Life & Letters

MALRAUX by Pierre Galante Translated by Haakon Chevalier Cowles Book Company, $8.95
An unkind critic might suggest that the pre-eminence of André Malraux among French men of letters is due to his being one of the great survivors of modern French history. But of course there is more to Malraux’s career than that, and we should think of him not only, or perhaps not mainly, as a novelist or as a man of letters or as an art critic, but as an adventurer or as a crusader in a long-drawn-out political battle. Malraux himself has been conscious of the parallel of his career with that of Lord Byron, and it is not totally unjust or absurd to call him the Byron of our times.
There are, of course, important differences. Malraux is still alive at the age of almost seventy; Byron died at Missolonghi at the age of thirtysix; and it must also be said that Byron had—indeed, still has—a greater world reputation than Malraux has or is likely to have. This may be unjust to Malraux, but he is not an English (or Scottish) nobleman, and he has not died in a great dramatic crusade in which his death was a sort of compensation for the death, a few years earlier, of Napoleon. It did not seem absurd to Byron’s generation to compare him with the Emperor, but it is a little absurd to compare Malraux with General de Gaulle.
A second problem is raised by Malraux’s career, and a second question which is not yet answered: Is his career as a man of letters more or less important than his career as a man of action? Where does the weight of Malraux’s life lie in 1971 when he has reached the appointed age of retirement from the life of action, the life of war, of love or of writing? He has passed the age at which Sophocles retired, and yet he has not become a rather tiresome survivor of the past as, for example, André Gide did. He is still a problematic figure whose future is, to use an Irish bull, still before him, and his past is still in many ways obscure.
But there can be no doubt that Malraux is one of the most interesting and possibly the most important French men of letters of this century, and is a serious but not absolutely leading political figure in modern French history. It is not enough to say that he owes his political fame largely to the fact that he is one of the few people who could claim to be close to De Gaulle (although what that really means few people know), nor will it be clear until Malraux has followed his chief into “the shadow and the dust.” There is no doubt, however, that when he is finally classed, Malraux will be a figure of profound interest for modern Frenchmen whether he is hated, admired, or regarded as an excessively complicated puzzle; and any book that casts light on this figure is welcome, even if it is not a good book, and the recent book by Pierre Galante is not a good book. Too often, it makes darkness visible, and Malraux has pulled quite enough darkness over himself to make this additional darkness perhaps worse than irritating.
Of course, the problem is created by Malraux and not by Monsieur Galante, although it is made more complicated and perhaps more insoluble by Monsieur Galante’s credulity and inability to make an adequate critical assessment even on the level of what we now know of this mysterious career and baffling achievement.
Malraux has made the assessment of his achievement, whether the assessment is friendly or hostile, excessively difficult. His quasi-autobiographical works, notably the Antimemoirs (of which Volume 2 has not yet been published in full), create as many problems as they provide solutions, and one is forced to speculate on why the problems were created and why the fictions in which the Antimemoirs abound were chosen to illustrate the author’s complicated and sometimes evasive life. For example, Malraux in his role in the Resistance took the German or Alsatian name of Berger, and in that remarkable book of 1948, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, he gives himself an Alsatian petit pays instead of dealing with his Flemish origins in Dunkirk. Even if we accept the fact that his services in the Liberation of France culminated in his command of the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade, this hardly accounts for the assumption in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg of an Alsatian or a Lotharingian persona.
(Aside: Like most things in Malraux’s career, or rather in his public representation of his career, there are ambiguities which may have a deep meaning or may represent some interior vision of himself which is not fully revealed to the reader. For example, I can remember his saying to me that the de in de Gaulle is not the “noble particule,” as it is in standard French, but the Flemish or Dutch de, meaning “the,” as in the name of the great Admiral de Ruyter. Of course, Malraux has never concealed his origins in Dunkirk or his family connections with French Flanders, and the Alsatian background of The Walnut Trees of Altenburg may be a deliberate choice because the most brilliant part of Malraux’s military career in the Liberation of France was in command of the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade, especially in the bitter winter of 1944-1945.)
No other author in recent times has so successfully put up a smoke screen around his career. Consequently, Monsieur Galante perhaps deserves some allowance to be made for him if he takes, too literally, some of the autobiographical works of his subject and does not check them either against probabilities or against established truths. It is not merely a matter of burying certain truths in a fictional version, as Hemingway does in For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms, because, although one can translate a good deal of Hemingway’s novels into his experiences in Italy in the First World War and in Spain in the Spanish Civil War, the fiction is transparently fictitious; but it is much more difficult to make out which of Malraux’s books classified by his publisher, Gallimard, as novels are more fictitious than some of the quasi-autobiographical works like the Antimemoirs. One would like to have gotten from Monsieur Galante an intelligent investigation of where fiction begins and history ends, or of whether it is possible to distinguish between fiction and autobiography in Malraux’s works. It is not enough simply to notice what books Gallimard calls romans and distinguish them from those which are autobiographical narratives. Indeed, some people have argued that in his account of the Chinese revolution the part of his works which is not based, and does not profess to be based, on firsthand knowledge is more plausible and perhaps more historical than the part which claims to have the authority of having been written by an eyewitness. So some of the problems which are presented by Stendhal are presented also by Malraux, and one must accept The Conquerors or The Human Condition as one accepts The Red and the Black and (even more difficult for the pedantic mind) The Charterhouse of Parma. And all that this boils down to is the suggestion that for a good book on Malraux a critical, skeptical mind is badly needed, and alas, it is not here supplied.
