BORN: 1901, Paris, France
DIED: 1976, Creteil, France
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, criticism
The Conquerors (1928)
The Royal Way (1930)
Man’s Fate (1934)
Andre Malraux. Malraux, Andre, Paris, France, 1967, photograph. AP images.
Well known as a novelist, art critic, political revolutionary, and statesman, Andre Malraux is a prominent figure in the development of twentieth-century thought. He is considered by many a prototype for the existentialist thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In his many works, Malraux portrays the human condition—‘‘la condition humaine’’—as a tragic state characterized by alienation and absurdity resulting from Western civilization’s loss of faith in God. His fiction is distinguished by frequent incidents of violence and rapidly paced plots that are governed by the force of ideas rather than events. His nonfiction is characterized by its tendency to be fictional.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Flirtations with Surrealism and with Orientalism. Malraux was born in the Montmartre district of Paris and raised in a nearby suburb. An avid reader, he turned his love of books into employment as a broker for a rare-book dealer, and he later edited a series of luxury editions of classical literary works. During the early 1920s, Malraux contributed literary criticism to avantgarde magazines and enhanced his appreciation of art by touring the museums and galleries of Paris. His first works of fiction, Lunes en papier (1921), illustrated by Cubist painter Fernand Leger, and Royaume farfelu (1928), demonstrate the influence of surrealism and constitute Malraux's only experimentation with fantasy literature.
In 1921, Malraux met and married Clara Goldschmidt, the daughter of a wealthy Franco-German family, who shared his love of art, literature, and film. Their archaeological expedition to French Indochina—now known as Vietnam and Cambodia—in 1923 proved a turning point in Malraux’s life and work. While attempting to steal an invaluable sculpture from the ruins of a Khmer temple in Cambodia, Malraux was arrested and imprisoned by colonial authorities. He called on literary friends in Paris for support, and found it in spades. A flood of petitions got Malraux off the hook, and the whole experience, suggests biographer Olivier Todd, left him somewhat socially obligated to found L’Indochine, an anticolonial newspaper headquartered in present-day Vietnam. After the paper’s closing in 1926, Malraux continued to protest colonialism in numerous articles and essays. His first major work of fiction, The Temptation of the West, was illuminated in part by these Asian adventures and explores Eastern and Western conceptions of existence. This work focuses on the theme of modern Western civilization’s obsession with the individual, an issue that Malraux addressed throughout his career.
Revolution in China. In 1925, while working for L’Indochine, Malraux reported on the nationalist uprisings in China, events that provided the basis for The Conquerors, his first full-length novel. Relayed through brief scenes that emphasize the chaos of revolution, this work marks the first appearance of Malraux’s ‘‘new man,’’ an individual aware of the absurdity of existence who combines, in Malraux’s words, ‘‘a talent for action, culture and lucidity.''
Malraux's third and most highly acclaimed novel, Man’s Fate, won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. In this work, Malraux returns to the settings and events of the Chinese revolution featured in The Conquerors to dramatize humanity's unmitigated solitude and the impossibility of finding permanent meaning.
Communism and Brotherhood. With the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, Malraux’s political stance became explicitly communist. He viewed communism as a more powerful opposition to fascism than capitalism because it avoided capitalism's preoccupation with the self, an obsession Malraux had decried as early as The Temptation of the West. Critics interpret Malraux's next two novels, Days of Wrath and Man’s Hope, as fundamentally propagandist^. Days of Wrath, an early literary expose of Nazi atrocities, affirms the values of collectivism over individualism and demonstrates that ‘‘brotherhood'' can furnish humanity with transcendent meaning. In 1936, along with many other leftist writers and artists, Malraux became involved in the Spanish civil war—first as a delegate from an international antifascist group, then as a procurer of arms and aircraft for the Spanish Republican army, and finally as the leader of an international air squadron. Man’s Hope utilizes these experiences to illustrate Malraux's belief in the power of fraternity and to demonstrate his opposition to war.
World War II, Resistance, and Public Service. Malraux enlisted in the French tank corps in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. In 1940 he was captured by the Germans, but five months later he escaped to the French free zone, where, before joining the Resistance in 1942, he wrote his last novel, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Through the memories of a prisoner of the Nazis, this work investigates humanity's attempts to deny its impermanence. The Walnut Trees of Altenburg offers reconciliation with a hostile universe through imagery associated with permanence and stability. After World War II, Malraux twice served in the government of President Charles De Gaulle, first as minister of information and then as minister of cultural affairs. In 1969, he retired from civil service and devoted himself to writing and revising his multivolume autobiography and continued this work until his death in 1976.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Malraux's famous contemporaries include:
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969): Vietnamese revolutionary who led the fight for independence from French and other outside rule in Indochina, culminating in the Vietnam War.
