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Malraux: A Life

by Olivier Todd/Translated by Joseph West
541 pages,
ISBN: 0375407022

The Way of the Kings

by AndrT Malraux/translated by Howard Curtis
172 pages,
ISBN: 1843914069


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Review of: Malraux: A Life; The Way of the Kings
by George Fetherling

People are writing about Malraux: A Life, Olivier Todd's new biography of the French writer and activist AndrT Malraux, as though it were another example of what Joyce Carol Oates once called pathography (like the pathographic bestseller of the moment, Edward Klein's The Truth about Hillary). True, Todd doesn't usually flatter or even defend his subject. But by the end of this long book he comes round to showing a wary respect for Malraux, after going into considerable detail about how he dramatized as well as merely exaggerated his role in numerous adventures. Many commentators apparently believe this is a new approach. In fact, Robert Payne, Pierre Galante and all the other previous Malraux biographers have taken the same tack. How could they not? Malraux was one of the great mythomanes of the 20th century. This fact was at the very heart of his life as a novelist.
Years ago, Janet Flanner, the long-time Paris correspondent of the New Yorker, began a profile of Malraux by describing his talent as a brilliant rapid-fire talker (rather than conversationalist). She recounted one of his prolonged outbursts of allusion and ideas on a street corner. Moments later, still talking, he jumped into the back of a taxi without stopping for breath. As the cab pulled away, he was heard carrying on, not pausing to acknowledge that his previous interlocutor had now been replaced by the driver: "In ancient PersiaÓ" he said.
As a teenager, Malraux used his apparent brilliance to ingratiate himself to established Parisian literary figures such as AndrT Breton and Max Jacob. Before he even reached his majority he had set himself up as a publisher of expensive limited editions, including erotica. By 1922, when he was 21, he was a regular reviewer for the Nouvelle Revue Frantaise¨the famous and famously influential NRF. He existed, Todd writes, in "a fairy-tale world of forced ingenuity." By then he had married an adventurous young woman with money (which he soon lost). In 1923, to recoup his fortunes, he went out to Cambodia, where he experienced his first and greatest scandal.
Malraux had earned a little money in the art galleries and auction rooms of Paris, as a commission-based go-between linking artists and collectors. Now he resolved to become his own supplier. He knew that a statuette of a Buddhist apsara, for example, could bring the equivalent of US$12,000 in New York. So he and a colleague, posing as serious archaeologists, went to the ruins of Banteay Srei, northeast of the temples at Angkor, and pried loose seven sandstone bas-reliefs.
French intelligence agencies were already on to Malraux (just as their British and American opposite numbers would be in subsequent years). He was arrested, tried and sentenced to three years. Back in Europe, his wife orchestrated a campaign of getting leading intellectual figures to petition for his release. Surprisingly, the effort was successful. A couple of years later, Malraux returned to the colonies to start a pro- independence newspaper called L'Indochine, which the French authorities closed down. Out of his temple-robbing experiences came his famous novel La voie royale (1930). A new translation of it, by Howard Curtis, has just now appeared in the Hesperus series under the title The Way of the Kings.
What happened next is that Malraux entered a period of mysterious activity in China, out of which came the other truly important novel in his oeuvre, La condition humaine, usually known in English as Man's Fate (1933). When the American critic Edmund Wilson once pressed him for details of his life, Malraux replied: "I went to Asia at 23, as leader of an archaeological project. Then I abandoned archaeology, organized the Young Annam movement, then became commissar in the Kuomintang in Indochina and eventually in Canton." None of this is quite accurate. But then, in fairness, he did also admit to Wilson that "the role of objectivity in my books is not placed in the foreground." This comes close to the heart of the matter surely. Malraux's action-filled and psychologically complex novels proceed from his own experiences but turn them inside out in interesting and complicated ways seldom encountered in fiction of the period. Todd describes Malraux "working his manuscript as a potter kneads his clay and draws up a vase . . . " The other facet that distinguishes them is a political sophistication matched by none of his literary contemporaries except Graham Greene. Compared to Malraux, John Steinbeck and even John Dos Passos were sentimental doofuses.
He wanted to be at the centre of events as well as ideas and, moreover, to erase the distinction. In 1934, a Trotskyite now, he was in the Soviet Union (where Sergei Eisenstein pondered making a feature film of La condition humaine). Another never- realized project was collaborating with Maxim Gorky on an encyclopedia. "Not a battleship of an encyclopedia, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica," Malraux explained, "but a submarine of an encyclopedia." Instead, he went to Africa. French intelligence picked up his scent again, sending out warnings that he was in Djibouti and was, in some unspecified way, up to no good.
Malraux had become interested in aviation, for the first decade after Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic crossing was a time when aviators were seen as romantic adventurers; ones as different as Antoine de Saint-ExupTry and Amelia Earhart became public heroes. His enthusiasm for flight, combined with his love of art and his weakness for pretend- archaeology, sent him searching for the ruins of Marib, the ancient capital of Sheba and of its monarch, the Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur'an. As Todd remarks, perhaps a bit too glibly, "A recorded adventure, a successful discovery, would compensate for the failed semi-adventure in Cambodia." He hoped to take aerial photographs of the ruins he expected to be discernible as straight lines crosshatching a patch of Arabian desert. Such images would be valuable instruments of publicity and profit.
