Though France has been in relative decline as a great power since 1939—some would say, since 1914—its cultural influence has survived to a remarkable degree the loss of colonies, markets, and what was once the largest fleet in the world. Even today, when the French language is deeply embattled in its former strongholds in Latin America and Asia, French civilization remains throughout the world the only pole of attraction capable of rivaling that of the United States. This situation has assured French writers an international constituency, subsidized the French book trade, and provided much useful overseas employment for cultural bureaucrats. But, more important, it has nourished the persistent illusion—in Buenos Aires or Beirut, Tunis or Tanarive, New York or Iowa City—that the outcome of disputes in literary Paris would ultimately resolve some of the more important ideological and aesthetic questions of our age.

If that proposition seems wildly overstated today, that is only because ideology—if not precisely Gallocentrism—is currently in a state of dissolution. But not so very long ago otherwise sensible, literate people in many countries expected to discover the truth about Stalin’s labor camps not from the accounts of the survivors, but from a debate between Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre; or about the Moscow trials not from the findings of the Dewey Commission, but from the reflections of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Put another way, in what other country could a student revolt over bus fares, cafeteria food, and class sizes be regarded as a plebiscite on the future of Western capitalism? Or the personalities, major and minor, of a single urban quarter (in this case, Paris’s seventh arrondissement) be so familiar to readers around the globe as to justify translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s discursive, gossipy, and hugely boring memoirs into nearly a dozen languages?

The capacity of French literary politics to exercise a continuing hold on the foreign imagination is perhaps best illustrated by the enduring eminence of André Malraux, who died more than fifteen years ago. Though somewhat passé in France, Malraux continues to inspire something of an industry in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In this country alone, over the past decade and a half he has inspired more than a dozen studies, biographies, and critical texts, including such highly specialized treatments as John Michalczyk’s André Malraux’s “Espoir”: The Propaganda-Art Film and the Spanish Civil War (1977) and Axel Madsen’s Silk Roads: The Asian Adventures of André and Clara Malraux (1987). And although his novels are not much read any more, two of the most important, L’Espoir (Man’s Hope) and La Condition humaine (Man’s Fate), have recently been brought back into print by Random House, the former in its ubiquitous Modern Library; three years ago Howard Fertig reprinted a translation of one of his minor works, The Walnut Trees of Altenbourg.

What makes a writer important when people have ceased to read him?

What makes a writer important when people have ceased to read him? In the case of Malraux, the answer lies in the facts of his biography. He was, to begin with, an utterly central figure of Western culture and politics. He was present at some of the most dramatic events of our century, and not only in his own country or even in Europe; he combined literature, art criticism, political militance (first on the Left, then the Right), and heroism in combat (both in the air and on land) in a fashion which excites admiration, envy, and (sometimes justifiable) disbelief. He also represented the archetype of the committed writer in the twentieth century, combining thought with action, art with high purpose, critical distance with proximity to power. For sheer intellectual glamour, no French figure—not even General de Gaulle, himself a writer of serious distinction—could challenge him. Finally, it is possible that Malraux’s continuing fascination for foreign intellectuals has to do with their own special frustrations, a point to which we shall later return.

But first, some details of a life. André Malraux was born in Paris in 1901. His father, a shady financier, abandoned his wife and son early on, forcing them to take shelter in a village in Ile-de-France, where the boy’s grandmother owned a small grocery. Although the circumstances of his boyhood were shabby-genteel, young André was taught to aspire to larger things—a lesson he absorbed a bit too thoroughly. Admitted to the elite Ecole Turgot, he left school without taking his baccalauréat, setting off to conquer Paris at the age of seventeen.

Postwar Paris was Malraux’s university—offering the novice unrivaled museums and libraries, as well as galleries, bookshops, and cafés frequented by a large colony of talented artists and writers from many countries. He became a habitué of Montmartre, and almost immediately was accepted as part of a circle which included such yet unknown greats as Louis Aragon, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, and Paul Eluard. From buying and selling rare books he went briefly into publishing books himself, finally settling in journalism. This was a profession for which Malraux was eminently suited, since he was capable of working in great spurts of energy and could meet stringent deadlines without difficulty. At the same time, it allowed him to continue to live in a bohemian fashion—late nights and no fixed hours.

He was married young. His first wife was Clara Goldschmidt, a daughter of a German Jewish family of some means which had settled in France a generation before. The marriage license listed Malraux as being “of no occupation,” and in fact for some months thereafter he did nothing to belie the designation. When he finally ran short of cash, rather than getting a real job he decided to go to Cambodia to sack the ruins of a temple at Banteay Srei of its statuary. If all went as planned, the booty would be shipped to the United States, and he and his bride could live on the proceeds “for two or three years.”