It would be absurd to use Malraux’s writings, autobiography, overt or covert fiction as documentary evidence because their fictional character sometimes would betray one into credulous acceptance. No one will want to write about the Spanish Civil War or about the French part of the Second World War without reading Malraux, and yet no one can read him without keeping his fingers crossed and without assessing or “controlling,” as the French say, the kind of evidence that Malraux provides for a historian and for the merely curious reader of a very remarkable author. And I think it could be said that Hemingway is more reliable as a mere witness than is Malraux, although his account of the Spanish Civil War is of much less intrinsic weight than is Malraux’s. But Malraux is not writing mainly as a witness to the Chinese civil war, to the Spanish Civil War, to the French civil war, including the French civil war which did not take place. For Malraux has been in his life of action a mythmaker as well as a witness of very great value. He has cast his life in a dramatic and revolutionary appearance which does recall that of Lord Byron, but has not yet been “controlled” as Byron’s life has been controlled by so many scholars since his death.
Unfortunately, Monsieur Galante either has an uncritical mind or has not the habit of industry, or simply has not the habit of contemplating closely problems of history and problems of historical evidence. It is partly, of course, a question of an absence of proportion. In the years from 1958 to 1969, when Malraux was the closest if not the most important of the collaborators of General de Gaulle in the government of France, a great deal happened in which Malraux had a share which is skipped over in a rather scandalous way by Monsieur Galante. We are given some of the speeches he made, we are given references to the experimental Maisons de la Culture, we are given a very inadequate account of Malraux’s role when the Algerian rebellion seems to threaten the stability of France itself, and the importation of the African civil war into Paris. But so much is missing! For example, one of the things that is missing is an adequate account of Malraux’s relations with the other leading French men of letters, most of whom were bitterly hostile to General de Gaulle. Perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre does not deserve much attention, but he was an important literary figure at a critical moment in French history, and if it is only for the comic figure waiting for the revolution to call him back in 1968 from his selfadopted Elba in the cafés of the Left Bank, Monsieur Galante has missed the comic possibilities and has not substituted any serious political analysis.
Indeed, it is odd how many obvious leads Monsieur Galante managed to miss. We hear quite rightly of young Malraux getting the Prix Goncourt for one of the most brilliant books that has ever earned that prize, but we have no discussion of the politics, literary or merely political, which made the Swedish Academy give the Nobel Prize in 1957 to Camus and not to Malraux. (It was Paris scuttlebutt at the time that Camus was both surprised and a little annoyed that Malraux was passed over in his favor.)
Nearly all Malraux’s work as an art historian is ignored. And there is perhaps a certain justice that Malraux, who has done so much to create a myth about himself or hide himself in a cloud of ambiguous narrative, should now find an imitator who manages to miss most of his achievements and his limitations.
There is very little to the point in Monsieur Galante’s account of Malraux’s reaction to the real or alleged threat of a Communist take-over in France after General de Gaulle came buck into active politics and attempted to prevent the Fourth Republic from falling into so many of the bad habits of the Third.
(Aside: I may say that I think the Fourth Republic was superior as a body politic, and superior for its achievements, to the Third Republic in its degenerate last years, but certainly it was not dure et pure as so many Frenchmen had expected it to be just after the Liberation. France has had much worse governments and much less intelligent governments than the Fourth Republic, but it lacked grandeur—and the power of getting the French people to accept and thank it for its real achievements.)
Looking back on those years in France (for I saw a great deal of provincial France as well as of Paris at that time), I found it difficult to believe that there was any real danger of a Communist take-over despite the noise, the fanfaronade, the panic which the government of the day felt, or affected to feel. I can remember visiting Malraux in his elegant Paris house and seeing on his table a great map of Paris, and his pointing out to me that he expected the Communists, who had, he said, about a hundred thousand militants in Paris, to seize the capital, but, as Malraux went on, “I have a hundred thousand very effective militants outside Paris, and we shall take over Paris from the Communists and liquidate their pseudo-revolutionary apparatus.”
