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Grand Illusion | The Nation

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Grand Illusion

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By the end of the war, Malraux had made the personal and political choice that was largely to determine the rest of his life. He became de Gaulle's indispensable man. He was rewarded with a post in the general's first postwar government; only now can one really appreciate the irony that this incorrigible fantasist was put in charge of "information." Meanwhile, his literary standing continued to grow. In 1947 he was only the second living author (Gide had been the first) to be honored with a Pléiade edition of his works; for the next couple of decades there was a constant rumor that he was about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (on several occasions he turned down election to the Académie Française, believing he should save himself for the higher, more fitting honor).

About the Author

Stefan Collini
Stefan Collini’s That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect (Chicago) was published earlier this year....

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When in 1958 de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic and became its first president, he created a new Ministry of Culture; this provided Malraux with the ideal stage for his theatrical talents (though he had characteristically hoped for something grander still). He stayed in office until de Gaulle's final resignation eleven years later, an extraordinary length of time for a minister in the unstable world of postwar French politics. Malraux was de Gaulle's cultural force de frappe: His mere presence helped the French government to face down potentially damaging critics. Malraux, needless to say, still yearned for the glamour of frontline action. When in 1961 right-wing generals briefly threatened an uprising against de Gaulle, who appeared to be moving toward granting independence to Algeria, the 60-year-old Minister of Culture declared himself ready to command a tank unit against them; his officials had to look away. For a period in the mid-1960s, Malraux was sometimes too drunk to conduct the daily business of his ministry--but then the daily anything was never his forte.

His strength as a politician lay in making the large public gesture. He gloried in being the man who "took the Mona Lisa to Washington" (against the unanimous advice of the Louvre's curators). He committed substantial sums of public money to the cleaning and restoration of Paris's monuments and facades (though it had been begun by others before him). He established Maisons de la Culture in French provincial towns. But as any B-list celebrity instinctively knows, what really counts is whom you are photographed with. Just as Malraux had met with Trotsky before the war, now he met with Mao (a much mythologized and embroidered event) and with Nehru, JFK and Nixon. Nor did he neglect his literary reputation. When his hard-to-classify Antimémoires came out in 1967, its success (it would sell 200,000 copies in three weeks) surprised everyone except the author. As he informed his daughter at the time, "I am the only writer who counts." A sign of another kind of standing was the fact that he had a dish named after him at his favorite Parisian restaurant, the very expensive Lasserre (Pigeon André Malraux; Todd includes the recipe), thereby achieving at least one kind of immortality to match Chateaubriand's. For some years before his death in 1976 he was, as Todd nicely puts it, "drugged with honor and respect." He had long been intoxicated with a sense of his own importance; his remarkable achievement was to persuade so many others to share that sense.

"Lie" is a rough word. Todd has occasion to use it more than once of Malraux, and with reason, but there is a sense in which it reduces him unduly. To term Malraux's high-handed doctorings of the historical record "lies" is to domesticate them, to reinsert them into the fabric of the everyday. To Malraux, they were expressions of an essential, supra-mundane truth. As with certain religious thinkers, his mind roved beyond the borders of the knowable with easy majesty. Unclarities and inconsistencies only showed that one was a true explorer of the universe of the imagination; tidying up the loose ends would at least provide some enjoyment for the pygmies.

One risk of living one's life entirely in the major key is that bathos and humiliation can never be far away. But in Malraux's case it also meant that he could rise to the state occasions of human experience more readily than any of the earthbound plodders, and there are times when only the elevated will do. He had, it must be said, a marvelous capacity to inspire, whether addressing troops facing a high risk of death or recalling the claims on the living of some moral giant now dead. In 1964 Malraux delivered a eulogy for Jean Moulin, the Resistance leader executed by the Germans, on the occasion of the transfer of Moulin's ashes to the Panthéon. Wrapped against the cold, his voice cracking and echoing in the badly connected microphones, Malraux's tribute remains a haunting performance. The oratory is more than dated; it has a Racinian, even Roman, cadence to it. It is excessive, and thus right for an occasion when mere accuracy of fact and characterization would have been thinly inadequate.

Todd's biography has a certain racy charm, but the reader should be warned that it is written in the present tense throughout; in English, this comes across as a striving for dramatic immediacy, something that, across several hundred pages, is bound to grate. There is also a good deal of reconstructed dialogue, quite a few asides to the reader and some maddening descents into the style of tabloid journalism. This, for example, is how Todd narrates the moment when Malraux learns that his lover Louise de Vilmorin is simultaneously having an affair with another man. "Why should Malraux have it all? Some kind soul tells him about the Vilmorin-Sieburg affair. Free love? No thanks, and not with me: Malraux breaks it off. Three women to run away from.... Travel is a cure for women. Sometimes." Malraux's own prose could be oracular, gnomic and mannered, but it never, ever, sounded like a series of captions to a photo spread in Paris Match.

The final tragedy of the life of this compelling, extravagant, flawed man--a tragedy he would have felt more keenly than almost anyone with whom he shared "his" century--was that there was no André Malraux on hand to pronounce the éloge when, in 1996, twenty years after his death, he was accorded the ultimate accolade of having his ashes transferred to the Panthéon. He was installed in the temple of France's grands hommes, among those few peers whose company he had long craved, to the accompaniment of tired clichés spoken by that most banal of Gaullist machine politicians, Jacques Chirac. At the last, Malraux had fallen among mere mortals, a giant carried on the shoulders of pygmies. Sometimes, history can be the cruelest mistress of all.

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