Olivier Todd
Malraux: A Life
translated by Joseph West
Alfred A. Knopf, 560 pages, $35

Intellectuals by and large disgraced the twentieth century. With rare exceptions, they whored after strange gods, of which the most odious and overwhelming was power. Writers, artists, philosophers, historians, even musicians and architects, enthusiastically committed their talents to the service of one cause or another. This treason of the clerks spread like an epidemic, diminishing the world’s hard-won stock of wisdom and morality, and civilization is still reeling from it.

Why did so many intelligent men and women choose to serve power rather than speak truth to it as conscience and an honorable tradition of principled opposition dictated? What explains the adoration for Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, for Hitler and Mao and Ho Chi Minh, Mussolini and Pol Pot, Castro, and the rest of this deranged and inhuman crew of cause-mongers? In play was personal insecurity—and its converse, a self-promoting vanity—a romancing of violence, false messianism, collective instinct, the lust to destroy, and not least the claim of special privilege.

These motives amalgamated in the person and career of André Malraux, probably the most celebrated novelist to emerge between the wars. Malraux is, Olivier Todd’s new biography[1] reminds us, a most illustrative case study in the period’s intellectual dereliction. Every novelist quarries material from his experience, and then uses imagination to shape or enlarge whatever he needs for his purposes of rendering reality as he sees it. Truth in fiction, after all, is only a variety of lying, and the more successful the lie, the greater the truth may be. Malraux turned conventional literary strategy inside out, exploiting fiction to cast the aura of heroism over himself.

Malraux’s ambition was never in doubt, nor was his energy. He was determined to leave his mark on the world. Coming from a modest background in the north of France, he quickly found a place in the Paris of Max Jacob and the Surrealists, from whom he derived the notion that his actions were always their own justification. An autodidact, he attended a few lectures at the Ecole des langues orientales but followed no systematic study for a degree, though afterwards he made wild claims that he had learned Sanskrit and Persian, and could converse in Russian—he who spoke only French and was unable to understand even basic English. A nervous tic, constantly breaking across his face, seemed to emphasize the urgency of whatever he was proposing. With an eye for a first edition or an under-priced work of art, he was a dealer by nature, and remained one all his life.

His first adventure was in the French colonies of Southeast Asia. He travelled there with his wife Clara and a friend in order to cut Buddhist statues off a temple, with a view to selling them—in New York, he hoped. To protect the cultural heritage, the colonial authorities naturally tried to send Malraux to prison for theft and vandalism. Literary Paris, led by André Gide and François Mauriac, petitioned for clemency on the simple grounds that Malraux was a young man with a promising future. This worked so well that the colonial authorities came to be represented as bumbling philistines, and Malraux as the savior of the temple and its statues. Special privilege, Malraux had discovered early, was able to invert common sense and natural justice enough to distort reality altogether.

Where Surrealism had been private and precious, communism was public and vociferous. “Communism is not hope, but the form of hope,” Malraux said, in one of the oracular aphorisms characteristic of so much of his writing. Never actually joining the Communist Party, he proved a master of its agitprop lingo and imagery. The novels—Les Conquérants, La Condition humaine, L’Espoir—were written in jerky prose, lyrically obscure, and doom-laden. Caught up in glamorized conspiracy, clenching fists and obeying the slogans they shout, Malraux’s characters are cardboard cut-outs, speaking and acting in ways that have little or nothing to do with real life and real feelings, but that altogether amount to an incitement to Communist revolution.

What is all too real in the novels is the love of violence and the belief in power. In a scene that sealed his international reputation, he described how Chiang Kai-shek and his men had suppressed revolution in Canton by stuffing Communists into the boilers of railway engines. No such atrocity in fact occurred. Nor had Malraux then visited China, but typically the invention of the novel transmuted into widespread assumption that Malraux was reporting his experience—an assumption he encouraged with some of his habitual dark mutterings. Years later, on the eve of his own visit to China, President Nixon had it in his head that Malraux had actually helped bring Chinese Communists to power, and in the course of their conversation Malraux did not disabuse him. Insecurity and vanity alike were evident in Malraux’s compulsion to pretend that his fictions, his lies and his boasting, were the living vibrant truth.

Here was a writer proclaiming that intellectuals could exchange the ivory tower for a revolver and the comradeship of an armed column on its way to the front, and that a death for the cause was as necessary as it was glorious. Here was a writer mythologizing History with a capital “H.” Arthur Koestler, himself a Communist activist at the time, sought Malraux out to ask for contributions to the cause, and recorded how he “listened in silence, occasionally uttering one of his characteristic, awe-inspiring sniffs which sound like the cry of a wounded jungle beast.” Playing his part perfectly, Malraux finally said, “Yes, yes, my dear friend, but what do you think of the apocalypse?”