The couple set off for the Orient in October 1923, on steamship tickets paid for by Malraux’s father. Braving extraordinary physical discomfort, the couple made their way through the Cambodian jungles to their objective. Before the theft could be successfully completed, however, Malraux was arrested by the colonial authorities. The charge was misappropriation of antiquities belonging to the French state, but by mobilizing his contacts in literary Paris, Malraux managed to put the colonial authorities on the defensive. A galaxy of French editors and writers bombarded the governor’s palace in Hanoi with offers to testify to Malraux’s great value to literature—a value which, to say the least, had yet to be demonstrated. An advertisement in Nouvelles Littéraires even printed a petition—signed by such luminaries as François Mauriac, Roger Martin du Gard, and Gaston Gallimard—arguing that “a three-year imprisonment could prevent the achievement that [France] had the right . . . to expect of him.” In the event, Malraux escaped conviction on a legal technicality, but the experience of justice at the hands of French colonial authorities—his biographers habitually tell us—suddenly turned him into a committed anti-imperialist. Moreover, even though he failed to benefit financially from the looting of Banteay Srei, he returned to France far more famous than he had left it. The experience also convinced him that Indochina could be a very advantageous springboard to a literary career. It was a sound decision, as were most of the others which he took at successive turning points in his professional life.

In 1925, Malraux and Clara returned to Indochina, this time to engage in both politics and literature. With Paul Monin, a liberal French lawyer dedicated to colonial reform, Malraux started a daily, L’Indochine (later L’Indochine enchainée), and plunged hip-deep into local politics, even becoming an activist in the Young Annam Movement. During this period he also visited China for the first time, making contact with leaders of the Kuo Mintang (KMT) and the nascent Chinese Communist Party. While Malraux’s activities made little impact on the French colonial regime, they did provide him with excellent material for novels. His first, Les Conquérants (The Conquerors), dealing with the Canton general strike, was published shortly after his return to France in 1928, and his second, La Voie royale (The Royal Way), a fictionalized version of his expedition to Cambodia, appeared the following year.

The Conquerors was an instant best-seller, and catapulted Malraux to literary fame and financial security. He was immediately given a position at the prestigious Gallimard publishing firm as editor in charge of their art books. The Orient had proven an investment so sound as to lure Malraux back twice more: in 1929, he undertook a land journey with Clara across Central Asia (motivated partly by a plan—never brought to fruition—to rescue Leon Trotsky, then interned in Alma-Ata), and in 1931, he returned to China.

Out of the Chinese trip came his greatest and most commercially successful novel, La Condition humaine (Man’s Fate) (Prix Goncourt, 1933), a reconstruction of the events surrounding the 1928 suppression of the Shanghai commune by Chiang Kai-shek. Man’s Fate is steeped in the heady wine of revolutionary romanticism—a heroic tragedy particularly appealing to young people searching for a political faith. With its publication Malraux became the most glamorous and talented novelist broadly associated with the French Left, but also literary Paris’s leading exponent of art as a tool of political militance. When his old friend Drieu La Rochelle objected that art and politics could not be mixed, Malraux frostily replied that “literature is not made to decorate bookshelves. It is an instrument of war, for attack and defense against the enemy.”

Though initially attracted to Trotskyism, by the time the outcome of the power struggle in the Soviet Union was clear, Malraux had drawn closer to the French Communist Party. While he never actually joined it—partly because he objected to the literary canons of “socialist realism,” which he courageously attacked at a Moscow congress of writers in 1934—he was quite ready to serve as the Party’s chief cultural ornament. As it was, his novels appealed to just about every kind of philo-Communist except actual Party members themselves. In private, Communist leaders tended to dismiss him as a spoiled, self-indulgent bourgeois; on the other hand, alone of speakers at Party rallies, Malraux was capable of attracting people from high society, some of whom eventually provided financial support for Party activities.

Malraux proved of even greater value to the Communist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Malraux proved of even greater value to the Communist cause during the Spanish Civil War. From the beginning he recognized that the Loyalist crusade would become one of the great causes of the decade, and he rushed to Madrid shortly after Franco’s pronunciamento in June 1936 to offer his support to the embattled Republic. Shocked by the disparity of military assets, he offered to create a volunteer air force. Because the Popular Front was now in power in France, he was able to convince the Air Ministry to release two dozen planes for this purpose, and he managed to recruit twenty-nine pilots of polyglot origins to fly them.

