André Malraux [1901-75] is a writer whose stature has fallen perhaps now that his time is long gone. His reputation as a writer has to be considered with his life as a man of action. To some readers novels with titles like The Human Condition and Hope spoke of a pretension to grandeur. Multi-volume works like The Metamorphosis of the Gods aspired to explain the human condition in philosophic terms that, again, evoked hostility and some derision. It is for readers to assess a writer’s worth. Some writers naturally rise. Malraux, to judge by his titles, strove to rise. He never seemed so suffer existential doubt. Nor did he display much humility. And yet there is something compelling. One has only to read the opening pages of La Condition Humaine to feel that here is a writer of exceptional gifts.

When I began to read André Malraux one paragraph defeated me – so I turned to the translation. I couldn’t make sense of it in English. Malraux had his share of human failings as well as one or two literary ones. There are several Malraux, inevitably in a long and eventful career. The Socialist firebrand in the Spanish Civil War became the Gaullist minister who opposed the 1968 uprising.

Yet it was never a simple case of abjuring his ideals. His memoir of conversations with de Gaulle in retirement (Fallen Oaks) is a moving testimony to the success and failure of the General. The Gaullist fusion of tradition and progress collapsed into a dark hole that pleased nobody. The Fascists had tried to assassinate him as a traitor to the imperial cause. The workers had tired of his indifference to the deepening social problems. The students were angered by his autocratic and repressive style of government. The British satirist Michael Flanders caught the mood well with his song This Old Man.

What was Malraux doing in such a government? He was promoting culture as its minister. This was no token appointment, but a serious essay in the integration of culture within the fabric of society. It was a socially-responsible project of a kind not really seen in the West, and as such it was the model for social democratic policy, notably in Britain with the Socialist Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee.

Malraux’s presence in government had another benign effect. It was the precedent for Regis Debray’s later role in Mitterrand’s coalition of the left. Such a position, and such a government, demands compromise because political practice sees its ideals compromised the day after victory. But Malraux’s mistake was not to talk to the young rebels. He sent Jean-Louis Barrault to persuade the rebels of their folly. There was nobody more distinguished in French theatre than Barrault. He had immense authority in his own person and in the credentials he carried from the Minister of Culture. Barrault talked until he sided with the rebels. There was a lesson which Malraux did not want to learn.

He had been a young revolutionary, not in a revolt against the bourgeoisie but in a war against a vicious enemy. And he had served his time in the Resistance. Tortured by the Gestapo, Malraux developed a nervous twitch in times of personal crisis. In the Fifties he spent time in fistfights with Stalinists who knew nothing of civilised debate and acceptable negotiation.

All the while he was writing, especially The Voices of Silence, a major study on the psychology of art. For some it was pretentious, an attempt beyond the intellectual capacities of its author. Olivier Todd in his exhaustive biography of 2001 finds in Malraux a self-aggrandising myth that goes beyond the customary embellishments of a personal narrative. Malraux had no degree. He had no baccalaureate. The claims he made for his academic record are simply inventions. He did not embroider the truth, a more or less universal tendency: he lied. It could be argued, however, that the deception came from deep embarrassment, understandably so. He was self-taught, and clearly had a capable teacher.

In that he is in the good company of the many who haunt the museums and libraries because the academy is closed to them. Often the result is admirable in the thoroughness with which knowledge is sought and the eagerness by which the intellect and wit are sharpened. Every writer is something of a Walter Mitty. Malraux suffered the fabulist’s fate of confusing what is credibly imagined with which what actually happened. But there is enough truth in undeniable reality to admire or at least respect much of Malraux’s achievements.

That was Hemingway’s position when they met in a Madrid bar in 1937. To earn Hemingway’s respect was testimony to the undoubted qualities Malraux displayed. What Hemingway disliked was the aspiration to grandeur, evident even then and in the circumstance of a revolutionary war where vanity is out of place. This encounter has become legendary, and thereby subject to the distortions of memory and truth that legends are subject to. One version has Hemingway threatening to shoot Malraux. Unlikely on two counts: the civilized respect that Hemingway had for Malraux; and the fact that a brigade commander with armed guards is not someone to be threatened.