Politicizing literature and fictionalizing politics, Malraux became a most complete and public representative of the treasonable clerks of the Thirties. In a period photograph still often reproduced, he looks lean and handsome, with black hair flopping youthfully and a cigarette in his persuasive hand, that tic and those sniffs for once still, a cross between Baron Munchausen and Che Guevara.

The Soviets gladly enrolled this willing acolyte in their cause. In 1934 he went to Berlin on a mission to plead for Dimitrov of the Comintern, accused of burning down the Reichstag. Hitler refused to meet him, but Malraux later claimed (as usual, falsely) to have met Goebbels. That same year, at a Moscow Writers’ Congress, he was able to declare, “I believe in the Soviet humanism to come, a humanism that is analogous to but not the same as that of Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance period.” The Soviet artist, he thought, was free to do what he wanted. He knew Ehrenburg, Babel, Eisenstein, Gorky, Pasternak, even Trotsky, who in turn wrote about him—but apparently he learnt nothing from them. There was virtually no limit to his drivel: “The enormous strength of the Soviet force from the outset is that it is the type of civilization from which Shakespeares emerge.”

By means that are still rather obscure, he raised money to acquire aircraft for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war, and appointed himself colonel of the squadron. Unable to pilot a plane, he nonetheless pretended to have been shot down in combat in the air. Asked by a journalist at the time which country was closest to the true ideals of democracy, he answered “Russia.” When the Communists were about to massacre the Anarchists in Spain in the atrocity which opened George Orwell’s eyes, he told Victor Serge, one of Stalin’s luckier victims, “I would do nothing against Stalin at the moment, I accepted the Moscow trials and I am prepared to accept those in Barcelona.” In fact he had never met Stalin, but that did not prevent him saying later in life, “Stalin said to me …”

The fall of France in 1940 was surely an opportunity for someone who claimed that writing and action involved the same commitment. Instead of joining either the Free French in London or enrolling in the local resistance, Malraux retired to a country house at Collemiers in the Vichy zone with Josette Clotis, his lady friend of the moment, and wrote in tranquility. At the last possible date, in the spring of 1944 with D-Day in the offing, he contacted a maquis and its English officer, Major George Hiller. Once again he adopted the brazen expedient of appointing himself a colonel, as in Spain. That July, he and Hiller ran into German soldiers at a roadblock. The Germans opened fire, and when Hiller and Malraux ran for it, a bullet grazed Malraux’s leg. Taken prisoner, Hiller escaped and Malraux was released after forty-eight hours. In Paris a few days later, in the Ritz Bar with Hemingway, Malraux was claiming to be in command of two thousand men. One of Hemingway’s armed companions asked, “Papa, shall we shoot this asshole?” Malraux’s war lost nothing in subsequent telling. Shrapnel had sliced his belt; he had faced a German firing-squad; he had held up the Das Reich division, and liberated Alsace-Lorrraine.

The urge to power and the claim of special privilege took an unexpected turn when Malraux latched on to General de Gaulle in the aftermath of the war. As de Gaulle’s in-house intellectual and unconditional champion, he was a minister immediately after the war and then for ten years after de Gaulle’s return in 1958 in the cabinet with the rank of ministre d’état. He liked to declare himself the second most important person in the country, and de Gaulle’s eventual successor.

Those people who go in for mythologizing mostly end up in asylums. France, it seems, needs all the heroes it can gather, with the result that Malraux has been buried in the Pantheon, the stately national mausoleum where France honors its great dead. Among biographers and critics who have contributed to the Malraux myth are Jean Lacouture, Walter Langlois, Curtis Cate, and Axel Madsen, all of whom have been prepared to take him largely at face value, finding excuses for his self-promoting deals and euphemisms for his bragging. Silence envelops the several specialist studies that have revealed the lies about his activities in Indo-China, China, and Spain, his frivolity about the Soviet Union, the preposterous magnification of his trivial role at the end of the war, and his servility towards de Gaulle.

For a number of years Olivier Todd has been at the center of French literary life as a journalist, a novelist, and the author of a biography of Albert Camus. He has worked assiduously to dig out unusual sources and to interview those who crossed Malraux’s path. He has done himself no favor, however, by writing in the historic present. The tense allows him to mingle fact with value judgment and commentary of his own in a style that is a disconcertingly abased pastiche—sometimes a parody—of generic Malraux.

To choose a random example: “Malraux doesn’t think the winners are always right. Neither does he think that Stalin is blameless. But he behaves as if some losers are wrong. Trotsky is a startling journey, a destiny at a standstill facing death. Justice is desirable, certainly, but efficiency perhaps more so.” The core meaning of this passage presumably is that Malraux recognized that whatever Stalin’s faults were, he had defeated Trotsky and was in power willy-nilly. But what sort of conceit is it to place “a startling journey” in direct apposition to Trotsky, or to describe his imminent assassination as “a destiny at a standstill facing death?” In this context, “destiny” itself begs several questions. As for the dubious aphorism about justice and efficiency, is this reflecting Todd or Malraux?