Malraux’s greatest contribution to the Loyalist cause was not enhanced air capability, however, but a dramatic increase in morale. He understood that to convince the Republicans that they were not alone was probably worth a division in itself, revealing a precocious understanding of the role that symbols and ideas would henceforth play in modern warfare. This is not to gainsay his actual military gifts: in the event, Malraux proved something of a natural as a leader of men in battle. His Escadre España won the battle of Medellín for the Loyalists, and developed many of the tactics that were later successfully used by the Republic’s air force. Malraux’s squadron fought its last engagement at the battle of Teruel during Christmas 1936, where it lost most of its planes. By then the political temperature in France had changed, and Malraux was unable to persuade Blum’s government to replace them. Demobilized, he was shunted off to the United States on a Spanish diplomatic passport to raise funds for the Republic. On his return to France he turned his Spanish experiences into L’Espoir (Man’s Hope), his last novel written from the point of view of the Left.

It was in Spain that Malraux’s disenchantment with Communism began. There, like the British writer George Orwell (who served in another part of the peninsula, in the International Brigades), he was shocked to discover that Comintern representatives were far more interested in purging dissident leftists than in fighting Franco. Only the larger cause of the Republic convinced him to hold his silence on these matters (as well as on the Moscow trials, which he knew to be a fraud). With the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, however, Malraux was suddenly released from further thralldom. In the summer of 1940, while the French Communists were preaching “revolutionary defeatism” before the advancing German forces, he enlisted as a private in the French army. Captured by the Germans in June, he was eventually released after the armistice (actually, the surrender) at Compiègne.

By this time Clara’s place in his life had been taken by Josette Clotis, a younger woman whom he had met in 1932 and with whom he had been carrying on an affair more or less continuously ever since. (Clara returned the favor by receiving many of Malraux’s pilots in the suite of her Madrid hotel.) Josette’s family was conservative and moderately well-to-do, and it was to their villa on the Riviera that he escaped the occupied zone in January 1941, leaving his wife and daughter to face Nazi-occupied Paris alone. Though eager to divorce Clara, Malraux understood instinctively that to deprive her of the protection of his name would be tantamount to signing her death warrant. As it was, Malraux was never to actually marry Josette, though she was to bear him two sons before her death late in the war.

Like most Frenchmen, Malraux accepted the armistice and the collapse of the Third Republic with little regret, and did his best to continue his life as if nothing had happened at all. During 1941 and 1942 he spent most of his time working on the book which became Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenbourg), part novel, part family memoir. But when the tide of the war began to turn in early 1944, Malraux bestirred himself, and by April was involved in the Resistance under the nom de guerre of Colonel Berger, commanding fifteen hundred men in three departments—the Lot, the Dordogne, and the Corrèze. Captured by the Germans on July 22, 1944, he was quite literally saved by the Normandy invasion, which turned the tide and forced his captors to take flight. Resuming his military activities, he, with his unit, followed the right flank of the (reconstituted) French army as it marched up the Rhône and eventually captured Strasbourg. At the end of the war he had received both the Croix de Guerre and the Croix de la Libération.

A distaste for Communism and Communists, begun in Spain and deepened by the craven conduct of the Party in 1940, matured into stronger feelings during Malraux’s period in the Resistance. He was particularly troubled by the Communists’ obvious intention to turn the network of maquis into a skeleton government, poised to seize power the moment that the Vichy state collapsed. (He had seen the dress rehearsal in Spain, and recognized the main contours of the plot.) This is what attracted Malraux to General Charles de Gaulle, whom he served as Minister of Information in the Provisional Government of 1945–46. Indeed, in many ways Malraux was de Gaulle’s greatest political “find,” since as a former man of the Left, he was best positioned to neutralize the immediate postwar appeal of the Communist Party.

Having abandoned the Left altogether, Malraux’s new ideal was “a self-supporting France, republican and compassionate, but orderly.” After de Gaulle’s resignation, he became one of five charter members of the new Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), and its dominant ideologist. Once again he found himself lending his literary prestige to a political party, and in fact no one other than de Gaulle could attract such crowds to RPF rallies. As if to underline the change in his politics, Malraux also altered his domestic situation. He now divorced Clara and married Madeleine Malraux, his brother’s widow, whose charms included a capacious brick house in the fashionable suburb of Boulougne-sur-Seine.