Alan Paton (1903-1988): South African author and political activist whose career is best remembered for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
Elie Wiesel (1928-): Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who described his experiences in a concentration camp in his memoir Night.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): French author who built upon Malraux's literary themes with his own existentialist works, such as Nausea (1938) and Being and Nothingness (1943). Sartre famously declined the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964.
Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): French general during World War II who went on to serve as president of France from 1959 until 1969.
Works in Literary Context
Malraux's work is best seen as an early example of what came to be known as French Existentialism. This philosophical position is most associated with French philosophers and novelists Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. These thinkers felt that life is in some ways ‘‘absurd,’’ because it contains no intrinsic meaning, leaving the individual fully responsible for the meaning of his or her life. Whereas Camus in particular explored the difficulty of knowing how to act in the face of the realization of the absurdity of life—and consequently wrote protagonists who are afflicted with a kind of existential paralysis—Malraux’s protagonists are characterized by their action and their attempts to attain brotherhood despite its ultimate meaninglessness. In the face of the dissolution of meaning, Malraux offers the concepts of “fraternite virile,’’ or a life-giving brotherhood, and metamorphosis, both precursors to Sartrean thought on intersubjectivity and the absolute freedom of human choice.
Existentialism. Malraux sees humankind as existing in a state of alienation caused by a loss of faith—which he terms ‘‘la condition humaine,’’ or the human condition—and the awareness of the absurdity of a human existence lacking order and meaning. As he put it himself, ‘‘The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxies, but that in this prison we can fashion images sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.’’
One gets a good sense of Malraux’s existentialism in his third novel, The Royal Way. This novel illuminates Malraux’s belief that death is not only a physical state, but also a metaphysical circumstance characterized by ignorance of the human condition and an unthinking acceptance of bourgeois values. Unlike existentialist protagonists in the works of Camus, characters who agonize over the possibility of meaningful action, however, Malraux’s characters are impelled to act by their awareness of the abyss. Additionally, the disciple/mentor relationship between the two main characters is an early example of male bonding that Malraux eventually highlights in his fiction as a source of transcendent value in the form of brotherhood. Malraux’s version of existentialism affirms the absurdity of death and the meaninglessness of life, but Malraux shows that this meaninglessness is not to be met solely with despair over the plight of humankind. Instead, in a conclusion much like that reached by Sartre in his focus on intersubjectivite, he offers the possibility that the lack of permanence—the fact that human beings die—necessitates that human beings act, build friendships, and love. In other words, Malraux says that since life is intrinsically meaningless, one must supply it with meaning through one’s actions and friendships. The person who does this, Malraux deems the ‘‘new man.’’
Although existentialism has its roots in thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche—all of whom died before Malraux was born—the French representation of the philosophy is quite different from its predecessors, mostly because of the historical context in which it arose. There is, in short, a sharper edge to the writings of the French existentialists. Unlike the early existentialists, French existentialists like Malraux and Sartre in particular developed their ideas in the face of World War II, and their presentation of the questions of meaning, life, death, and action found resonance in the world at large, suffering as it was from the holocaustal logic imposed by the Nazis—and accepted to an unconscionable extent by the rest of the world. Because of this peculiar historical context, French existentialism became a dominant philosophical mode for artists and authors in the twentieth century. The influence of these thinkers can be seen in the later work of many authors, including Samuel Beckett and Thomas Pynchon, each of whom explore the concept of the absurdity of life in their own fiction and drama.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
After a long career as a fiction writer, Malraux set out to write his autobiography. Here are a few more examples of popular memoirs:
Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), an analytical memoir by Carl Jung. In this text, psychoanalyst Carl Jung recalls the major events of his life and offers psychoanalytical analysis of his dreams and memories—in essence, he turns himself into a patient.
Chronicles (2004), an entertainment memoir by Bob Dylan. Musician Bob Dylan discusses some of the pivotal moments in his life and career, focusing on his love for the work of other musicians, authors, and filmmakers. Throughout the text, however, the reader is aware of Dylan's admission that he has on numerous occasions lied to the media, thereby calling into question the validity of the memoir itself.
