French writer and politician André Malraux (1901-1976) was generally regarded as one of the most distinguished novelists of the 20th century. Malraux holds the distinction of having been France's first minister of culture, serving from 1959-69. In addition, his wartime activities and adventures were legendary and well-documented. Malraux was a Communist supporter until World War II, and principal themes in his writing were revolution and its philosophical implications. He was an existentialist, believing that man determines his own fate by the choices he makes.
The novels of André Malraux depart sharply from the traditional form, with their middle-class settings, careful plot development and concentration on psychological analysis. His heroes and protagonists are adventurers determined to "leave a scar on the map," and violent action, usually in a revolutionary setting, is mixed with punctuated dialogue and passages containing philosophical reflection.
Malraux was born in Paris on Nov. 3, 1901, the son of a wealthy banker, and was educated in Paris. He attended the Lycée Condorcet and the School of Oriental Languages and would eventually develop a serious interest in China. Malraux began to move on the fringes of the surrealist movement, publishing criticism and poems. He married Clara Goldschmidt in 1921, and in 1923 the couple set off for Indochina (a former French colony consisting of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) to search for buried temples. (see Walter Langlois, André Malraux: the Indochina Adventure, 1966). After removing sculpture from the temples, Malraux and his wife were arrested by the French authorities and narrowly avoided prison (the story of Clara and André Malraux's Indochina adventures is also told in Silk Roads: the Asian Adventures of Clara and André Malraux, 1989).
It was during this period that Malraux, now hostile to the French colonial regime, came into contact with Vietnamese and Chinese Nationalists, many with Communist sympathies. He became a supporter of the international Communist movement, and during a stay in Saigon he organized a subversive newspaper.
Malraux's first novel, Les Conquérants (The Conquerors), was published in 1928. Set in Canton in 1925, it deals with the attempts of Chinese Nationalists and their Communist advisers to destroy imperialist influence and economic domination. The hero of the book provides a vigorously drawn portrait of the professional revolutionary. Malraux lamented the potential influences of Western culture, using China as an example, with The Temptation of the West (1926). In this work, the character of Ling says that many Chinese thought they could retain their cultural identities after being exposed to European influence and technology. Instead, that influence results in the "disintegrating soul" of China, a country newly "seduced" by music and movies.
Malraux's next novel, La Voie Royale (The Royal Way, 1930), was less successful; it had an autobiographical basis in the search for buried treasures, but treated the search as a kind of metaphysical adventure.
In 1933 appeared Malraux's most celebrated novel, La Condition humaine (Man's Estate, Man's Fate). Set in Shanghai, the novel describes the 1927 Communist uprising there, its initial success and ultimate failure. The novel continues to illustrate Malraux's favorite theme: that all men will attempt to escape, or to transcend, the human condition and that revolutionary action is one way of accomplishing this. In the end there is failure, but man attains dignity in making the attempt and by his very failure achieves tragic greatness.
Malraux's next novel, Days of Wrath (1936), a short account of a German Communist's imprisonment by the Nazis, was poorly received, considered more propaganda than art. But after Malraux assisted the Republican forces by organizing an air corps during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1937, his inspiration was renewed. He then published L'Espoir (Man's Hope, 1938). In this book, the Republican forces gradually organize to meet the Fascist threat, and the novel ends at a point where the "hope" of the title might have been realized.
Following the Soviet Union's signing of a nonaggression pact with Germany, Malraux broke with the Communist cause. He was captured twice while fighting with the French army and underground resistance movement, but he escaped and would become a military leader. In 1943 he published his last novel, Les Noyers de l'Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenburg).
The feel of this book is very different from that of Malraux's earlier novels. The narrator, captured by the Germans in 1940, reflects on his father's experiences before and during World War I—as an agent in central Asia, at a meeting of intellectuals in Germany, and while fighting on the Russian front. Malraux explores the fundamental problem of whether men are essentially the same in different epochs and different civilizations. Intellectually the answer seems to be negative, but emotionally it is positive, and human solidarity is maintained. Political action is seen as an illusion, and the traditional values of European humanism are affirmed.
