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by Bamber Gascoigne

André (Georges) Malraux (1901-1976)


French novelist, adventurer, art historian, and statesman, minister for cultural affairs for 11 years in 1958-1969. André Malraux was a man of action in the service of noble causes as was the British soldier-writer T.E. Lawrence. He fought in the Spanish Civil war and joined the French Resistance forces in World War II. Malraux's best-known work is La Condition humaine (1933, Man's Fate / Man's Estate), a story of revolution, psychological anguish, and death.

"Malraux's career begins in mystery with the expedition to Indo-China, the obscure affair of the missing statues, a short term of imprisonment, and a plunge into Eastern politics. The details of these matters are still unknown to us, but it is their resonance that counts. With all their shadow and uncertainty they nevertheless suggest a purity of adventure. Malraux entered the European consciousness not as a writer but as an event, as a symbolic figure somehow combining the magical qualities of youth and heroism with a sense of unlimited promise." (The Rhetorical Hero: an Essay on the Aesthetics of Andre Malraux by William Righter, Routledge and Paul, 1964, p. 2)

Georges-André Malraux was born in Paris into a wealthy family. His father, Fernand-Georges Malraux, a small-time stockbroker who loved Nietzsche, and mother Berthe (Lamy) Malraux, separated when he was a child. Fernand-Georges then lived with Marie-Louise Godard. They married in 1922, but he also courted and seduced her sister, Gaby. He committed suicide in 1930.

From his childhood, Malraux suffered from Tourette's syndrome, which showed in a nervous facial tic and muscular and vocal activity. His early hyperactivity became later an extension of his public personality, in his energetic gesticulation and way of speech.

Malraux was brought up by his mother and grandmother, Adrienne, who managed a small grocery store in Bondy, a small town to the northeast of Paris. For the Easter and summer holidays, Malraux father took his son to Dunkirk, where his grandfather Alphonse lived. From early on, Malraux was a passionate reader and lover of books. Since the age of sixteen, he wanted to become a writer. His favorite authors were Hugo, Dumas, and Michelet.

After attending the Lycée Condorcet, Malraux studied oriental languages at the École des Langues Orientales, but left his studies without graduating. After working briefly for bookdealers and publishers, he went to Cambodia at the age of 21 with his wife, the writer Clara Goldsmidt. They hoped to rediscover the Khmer temples, but Malraux was arrested for taking bas-reliefs from a temple at Bantai Srey. After his three years' sentence was voided, Malraux edited an anti-colonialist newspaper in Saigon and returned briefly to France. In 1925 he went to Saigon to join the anti-colonial Young Annam League.

According to some sources, Malraux worked in the 1920s for Guomindang in China, where he witnessed the 1927 revolution. However, this information has been open to doubt. Malraux first important book, La Tentation de l'Occident (1926), explored the parallels between Eastern and Western culture. The work was set on the early stages of the Chinese revolution and focused on the exchange of letters between a young European and a young Asian intellectual. Its was followed by an adventure story, La Voie royale (1930), set in the Indochinese jungle. The book was largely a dialogue on death; it remained one Malraux's main themes.

"Because, having lived in the shifting realm of feeling and imagination which is that of all artists, then in the realms of combat and of history – having known, at twenty, an Asia whose death-struggle threw new light on the meaning of the West – I have experience time and again, in humble or dazzling circumstances, those moments when the mystery of life appears to each one of us as it appears to almost every woman when she looks into a child's face and to almost every man when he looks into the face of someone dead." (Anti-Memoirs, translated by Terence Kilmartin, Bantam Books, 1970, p. 2)

Les Conquérants (1928) dealt with a revolutionary strike and its European organizers in Canton. Malraux continued on revolutionary themes in La Condition humaine and L'Espoir (1937, Man's Hope). Although he was aware of Stalin's crimes, he praised the Soviet system. For a short time, he was interested in the thought of Leon Trotsky, who later said that "Malraux is organically incapable of moral independence; he was born biddable." (Malraux: A Life by Oliver Todd, translated by Joseph West, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p. 207)

During this period Malraux worked as an art editor at Gallimard publishers in Paris, and went on archaeological expeditions in Iran and Afghanistan. His exploration by airplane of the Arabian hinterland led to the discovery of the lost city that supposedly had been the seat of the Queen of Sheba.