For Malraux had by this time a deep contempt for the machine politicians of the French Communist Party, of whom the most odious was Andre Marty (who appears in an equally odious light in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls). He had no doubt he would win in any event. I suggested that he contemplated a new Commune and a new Siege of Paris. He did, but he expected that the second Commune would have the disastrous results of the first.
(Aside: About a year later, a brilliant pupil of mine, Miss Nora Beloff, then Paris correspondent for the Observer of London, asked me to give her a letter to Malraux as she wanted to interview him and it was very hard to get an interview out of him. Malraux agreed to receive her and gave her an extremely interesting interview full of candor, with none of the ambiguities which clouded so many of his public declarations. But, as she told me, the map on his table this time was not a map of Paris, but a map of Moscow, for he anticipated, perhaps because he has a pessimistic, catastrophic mind, a real clash between the West and Moscow, but the West would win and do what the Germans had failed to do: strangle Communism in its own capital. I thought that this was romanticism.)
It is possible that Malraux’s greatest achievement as the minister closest to De Gaulle (if not the most important minister close to De Gaulle) was his impact on the appearance of Paris and his attempt, successful in some places, not in others, to prevent the sucking to Paris of all the intellectual life of the country. The Maisons de la Culture were sometimes successful, and I cannot think of any other attempt which met with any success on the same scale in the centralized cultural life of England. Of course, Malraux, who had from the days when he was a schoolboy been an incurable traveler, had spread the prestige of French official culture in a way which no one had done since, perhaps, the better years of the Second Empire, and the width of his interests and the fertility of his achievement made him one of the great ministers of French culture, worthy of comparison with, say, Victor Duruy or perhaps Cardinal Mazarin or Cardinal Richelieu! Again, it must be said that much that came to fruition under the Fifth Republic of General de Gaulle had been planted under the Fourth Republic by various politicians of enterprise as well as by grands fonctionnaires like Louis Armand or Jean Monnet.
These were and are real achievements in which Malraux does, I think, find some compensation for the series of personal disasters which have befallen him in his adventurous and dangerous life. The degree to which his life has been adventurous and dangerous is not adequately brought out by Monsieur Galante. There is no serious attempt to assess Malraux’s role in the Spanish Civil War. If Monsieur Galante had known about it, the contrast between Malraux’s account of the Spanish Civil War (or Hemingway’s) and that of George Orwell might have been highly illuminating, for Orwell saw the Spanish Civil War from the bottom up. He was a private soldier on the Aragon front in the miserable winter of 1936-1937, and he already had begun to suffer a great disenchantment. Malraux was an important organizer of the Republican Air Force, and increasingly suspicious of the Communist allies with whom he had to work, but of whom he became suspicious not quite soon enough. And if one considers the careers of Orwell and of Malraux in Spain, one can see that Malraux was a natural leader, a natural commander, the natural officer, and Orwell, old Etonian though he was, was a simple, passionate, and courageous private soldier in what he thought was a war for the defense of liberty and civilization and which he began to believe had other, less attractive aspirations.
One cannot help suspecting that André Malraux, like many other people outside and inside the academic and journalistic world, rather enjoyed war. Even though he ran terrible risks not only of death but of torture and the temptations of betrayal, and although this is purely a guess on my part, I think the crises in which the civil war in Algeria nearly spread to France gave Malraux not only a chance to display military talents he had exercised in China and in Spain, but a feeling of being more than a mere man of letters, of battling for his ideas in battle. A kind of salvation that Byron found at Missolonghi Malraux found more than once in his longer and even more dramatic life. That such people exist, that such people are serious, even great writers, a good many American and English people find it hard to realize today. But Byron would not be Byron if he had not fought for Greece, and Malraux would not be Malraux if he had not fought in, and in a sense for, China, for the Spanish republic, and of course, for France.
The “posthumous lives” of great men who outlive their power, if not their fame, are often painful or brutal or degrading. There are the melancholy last years of Jefferson, the embittered and self-degrading last years of Bismarck, the too ostentatiously serene last years of Goethe. De Gaulle in his brief “posthumous” life was publicly silent, publicly dignified, and few were admitted to his confidence (perhaps no one ever really was). Malraux was admitted (if infrequently) both to the General’s austere table and to his limited confidence.
(Aside: The recently published but not yet translated fragment from the promised next volume of the Antimemoirs is a moderately satisfactory dialogue between the General and his fidus Achates. It reveals more magnanimity than do Bismarck’s grumbles or Jefferson’s gloom.)
De Gaulle’s public life was over. He had come back from Elba, but had no illusions about escaping from Saint Helena. But for Malraux, is the life of action over? One must hope so for the sake of France, which needs a podestà like Louis XVIII (to borrow a parallel from Albert Thibaudet). And there is another model. What we now want from Andre Malraux is what France got from that political failure, Chateaubriand, a new set of Mémoires d’Outretombe.