Between 1946 and de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, Malraux divided his time between RPF activities and writing art books (Les Voix du silence [Voices of Silence], Le Musée imaginaire [The Museum without Walls]). Though still a major figure in French letters, he occupied a far less commanding position than before the war. The dominant personality of the postwar decade was Jean-Paul Sartre, which put the new, conservative Malraux well outside the boundaries of the fashionable. Between Malraux and Sartre there was no love lost, to say the very least: as Malraux was wont to remind people, the existentialist guru had sat out the war in Paris, pontificating at the Café Flore (and having his plays produced), while committed Resistance militants (like Malraux) were facing the Gestapo. Though Raymond Aron and Albert Camus were more intellectually formidable opponents of Sartre and his Temps Modernes circle, Malraux was still capable of inflicting deep wounds with a single shot: his most famous phrase from this period was “Moscow is not to our left, it is to the east.”

With de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958, Malraux was once again summoned to serve in the cabinet, first as Minister of Information, then as Minister of Culture, a position created especially for him. By now, however, Malraux was intoxicated by power, and all other considerations, including those of principle, took a back seat. Though he had justified France’s efforts to remain in Algeria partly by citing the need to protect those natives that had thrown in their lot with the colonial power, he remained silent when, after the 1962 Evian accords, thousands of collaborators were abandoned by France to the tender mercies of the victorious Algerian FLN. Indeed, at no time did he utter any criticism of Gaullist policies, even when they were diametrically opposed to his own previously-articulated public positions.

As Minister of Culture, Malraux, the great novelist of revolution, now became a “rock of order,” a patron of the arts armed with huge budgets and vast ministerial prerogatives. As if to underline this new state of affairs, he abandoned Madeleine and moved into the Petit Trianon at Versailles, where he wandered about in a red dressing gown and military boots. He resumed the bohemian lifestyle of his youth, but this time on a far more opulent scale: breakfasting at noon, keeping odd and erratic hours, eating and drinking too much. While he enjoyed the extraordinary comforts provided by power, he clearly missed the tensions and excitement of the old days; to respond to parliamentary interpellations was no substitute for combat. At night he would lie awake piling up grievances. He once announced to an astounded aide: “I have spent the whole night hating.”

He once announced to an astounded aide: “I have spent the whole night hating.”

To relieve his boredom, Malraux resumed an old affair with Louise de Vilmorin, an aristocratic acquaintance from prewar days. In 1968 he moved into her apartment on the right bank and also began spending increasing amounts of time at her château at Varrières-le-Brisson, just outside of Paris. Cossetted by Louise, her family, and her ample staff (both in town and in the country), Malraux lost all interest in his ministerial work. Instead, preferred to remain at his new country residence, acting out a French version of Evelyn Waugh: railing against Paris as the epicenter of “stench, poverty, and luxury,” while fussing with the servants over whether the floors were properly swept or the furniture adequately polished—an ironic coda to a life so much of which had been lived in the apparent service of egalitarian ideals.

In the mid-Sixties Malraux had revisited China and been shocked by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution there, an account which appears in his Anti-mémoires (1967) and bears rereading even today. Here were the noble dreams of Man’s Fate made flesh—to Malraux’s horror and distaste. In a lengthy interview with Mao he was particularly chilled by the Chinese leader’s response to his argument that the Mandarin class was no longer a threat—“They are beginning to have children.” Returning home, he was confronted by a pale imitation of the same upheaval in the streets of Paris. Far from frightening Malraux, the événements of 1968 merely invited his icy contempt, possibly because the student rebels—by turns arrogant, destructive, and blind—reminded him so clearly of his youthful self. By now Malraux regarded socialism as nothing more than a fantasy, and had lost the patience to argue with those who thought otherwise. To one young revolutionary who reproached him at a public meeting, he shot back, “We are not, all of us, really going to walk about in identical yellow tunics à la Saint-Simon, all buttoned at the back?”

French socialism was still more than a decade away from power, but Gaullism had played out its cycle. In 1969 de Gaulle resigned and his Minister of Culture departed with him. Malraux survived for several years more in an affluent semi-obscurity. To be sure, he was not completely forgotten; his books never went out of print, and he was occasionally quoted in the press. But without a hero—and a heroic movement—to attach himself to, Malraux could find no real place for himself in French public life. His passing in 1976 can therefore be seen as something of a merciful release, from a world that no longer inspired his interest—and, if truth be told, the reverse as well.

Recited this way, Malraux’s life seems like nothing more than a twentieth-century retelling of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir. There are, in fact, some remarkable similarities between Julien Sorel and André Malraux: both began life with a chip on their shoulder due to the class deprivation (in Sorel’s case, humble origins; in Malraux’s, recent downward mobility); both were men on the make who used their attractiveness to women—particularly rich women—to leverage their ascent in society. Both adopted and discarded ideologies according to convenience. Both were great improvisers and capable of resolving difficult situations by sheer force of energy. In the end both were, as someone once said of the Mexican general Santa Anna, “faithless to men, women, and causes.”