Man's Fate, one of Malraux's most famous novels, won the Goncourt Prize and established his international reputation. Gisèle Freund, who met Malraux just after the publication of the book, took one of the most famous photos of the author, his hair blown with wind, and a cigarette butt stuck to his lips. "There was drama in his simplest words. . . . We used to see each other quite regularly. He was interested in hearing about the Nazi regime, of which I had just had firsthand experience," Freund recalled. (from Gisèle Freund: Photographer, text by Gisèle Freund, foreword by Christian Caujolle, translated from the French by John Shepley, Harry N. Abrams, 1985, p. 128) Later she photographed a Mexican sculpture of the goddess of corn for Malraux's book Le Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale. "I photographed from different angles and in changing light conditions, which made the same sculpture appear to be several different sculptures. I did this to prove to him that his idea concerning a work of art changing according to photography was altogether correct." (Photography & Society by Gisèle Freund, David R. Godine, 1979, p. 224)

Man's Fate depicted a Communist uprising in Shanghai and the party's later annihilation in a massacre led by its former ally Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces. Again Malraux's alienated revolutionary heroes, men of action caught up in history – Ch'en, a young Chinse fighter, Kyo Gisors, a Eurasian organizer, Katov, a former student of medicine from Russia, and others – find a sense of human solidarity, dignity and meaning in death. "As if the universe had not treated him all his life with kicks on the belly, it now despoiled him of the only dignity he could ever possess—his death. The smell of corpses was blown in upon the motionless sunbeams by every gust of wind. He saturated himself in it with a sense of gratified horror, obsessed by Ch'en as by a friend in the throes of death, and seeking—as though it were of any consequence—whether the feeling uppormost in him was shame, fraternity or an atrocious craving." (Ibid., translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, Modern Library, 1961, p. 192) Ch'en is a terrorist who struggles with his orders: "He was serving the gods of his choice; but beneath his sacrifice to the Revolution lay a world of depths beside which this night of crushing anguish was bright as day. "To assassinate is not only to kill, alas . . ." In his pockets, his fumbling right hand clutched a folded razor, his left a short dagger. He thrust them as deeply as possible, as though the night did not suffice to hide his actions. (Ibid., p. 10) The title of the book came from the 17th-century philosopher Pascal. At the end of the novel, Katov gives away his cyanide capsules, and faces his death, complete aware of its nature – he will be thrown into the boiler of a steam locomotive.

With Louis Aragon, Malraux founded the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture. His short novel, Le Temps du mépris (1935, Days of Contempt), was a Book of the Month Club selection in the United States. It told the story of a Communist, who is held prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He is released when an unknown fellow comrade surrenders in his place.

Malraux backed many antifascist and leftist causes in the 1930s. He fought for the Republicans (1936-39) in the Spanish Civil War, and organized the Air Force of the International Brigades. His own role in the war Malraux later exaggerated, but he was wounded twice in the effort to halt Franco's advance on Madrid. Malraux and his pilots were paid well for their services.

L'Espoir paints a wide picture of Republican Spain in combat. The author follows the fortunes of the International Brigade from front to front, giving simultaneous impressions from different places as if he had been an eyewitness. However, he couldn't be at the same time in Madrid and Barcelona. The book was published while the war was still going on. It ends at the battle of Guadalajara in March 1937.

A month after the battle German planes bombed the small town of Guernica. This destruction became the subject of Picasso's famous painting of the same name. Malraux was one of the few persons, who was allowed to visit Picasso's studio while he worked with the huge canvas, twenty-five feet by eleven feet. At that time, Malraux and Picasso shared an idealistic vision and belief in the Communism. "Just as the Inquisition did not affect the fundamental dignity of Christianity, so the Moscow trials have not diminished the fundamental dignity of Communism," Malraux argued. (Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon by Gijs van Hensbergen, Bloomsbury, 2004, pp. 188-189) L'Espoir was adapted for the screen in 1938, but the film, Sierrade Teruel, was not shown in France until after World War II.

