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Grand Illusion | The Nation

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Grand Illusion

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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.

About the Author

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

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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.

From the Cambodian escapade onward, the heart of the Malraux myth lay in the ideal of the Writer as Man of Action. The Spanish Civil War provided the perfect stage. Without ever joining the Communist Party, Malraux was committed to the anti-Fascist cause, and he gave practical expression to this allegiance by "commanding" a volunteer air squadron on the Republican side. (It's true that he did largely procure and organize the aircraft, but in fact he never flew them himself.) In reality, the terrain of his greatest triumphs was that of publicity. He insured good press coverage of "the Malraux squadron"; rumor had it that his fetching uniform was specially made by Lanvin. At the same time, the Spanish experience fed his imagination, providing the setting both for the celebration of Republican fraternity in his novel L'Espoir, published in 1937, and for a film he made in 1938, Sierra de Teruel. Malraux was becoming a twentieth-century Renaissance man; it seemed there was nothing he could not do--or at least nothing he could not get away with.

Even in a life largely made up of murky episodes, Malraux's role in the Second World War is where the relations between myth and reality are at their murkiest. In the years just after the war, Malraux made much of how he had been in the Resistance from an early date, acting as "regional commander" in southwest France, arrested by the Germans and wounded while making a brave escape. For these exploits, he was decorated by both the French and British governments. In fact, these claims were nearly all untrue. After the French defeat in 1940 Malraux lived peacefully in southern France, refusing to join the Resistance right up until March 1944, only a few months before the Allied landing in Normandy. He then characteristically set himself up as an "area coordinator," though no Resistance forces corresponded to the units he claimed to be "coordinating." On the strength of his invented standing, and an ability to cut a fine figure in beret and fatigues, he assumed command of a Free French brigade that fought the Germans in eastern France in late 1944. "Colonel Malraux" had never been commissioned and had never received more than basic training, but he proved himself a brave and inspiring leader of the raggle-taggle soldiers, albeit relying on subordinates to look after the nuts and bolts of the operation.

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).

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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