Following the liberation of France in 1944, Malraux served in the reconstituted army as a colonel, and would later work to subvert the French Communist party. He was a supporter of General Charles de Gaulle. He and de Gaulle became friends and, as president of France, de Gaulle appointed Malraux to the position of minister of information—a job Malraux held from 1945-46. After leaving the post, he remained a de Gaulle intimate and one of the leading members of the Gaullist political movement. He contributed to The Case for de Gaulle; a Dialogue between André Malraux and James Burnham.
Beset by marital tensions, Andréand Clara Malraux divorced in January, 1946. Two years later, Malraux married his sister-in-law.
In the years that followed, Malraux wrote mainly on the subject of art. One highly philosophical volume on this subject was The Psychology of Art (1950), in which Malraux writes of an "imaginary museum"—a "museum without walls"—in which objects of art are important for their own intrinsic value rather than for their collective underlying meanings (see also André Malraux, Museum Without Walls 1967).
In Les Voix du silence (The Voices of Silence, 1951), Malraux develops the idea that in the modern world, where religion is of little importance, art has taken its place as man's triumphant response to his ultimate destiny and his means of transcending death. Also on the subject of art, Malraux penned "Saturn: an Essay on (Francisco de) Goya" (1957, translated by C.W. Chilton). Malraux also wrote Picasso's Mask (1976).
In 1958, after de Gaulle's return to power, Malraux became minister of cultural affairs—where he remained until de Gaulle's resignation in 1969. In 1967 he published the first volume of his Antimémoires (Antimemoirs). These were not memoirs of the usual type, failing to mention the accidental deaths of his two sons and the murder of his half-brother by the Nazis. Instead, they contained reflections on various aspects of his experiences and adventures.
Malraux paid two visits to the White House; in 1972, he conferred with President Richard Nixon prior to Nixon's visit to China. That same year he also suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
Malraux died in Paris on Nov. 23, 1976. Exactly 20 years later, his ashes were moved to the Pantheon necropolis in Paris. His namesake, the André Malraux Cultural Center, is in Chambéry (France).
Further Reading on André Malraux
Biographies of Malraux include: Robert Payne, André Malraux (Buchet/Chastel, 1973); Jean Lacouture, André Malraux (Pantheon Books, 1975); Martine de Courcel, ed., Malraux: Life and Work (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); Axel Madsen, Malraux: a Biography (Morrow, 1976); James Robert Hewitt, André Malraux (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978); Jacques B.E.B. Bonhomme, André Malraux, ou, Le Conformiste (R. Deforges, 1986); and Curtis Gate, André Malraux: a Biography (Hutchinson, 1995; reviewed in New York Review of Books, May 29, 1997).
Other studies of Malraux's work include the following: Ralph Tarica, Imagery in the Novels of André Malraux (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980); Will Morrisey, Reflections on Malraux: Cultural Founding in Modernity (University Press of America, 1986); David Bevan, André Malraux, Toward the Expression of Transcendence (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986); Claude Tannery, Malraux: the Absolute Agnostic, or, Metamorphosis as Universal Law (University of Chicago Press, 1991); John Beals Romeiser, André Malraux: a Reference Guide (Maxwell MacMillan International, 1994); Domnica Radulescu, André Malraux: the "Farfelu" as Expression of the Feminine and the Erotic (P. Lang, 1994); Gino Raymond, André Malraux: Politics and the Temptation of Myth (Ashgate, 1995); and Geoffrey T. Harris André Malraux: a Reassessment (St. Martin's Press, 1996).
Malraux is discussed in the following articles: J. Semprun, "Memoirs of the Spanish War and André Malraux" Nouvelle Revue Francaise (Nov. 1996); T. Fabre, "André Malraux: Portrait of the Adventurer in the Mirror" Esprit (Dec. 1996); Herman Lebovics, "Malraux's Mission" The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1997); and G. Harris, "The Self Invention of André Malraux" Times Literary Supplement (May 23, 1997).