That there once indeed was an important city called Marib, about 140 miles from the Gulf of Aden on the trade route to India, seemed clear enough. Its most notable feature was said to be the huge dam that was thought to have been one of the great engineering projects of its day, which was the 6th century BCE (but whose collapse in the 6th century CE wrought a terrible flood on the region). The existence of Sheba's monarch was a murkier question.
The region was called Sheba (the Hebrew spelling of Saba¨residents of Sheba were called Sabeans) after a person of the same name who is variously identified in the Bible as a descendant of Noah or Abraham. The Queen of Sheba, called Bilqis by Muslims, is known almost entirely for her calling on Solomon after hearing of his wisdom. In Arabic lore, the two of them married and their son became Ethiopia's first king, from whom all later ones descended. This is significant because Ethiopia was near the forefront of public consciousness in the mid-1930s, immediately before, during and after Mussolini invaded it with the intention of establishing an Italian empire. In any event, Malraux photographed the ruins of something, in more or less the place where Marib should once have been, but experts dismissed his claims out of hand. His capers were much more successful in wartime.
When Francisco Franco led the Spanish army in revolt against the elected government, igniting what was long known as the Spanish Civil War (but is now often called the Spanish Revolution), Malraux was among the many thousands of anti-Fascists round the world, ranging from mildly liberal democrats to dedicated communists, who rushed to the Loyalist cause. His role was to organize the purchase of warplanes and recruit both volunteer and mercenary pilots to fly them under his command. "He has never used a weapon before, never piloted a plane," says Todd, whose book is couched entirely in the present tense, an annoying tactic in a work of such length. "Yet Malraux manages to impress those he needs to, and no one is surprised."
As per his custom, Malraux, who carried the rank of colonel, did not permit the strict facts of his service to induce claustrophobia, as when, for example, he claimed that he had destroyed an enemy airfield when he had not. His now familiar methodology of re- imagining events, and his own role in them, for artistic purposes, found expression in 1937 in his Spanish war novel Man's Hope and a feature-length documentary two years later (for he was one of those writers with abiding faith in the power and utility of film). The events in Spain are now usually seen as a precursor to the Second World War, which followed almost immediately. Malraux, back in France, joined the RTsistance and served usefully and bravely, helping to harry and harass the Nazi occupiers and, in Todd's phrase, calling on different RTsistance groups "as an energetic door-to-door salesman of himself." Near the end of the war, he incurred a wound (which he listed in the official record as three wounds) and was taken prisoner by the Germans, only to be freed when the Allies swept in.
But the most significant event that befell during the war was meeting Charles De Gaulle. The dashing dark-haired novelist and the leader of the Free French forces took to each other. What De Gaulle liked in Malraux is less important to Todd than what Malraux admired in De Gaulle. "The novelist sees, standing and sitting amiably before him, behind his little mustache, an unquestionable Great Man of history and legend." For indeed anyone who wishes to be considered a Great Man himself must first of all believe in this simplistic concept. Jacques Chirac gave Todd a different interpretation. "In every civilization," he said, "leaders have a fool. It relaxes them . . . "
In the first year after the war, Malraux was information minister in De Gaulle's provisional government. When De Gaulle became president of the new Fifth Republic in 1958, he asked Malraux to take on the cultural affairs portfolio. To say that Malraux threw himself into the task is wholly inadequate. He turned everything upside down, starting new museums, reinventing old ones, undertaking a national inventory of art works, cutting down on the number of hideous public statues, sending the Mona Lisa on an international tour and saying, famously, "It seems to me vital that culture should cease to be the privilege of people who are lucky enough to live in Paris or to be rich." He was a special favourite of Jacqueline Kennedy, which made him a public figure in the United States. During this period he also turned his attention to a series of lavish art books, of which Museum without Walls is the best known¨books Chirac says are without
"scientific rigor" but show nonetheless that "nobody spoke better than he about fetishes." In brief, Malraux went on being his highly charged, brilliant and charismatic self. When a protester at a public appearance stepped from the crowd and threw a bucket of paint on the minister, Malraux, at his most Trudeauesque, brushed the incident aside, saying, "It is merely an aesthetic disagreement." In fact, though, his reputation in the intellectual word plummeted even as his celebrity rose, for he was now not only a Gaullist but also an anti- communist (though not an anti-communist in the American sense, for he was correct in seeing the Vietnam War as an intramural nationalistic struggle rather than proof of the domino theory). His former sympathizers reserved their special opprobrium for his strong stand against Algerian independence.
He was old now, and addicted to amphetamines. (Todd seems to hint that De Gaulle suspected he was using opiates as well and may have viewed this as a highly romantic weakness.) And there were other flaws. Todd reports that when visitors tried to secure appointments to see Malraux, they would sometimes be told that the minister was indisposed with a recurrence of his old malaria. The phrase was code for hitting the bottle. Through it all there remained the wonderful and unstoppable talk, the lifelong monologue that Frantois Mauriac, the novelist and Nobel laureate, said "puts too much trust in our stupidity."
In 1967, Malraux published his memoirs, which he straightforwardly entitled AntimTmoires, for he was at no pains to disguise the fact that they mixed fiction and non- fiction. Such was his method in novels. Why should he act differently when writing autobiography? Twenty years after his death, his ashes were transferred to the PanthTon to rest with the remains of great French heroes down through the centuries. The Economist used the occasion to pronounce that the long-serving bad boy of French writing had grown harmless since his death.
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