Or again, from a description of Malraux in his country house during the war:

In the evening, they talk. That is, they listen to Malraux practising his favorite sport, monologue. He comes out with subjects like a professor opening a seminar, which turns into a small-scale lecture. Let’s talk about sunsets. Who believes in eternal life? Actually, what does Grosjean think about that? When I was shot down in Spain … The days go by, the months go by. Malraux writes. He is a man of cycles: in Indochina and in Spain, he acted first, then wrote. He tries out fragments of the novel he is working on on Grosjean. Malraux is digesting two defeats, that of Spain and that of France. The time for arms in Madrid is in the past, the time for writing in Collemiers is in the present. Malraux believes in words when he has no weapons.
The core meaning here presumably is that Malraux spent those days writing, and that his evenings were rather a bore to others present.

But do the topics of sunset, eternal life and being shot down in Spain come from some source which Todd does not attribute, either Malraux himself or his friend Grosjean, or possibly Todd’s own inventiveness? Why should anyone believe Todd’s say-so that Malraux is digesting two defeats? Might he not have chosen to be safe and comfortable in the country? Anyhow what sort of a judgment is it to accept the defeat of France? If past cycles in his career involved acting first and writing later, why now is he writing first and proposing to act later? What’s the point of this interjection? “Malraux believes in words when he has no weapons” is poetical assertion on Todd’s part, just meaningless rodomontade. Malraux had only to leave the house and contact the resistance to acquire a weapon. If he had had a weapon, would he then have disbelieved in words?

The intention may have been to pay some sort of compliment to Malraux, but over five hundred pages of such pastiche blur the narrative, exhaust, and finally annoy. It is a pity. When discernible, Todd’s Malraux is more realistic than the Malraux of other biographers, a selfish and calculating careerist, indifferent to the women in his life to the point of cruelty, no sort of husband, lover, or parent, no sort of friend or colleague either, a bully and poseur, showing a contempt for truth that was actually contempt for people obliged to listen to him, careful to ensure that he was always the unscrupulous beneficiary of special privilege, pushing into the public arena the bogus persona he had created for himself. Todd also throws light on his depressive bouts, his drinking, his addiction to uppers and downers. The nervous tics were the result of Tourette’s syndrome, an affliction which Malraux was born with, and Todd offers the interesting theory that this syndrome may be linked to the boasting and lying.

About the boasting and lying, Todd is equivocal. He realizes that Malraux was a fellow-travelling stooge, that he did not do the deeds he wished people to think he had done, that in Malraux’s mind, “what should have been, was,” but he mostly prefers to deal with this aspect of the man outside the text, discreetly, in the small print of the footnotes. All too often, he lapses into the mindless apologia of other Malraux biographers with passages such as, “Malraux manages to convince those he needs to, and no one is surprised. He is a born writer and a born warrior. What other writer could be so persuasive?”

Contemporaries such as Koestler and Sartre and Aron were puzzled that Malraux so quickly and effortlessly hero-worshipped de Gaulle. Had he not swung inexplicably from Left to Right, and was he not betraying everything he had previously stood for? With hindsight, it is obvious that intellectual surrender to Stalin leads straight to intellectual surrender to de Gaulle—with this difference, that the latter was willing to offer Malraux the realistic prospect of power and the massive enlargement of special privilege. Duly projected into high office, Malraux was abjectly grateful, splashing the exaggerated rhetoric of History and hero-worship over de Gaulle, telling de Gaulle to his face in cabinet that he, de Gaulle, had “as planetary a vision” as President Kennedy, of all people. In cultural matters, he appears to have been a reasonably competent minister, alleviating dull routine by resorting time and again to the special privilege of having access to the likes of Mao and Nehru, and giving the usual fanciful and self-serving accounts of what they said, as one great statesman to another. Seduced as ever by power, he could hold up Mao and his struggle as “an example for all of humanity.” By then, he had become detached from all reality. “There are only two men in France, de Gaulle and me,” he confided to François Mauriac.

A number of years have passed, the Soviet Union is no more, and the treason of the clerks in the Thirties may no longer matter so much, may indeed serve only to warn against messianism, the romancing of violence, and the appeal of power. Todd’s intention was to portray someone serious whose life was his finest work of art. The evidence in his book leads to a different conclusion. In the perspective of actual history rather than myth, Malraux revealed his skill as a dealer, and that so many of the good and the great fell for his confidence trick is richly comic—irresistibly so now that it is enshrined as an object of admiration forever under the high and echoing dome of the Pantheon, that embodiment of historic France.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 7, on page 60
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