, one illumines the Human Condition. De Gaulle and Malraux recognized the grandeur of France in each other.
A life passed in this elevated register is not likely to emerge unscathed from that most mundane and unforgiving of forms, the carefully researched, coolly appraising biography. Olivier Todd’s lively account is not primarily distinguished by its coolness, but his research in the biographical sources and his knowledge of the period are more than enough to show up the fabrications out of which the myth of Malraux was woven. Yet even the unvarnished facts read like an amalgam of famous fictional characters–out of Victor Hugo by Ernest Hemingway, with a dash of Graham Greene (for several years Malraux was a whisky minister to match Greene’s whisky priest).
Born in 1901 into a struggling middle-class family, Malraux did not follow the cursus of the classic French intellectual. He did not even finish his secondary schooling, let alone receive any higher education (though later in life he mostly got away with the claim that he had taken a degree from the École des langues orientales in Paris). Having dabbled in the second-hand book trade and become a minor reviewer, he was still in his early 20s when he was arrested for looting temples in Cambodia; suitably buffed up, this episode became the foundation for his later reputation as an expert on Eastern art. He briefly edited an anticolonial newspaper in French Indochina before returning to make a literary career in Paris, a strategy that paid off handsomely when he won the Prix Goncourt in 1933 for his third novel, La Condition Humaine, a panoramic account of the struggle for human dignity and solidarity set in Shanghai during the conflict between the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. One of the things that most strikes the non-French reader of this biography is the extraordinary prestige accorded to writers in France during this period: Their utterances, however vacuous or pernicious, were guaranteed respectful attention. Winning the Goncourt at the age of 32 was a success from which Malraux’s career never recovered.