of Malraux – of which there are
now several – should perhaps carry a warning for the unsuspecting
bore very little resemblance to the stereotype French intellectual who
ventures out of his
result of all this, the unsuspecting
reader needs to know, is that it is often very difficult to separate
fact from fiction
in accounts of Malraux’s life – a state of affairs for which,
enough, he himself is often blamed – critics accusing him of
peddling a fabricated ‘Malraux myth’ and crowing triumphantly
when they discover that aspects of it are not true.
facts of his amazingly eventful
life – his commitment to the anti-Fascist Popular Front in the 1930s,
involvement with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, his service
French army in World War II, his participation in the Resistance and
the Gestapo, and his work as a Minister in de Gaulle’s governments,
importantly as a very active Minister for Cultural Affairs – are not in
doubt. But there is much about his
especially his private life (often the biographer’s preferred hunting
is uncertain and debatable, and quite possibly likely to remain so.
Todd’s biography – which even Patricia
concedes ‘can be tiresomely speculative’ – makes little effort to
between fact and conjecture and has, if anything, amplified the
The hallmark of Malraux’s works – the novels,
the ‘antimemoirs’ and the volumes on visual art – is not obscurity but
honesty and startling originality. Malraux
has taken a long, hard look at modern Western
civilization and has
seen how little now remains of once-cherished ideals such as progress,
democracy, and visions of world peace. ‘We
now know’, he writes in The Voices of
Silence, ‘that peace in our time is as vulnerable as it ever
democracy can usher in capitalism and totalitarian policies; that
progress and science
also mean the atom bomb; and that reason alone does not provide a full
of man.’ Malraux’s response to
is not self-pitying despair but an unremitting search for something
in man that can, despite the collapse of ideals, enable
him to rise above the satanic urge simply to destroy and humiliate.
His search results in the powerful images of
struggle and human dignity found in novels such as La
Condition Humaine (Man’s Estate), and in the fascinating
of visual art in The Voices of Silence
and The Metamorphosis of the Gods, in
which Malraux leads us to see art as, fundamentally, a ‘humanisation’
world, a ‘revolt against man’s fate’.
this is strong
medicine – too strong
is a letter to the
editor published in the
Australian monthly Quadrant. It was in response to
Malraux in their
May 2007 issue. It expands on some of the points in my
letter on a similar subject to the Higher Education Chronicle.
'Olivier Todd’s recent biography
(Malraux: A Life) ... has done
little more than add to the already enormous pile of myth and
surrounding Malraux’s life.'
of books such as Todd’s to distract attention from what
more important about Malraux – his works themselves.'
'Malraux requires a reader who will not take fright at the first sign of a new idea, or of challenges to comfortable, familiar dogmas.'