Typically Malraux’s biographers have tried to finesse the jagged edges of his career—to find a coherent pattern of ideals where there was often only opportunism and self-seeking. Try as they might, they cannot deny that Malraux was by turns vain and selfish, greedy and childish, arrogant and snobbish, self-indulgent and ruthless. But they are not wrong to insist that he was much more than this. To start with, he was an extraordinarily gifted writer, capable of bringing new themes and techniques to the French novel. He was, for example, the first major writer of fiction to borrow techniques from the cinema—the jump-cut, the flashback, the wipe; he was also the first writer ever to treat air combat in epic style. He had a marvelous eye for detail, and a great sense of history: the settings of his novels—particularly in the Far East and in Spain—were “big stories,” not merely in France but throughout the world.

In matters personal, Malraux could display enormous personal courage and self-effacement when the situation demanded it. Evidently he possessed a remarkable capacity to lead men in dangerous and difficult situations. Having never flown a plane, he became head of a small air force in Spain—and successfully so. He commanded as the equivalent of a brigadier in the Resistance, having never risen above the rank of private in the French army. For all his later megalomania, as a Resistance commander Malraux refused to wear his insignia of rank or to claim any special privileges for himself; he was always willing to put himself at equal risk to his men. His personal charisma, so evident on the platform and on the battlefield, apparently carried over into ministerial suites as well: almost singlehandedly he convinced the French government to sell arms to Spain at a time when public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of what passed for “non-intervention.”

He was also one of the first postwar European intellectuals to make anti-Communism respectable, partly because as a one-time fellow-traveler (and a distinguished one at that) he could speak with particular authority. But also because he made a forceful case that—contrary to what the traditional Right in France imagined and feared—Stalinism in power meant not the empowerment of the working class but its degradation. The early Malraux had told audiences that Communism was the hope of the future; the latter Malraux announced his discovery that it was nothing but a vast historic swindle. It is true—as leftist critics have not been slow to point out—that the shift in ideological gears eventually led to a comfortable place for Malraux at the sumptuous table of triumphant Gaullism, but not immediately or inevitably so: after 1946 de Gaulle’s return to power was by no means foreordained. In fact, by throwing in his lot with the RPF Malraux drastically reduced his hold on what had once mattered to him most—Parisian literary fashion.

And it was precisely Malraux’s evolution toward the Right that undermined his place in French letters, since during the Forties and Fifties the Communist Party possessed a remarkably strong influence on French education, or rather, on educators who staffed the lycées in Paris and the provinces and contributed to the major literary journals. (The influence of Sartre and his infamous circle hardly needs to be commented upon.) Paradoxically, when the Party (and cultural philo-Communism) declined in the mid-Seventies, Malraux’s stature plummeted still further: this time from a lack of interest in the heroic themes (class struggle, colonial liberation, international solidarity, etc.) to which he dedicated so much of his novelistic work. To put it bluntly, today we know a bit too much about how things turned out in Cambodia or China (or how they might well have turned out in Spain) to be greatly moved by revolutionary tales of the Twenties and Thirties. Moreover, a novelist of “commitment” has little to say to an age of increasing ideological disbelief—which, given what “commitment” led to in so many countries, is probably just as well.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Malraux’s career is how early he peaked as a novelist—really, after Man’s Fate there was very little in the way of fiction. Most of his subsequent books were either art criticism or semi-novelized autobiography—and we are talking here about virtually forty years, which is to say, nearly three-quarters of Malraux’s active career. Herein lies, I think, the key to his continuing international renown: Malraux was one of the first of Western writers to become a literary superstar, to enjoy fame, honors, even power as much or more for who he was (how he lived, with whom he lived, and what he had done when he was not writing), as for what he had actually written. His appeal to Western (and non-Western) intellectuals consisted precisely in the fact that as a writer he had succeeded in casting himself in a heroic historical role. He therefore represents the victory par excellence of the intellectual over alienation and powerlessness—and in a country where the fruits of power are particularly sweet.

Of course, today neither in France nor elsewhere are intellectual superstars much in evidence; the closest contemporary equivalent is the former president of Czechoslovakia Václav Havel, and he is the product of a specific set of circumstances unlikely to repeat themselves. Contemporary biographies of Malraux are heavily pervaded by a period feeling—reading them is rather like leafing through the rotogravure sections of prewar newspapers, printed in rust-colored inks with sepia half-tones. One recognizes the world and the people in it, and can find the interaction between the two at times interesting and even occasionally inspiring. But the story itself belongs to a different age of faith, and possesses for us little more than anecdotal or antiquarian interest.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 3, on page 30
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