L'Espoir ended one period in Malraux's life. He divorced and had a liaison with the writer Josette Clotis, who died in 1945 in a railroad accident. Malraux broke with communism – he did not accept the Nazi-Soviet pact – and concentrated on writing non-fiction. After the war he was openly against Stalinism.

In World War II he served in a French tank Unit. After being wounded and captured during the breakthrough of 1940, he escaped from the prison camp at Seans. In 1942 he tried to divorce his wife, who refused – she was Jewish and needed even a token marriage with an Aryan husband. Malraux managed to fool his German captors a second time in 1944. When the invasion of Normandy began, he joined the Resistance and eventually headed the Brigade Alsace-Lorraine in its defence of Strasbourg and entry into Stuttgart in 1945. His service was recognized by the award of the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix de Guerre, and the British Distinguished Service Order.

Malraux became the foremost spokesman of Gaullist politics. He served briefly as minister of information in de Gaulle's provisional government of 1945-46. In the late 1940s and 1950s Malraux wrote several books on art and aesthetics. These include Les Voix du silence (1951), a well-documented synthesis of the history of art in all countries and all ages, and Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (1952-54). Malraux stated that all art is a revolt against man's fate, and art is a means of transcendence. "Art," he once said, "is an anti-destiny." The distinguished critic Edmund Wilson compared The Psychology of Art with the chefs d'œuvre of Gibbon, Marx, and Tolstoy, which led the art historian E.H. Gombrich to point out: "Malraux's text, against such a background, looks like a mere string of accumulated aperçus, sometimes brilliant, sometimes vacuous, but nowhere imbued with that sense of responsibility that makes the scholar or the artist. There is no evidence that Malraux had done a day's consecutive reading in a library or that he has even tried to hunt up a few facts." ('André Malraux and the Crisis of Expressionism,' in Meditations on a Hobby Horse, Phaidon, 1985, p. 78)

In 1948 Malraux married Marie-Madeleine Lioux, a concert pianist and widow of his half-brother. In 1961 he lost his two sons in an accident. When de Gaulle came to power in 1958, he appointed Malraux as his first Minister of Information. A year later he was appointed Minister of State for Cultural Affairs. He held this post for ten years. Malraux gave in 1958 permission to the Paris staging of Jean Genet's play The Balcony, reviews were unenthusiastic, but when Genet's The Screen premiered at the Odéon, "everyone" in Paris attended. However, the poet Louise de Vilmorin (Malraux's mistress) left the play at the end of the first act and declared: "I am deeply horrified by the filth and stupidity of an author whom I always admired until now." (Genet by Edmud White, Picador, 1994, pp. 565-566)

Usually waiting for the General to take a stand in political issues before making his own decisions, Malraux's position toward the Algeria's independence war was a great disappointent to his literary friends. Malraux claimed that the accusations of torture by the French Army had been fabricated by the Communist party, and he did not sign the Manifeste des 121, in which 121 intellectuals, including Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, André Breton, Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet and others, invitates to support the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in both Algeria and France. 

Malraux authorized the cleaning of the Louvre and other grand facades, which was considered by many critics an act of vandalism. In 1962 Malraux visited the United States, where he met among others Jacqueline Kennedy, and promised that Mona Lisa will be shown in America. De Gaulle, who called the painting's journey "a considerable operation and altogether beneficial," advised him: "But when it gets to New York, for God's sake, don't let the United Nations cash in on it." (Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci's Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation by Margaret Leslie Davis, 2008, p. 53)

Without complicated bureaucratic maneuvers, Leonardo's painting was sent overseas on the luxury liner France. Almost two million Americans saw the famous work; each person was allowed twelve seconds to gaze on La Gioconda. During this period also a retrospective exhibition was arranged to honor Picasso. Picasso had first resisted the idea, and Malraux himself did not want to approach the painter. ""You're mad" was Malraux's response when he was urged to visit Picasso at Notre-Dame-de-Vie. "He would leave me standing at the gate, sending word that someone was coming to open. And I'd wait there for hours while they tipped off L'Humanité." (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, Pan Books, 1988, p. 451) The exhibition was a great success.