This Boy's Life (1989), a literary memoir by Tobias Wolff. Novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff describes his own childhood—including the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather—in this memoir that was later turned into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as young Toby Wolff.
Works in Critical Context
Although Malraux’s reputation rests on his novels—in particular Man’s Fate, for which he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award—and although his novels have found nearly universal acclaim, more recent critical attention has been paid to nontraditional aspects of his novels and, even more so, to Malraux’s autobiographical material. In Man’s Fate, for instance, critics have turned away from analyzing the merit of Malraux’s representation of the existential dilemma and have begun to study the novel with a critical eye to Malraux’s representation of women. As far as form goes, however, Malraux’s autobiographical material has been deemed revolutionary for its transcendence of the limitations associated with more traditional autobiographies—a transcendence achieved by making the validity of self-perception one of the central questions of the text.
Man’s Fate. Man’s Fate takes place in Shanghai in 1927, when General Chiang Kai-shek breaks from the Communist revolutionaries, thus beginning China’s long and bloody civil war. The novel centers on several characters, mainly Chinese Communist conspirators and European adventurers, who are working against Chiang Kai-shek. These men also struggle against the meaningless solitude and absurdity that marks the human condition. Each searches for his own way to deny it, yet the solutions they seek individually, such as terrorism and torture, are all destructive and dehumanizing.
At the time of its release, Man’s Fate was applauded by critics for its portrayal of both the acts and feelings of the characters. ‘‘I do not know of any modern book which dramatizes so successfully such varied national and social types,’’ writes Edmund Wilson in The Shores of Light; ‘‘We not only witness [the characters’] acts and see them in relation to the force of the socio-political scene: we share their most intimate sensations.’’
More recent critical inquiry has focused on this novel’s female characters and the psychology of Tchen, a terrorist whose severe isolation convinces him that absolute value lies only in acts of violence, but the novel continues to be regarded as crucial to the development of twentieth-century literature. As Christopher Hitchens writes in a review for the New York Times, ‘‘It pointed up the increasing weight of Asia in world affairs; it described epic moments of suffering and upheaval, in Shanghai especially (it was nearly filmed by Sergei Eisenstein); and it demonstrated a huge respect for Communism and for Communists while simultaneously evoking the tragedy of a revolution betrayed by Moscow. It was, in short, the quintessential novel of its moment.
Responses to Literature
1. Read Man’s Fate. In the novel, Malraux depicts the Communist uprising in China that led to a civil war and ultimately the institution of a Communist government. In your opinion, how do his political and philosophical views color his depiction of events, if at all? Do you think a writer with different beliefs might have portrayed the same events in a different way? What does this suggest about the objective truth of accounts of historical events?
2. Read Anti-Memoirs and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. How do these two authors approach memoir differently? In your opinion, which one of these texts is more satisfying as a memoir? Why? Support your response with examples from the texts.
3. Although Malraux wrote about Nazi concentration camps, he was never imprisoned in one. In a short essay, compare Malraux’s representation of Nazi concentration camps in Days of Wrath with their portrayal in the memoir Night, which was written by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
4. After having read Anti-Memoirs, This Boy’s Life, and Night, you are familiar with the characteristics of the memoir. Now try writing your own brief memoir. Consider some important episode in your life—your first love, your first funeral, your first year in high school—and write a memoir in which you explore your feelings and actions during this period of your life.
Blend, Charles D. Andre Malraux: Tragic Humanist. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1963.
Boak, Denis. Andre Malraux. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Cote, Paul Raymond, and Constantina Mitchell. Shaping the Novel: Textual Interplay in the Fiction of Malraux, Herbert, Modiano. Providence, R.I.: Bergham Books, 1996.
Cruickshank, John, ed. The Novelist as Philosopher. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Frohock, W. M. Andre Malraux and the Tragic Imagination. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1952.
Greshoff, C. J. An Introduction to the Novels of Andre Malraux. Rotterdam: Balkema Press, 1976.
Kline, T. J. Andre Malraux and the Metamorphosis of Death. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Lewis, R. W. B., ed. Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays. Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Madsen, Axel. Malraux: A Biography. New York: Morrow, 1976.
Payne, P. S. R. A Portrait of Andre Malraux. Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Todd, Olivier. Malraux: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2005. Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1952.
Hitchens, Christopher. ‘‘‘Malraux’: One Man’s Fate,’’ in New York Times (April 10, 2005).