As a minister, Malraux visited China in 1965, and was granted a short audience with Mao Zedong. It was not a major summit. After de Gaulle withdrew from public life, Malraux started to write his Antimémoires, in which he used excerpts from his novels, mixing fact and fiction and defying the conventional view of an autobiography. The first part came out in 1967. Before President Richard Nixon made his famous visit to China in 1972, he invited Malraux to the White House. Nixon believed that Malraux had known Mao during the 1930s and kept up intermittent contact with him through the years. "His description of the Chinese leaders in his Anti-Memoirs was among the most valuable and fascinating reading I had done  in preparation for my trip," Nixon wrote in his book of memoirs. Malraux played the role of a sage. He told Nixon: "Mr. President, you operate within a rational framework, but Mao does not. There is something of the sorcerer in him. He is a man inhabited by a vision, possessed by it." (The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978, pp. 557-558)

In The Fallen Oaks (1971) the author reported his conversations with de Gaulle, his political idol. After leaving his place at the centre of politics, Malraux retired to a suburb of Paris, where he continued to write until his death. He was also an active letter writer, and often decorated his letters with the image of a cat.

Malraux died in Paris on November 23, 1976. An international Malraux Society was founded in the United States in 1968. It published bio-bibliographical material in its Mélanges Malraux/Malraux Miscellany between 1969 and 1986, when it was superseded by the Revue André Malraux. In 1976 started the publication of Malraux's works in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series.

For further reading: André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination by W. M. Frohock (1952); The Honor of Being a Man: The World of André Malraux by Edward Gannon (1957); The Rhetorical Hero: an Essay on the Aesthetics of Andre Malraux by William Righter (1964); Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by R.W.B. Lewis (1964); Visions of a New Hero by Avriel H. Goldberger (1965); Andre Malraux: The Indochina Adventure by Walter G. Langlois (1966); Nietzsche und Marx bei Malraux - mit einem Ausblick auf Drieu la Rochelle und Albert Camus by Horst Hina (1970); André Malraux and the Metamorphosis of Death by Thomas Jefferson Kline (1973); Malraux, Past, Present, Future by Guy Suarès (1974); André Malraux by Jean Lacouture (1975); Malraux: Life and Work, edited by M. de Courcel (1976); André Malraux by James Robert Hewitt (1978); Nos vingt aus by Clara Malraux (1986); André Malraux by David Bevan (1986); André Malraux, edited by Harold Bloom (1988); André Malraux: A Biography by Curtis Cate (1997); Mona Lisa's Escort: Andre Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture by Herman Lebovics (1999); Malraux. A Life by Oliver Todd (2005); Silk Roads: the Asian Adventures of Clara and André Malraux by Axel Madsen (2010); The Book on the Floor: André Malraux and the Imaginary Museum by Walter Grasskamp; translated by Fiona Elliott (2016); André Malraux and Art: An Intellectual Revolution by Derek Allan (2021); The Communist Temptation: Rolland, Gide, Malraux, and Their Times by Tom Conner (2022) - See other writers in the Spanish Civil War: Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Langston Hughes, Federico Garcia Lorca

Selected works:

  • Lunes en papier, 1921
  • La Tentation de l'Occident, 1926
    - The Temptation of the West (translated by Robert Hollander, 1961)
  • Royaume-Farfelu, 1928
    - The Kingdom of Farfelu (translated by W.B. Keckler, 2005)
  • Les Conquérants, 1928
    - The Conquerors (translators: Winifred Stephens Whale; 1929; Stephen Becker, 1976)
  • La Voie royale, 1930
    - The Royal Way (translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1935)
  • La Condition humaine, 1933
    - Storm in Shanghai (translated by Alastair Macdonald, 1934) / Man's Fate (translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, 1934) / Man's Estate (translated by Alastair Macdonald, 1948)
    - Sielujen kapina (suom. Juha Mannerkorpi, 1947)
  • Le Temps du mépris, 1935
    - Days of Wrath (US title; translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, 1936) / Days of Contempt (UK title; translated by Haakon M. Chevalier, 1936)
  • L'Espoir, 1937
    - Man's Hope (US title; translated by Stuart Gilbert and Alastair Macdonald, 1938) / Days of Hope (UK title; translated by Stephen Becker and Alastair Macdonald, 1938)
    - Toivo (suom. Väinö Kirstinä, 1983)
  • Esquisse d'une psychologie du cinéma, 1946
    - Reflections on Art (edited by Susanne Langer, 1958)
  •  La Psychologie de l'art, 1947-49 (3 vols., rev. ed., Les Voix du silence, 4 vols., 1951)
    - The Psychology of Art: Museum Without Walls; The Creative Act; The Twilight of the Absolute (translated by Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price, 1949-51) / The Voices of Silence (4 vols., 1953)
  • Les Noyers de l'Altenburg, 1948
    - The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (translated by A.W. Fielding, 1952)
  • The Case for De Gaulle. A Dialogue between André Malraux and James Burnham, 1948 (translated by S. Byard)
  • Saturne: Essai sur Goya, 1950
    - Saturn: Essay on Goya (translated by C. W. Chilton, 1957)
  • Les Voix du silence, 1951
    - The Voices of Silence (revised version of The Psychology of Art, translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1953)
  • Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale, 1952-54 (3 vols.)
  • L'inaccessible, 1957 (La Métamorphose des dieux; rev. ed., as Le Surnaturel, 1977)
    - The Metamorphosis of the Gods (translated by Stuart Gilbert, 1960)
  • Brasília - La capitale de l'espoir, 1959 (multilingual edition)
  • Discours 1958-1965, 1966
  • Antimémoires, 1967 (first vol. of Le Miroir des limbes)
    - Anti-Memoirs (translated by Terence Kilmartin, 1968)
  • Le Triangle noir, 1970
  • Œuvres, 1970 (4 vols)
  • Les chênes qu'on abat..., 1971 (Le Miroir des limbes)
    - Felled Oaks: Conversations with de Gaulle (US title; translated by Irene Clephane, rev. by Linda Asher, 1972) / The Fallen Oaks: Conversations with de Gaulle (UK title; translated by Irene Clephane, 1972)
  • Oraisons funèbres, 1971
  • Paroles et ecrits politiques: 1947-1972, 1973
  • La Métamorphose des Dieux: L'Irréel, 1974
  • La Tête d'obsidienne, 1974 (Le Miroir des limbes)
    - Picasso's Mask (translated by June Guicharnaud with Jacques Guicharnaud, 1976)
  • Lazare, 1974 (Le Miroir des limbes)
    - Lazarus (translated by Terence Kilmartin, 1976)
  • La Métamorphose des Dieux: L'Intemporel, 1975
  • Hôtes de passage, 1975
  • La Corde et les Souris, 1976 (Le Miroir des limbes)
  • L'Homme précaire et la Littérature, 1977
  • Et sur la Terre..., 1977 (unpublished chapter of L'Espoir)
  • Œuvres complètes I-III, 1989-1996 (edited by Pierre Brunel, et al.)
  • Oeuvres complètes. ecrits sur l’art, 2004 (edited by Jean-Yves Tadié, et al.)
  • Carnet du front populaire: 1935-1936, 2006 (edited by François de Saint-Cheron)
  • Carnet d’URSS: 1934, 2007 (edited by François de Saint-Cheron)
  • Lettres choisies: 1920-1976, 2012 (édition établie et annotée par François de Saint-Cheron; préface de Jean-Yves Tadié)
  • Correspondance, 1941-1959: et autres textes / Albert Camus, André Malraux, 2016 (édition établié, présentée et annotée par Sophie Doudet)
  • Correspondances / Andre Malraux, Mohamed Zinelabidine, 2023 (préface Abderahman Tenkoul)

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