The distortion is telling as an illustration of the derision and contempt Malraux aroused. In part there was the sense of betrayal (as if Allan Ginsberg had joined Nixon’s administration). Envy also played its part. Here was the artist at the centre of affairs. How many writers have the ear of the president? Here was someone not simply politically engaged but politically empowered.

This, of course, raises the question of the wisdom of such a direct role for a writer. We think of writers, as they may think of themselves, as distanced from the sources of power. The writer is the voice of conscience. If Malraux was General de Gaulle’s conscience it failed him at the critical moment. Sartre, by contrast, could remain at the edge, refusing the Nobel Prize while allying himself to marginal revolutionary groups with impossible dreams of unattainable ideals. Ideological purity was pursued as end in itself, whereas Malraux was building maisons de culture that would outlive the transient events of the political world.

Sartre’s perpetual adolescence contrasted with Malraux’s prolonged retreat into the common sense parameters of mid-life. Sartre’s position is perhaps – or surely – the more engaging in terms of ideals and energy as fecund for creative minds. Irrational but invaluable things like art and the politics of revolution are as impulsive as they necessary. Civil society cannot function without the processes that seek to challenge its authority. Malraux was abandoning the necessity of questioning.

The tragedy is not Malraux’s personal failing. It is shared by so many who move steadily into established positions. There is the all too familiar erosion of ideals when faced with the obligations of choice in the real world. The tragic part is the self-deception when the compromised mind will not accept that the image is tarnished. The rhetoric remains that of an earlier, now abandoned speculative logic. Malraux had the good grace to accept that he had changed, although that meant he was placed on the wrong side of the barricades.

Without the barricades there is only the stasis that confuses stagnation with continuity. Genuine continuity is in its way a dynamic process. Where stability is everything there is no motion, no life worth the name of life. The past is preserved without any debt acknowledged to the future. Continuity is a communication with the future as well as the past. A criticism of Malraux’s maisons de culture was the perceived air of the mausoleum rather than the museum.

Malraux, however, insisted he was a Gaullist, one who emphasised the progressive element in the General’s idiosyncratic nationalism. It was not a loyalty to which many intellectuals adhered so faithfully, and it proved self-defeating in the debacle of May 1968 when civil society in France faced an acute crisis of moral and intellectual faith in itself. This was precisely the moment when a thinking man of action like Malraux might have seized the moment had he been outside of government and with the young rebels whose hopes he spurned in the name of the Fifth Republic.

He chose an existing reality over an unknown trajectory. He chose the process of stable government over a socially disruptive movement. He saw it thereafter as a wise choice born of common sense and mature judgement. But adventures in the creative potential of a rising generation do not require wisdom and sense: they demand purposive action in the heat of ideals forged from an uncompromising optimism.          

Shortly after Malraux’s death a picture was displayed at the opening of the Pompidou Centre, a monument to contemporary arts. It was not Malraux’s child, but it was in the spirit of culture for all that he had encouraged. The picture on display, however, was not flattering. It was a photograph of a severed head of a pig dripping with blood. There was a cartoon-like speech bubble that read ‘Je suis l’ame d’André Malraux.’ (‘I am the soul of André Malraux’) He had died only five weeks previously.

To some the death had occurred when Malraux did not display sympathy with the idealist cause of 1968. He had attempted a synthesis of radical trajectories and constitutional stability. The result seemed not progressive and inclusive but out of touch and authoritarian. It was a dilemma of conscience that Malraux misjudged not from stupidity or callousness but from a vanity that characterized Gaullism as a political project. He thought he knew best. Thereafter it seemed to the liberal mind that all about him was tainted by a prolonged act of moral retreat.

But that is to judge him from a distance. Malraux did not keep his distance. He engaged with political realities in Spain in the civil war, with the Resistance in his homeland, and, yes, with de Gaulle whom he admired too uncritically. To be a left wing Gaullist was the impossible compromise. It was a fantasy that disengaged Malraux from the realities of the General’s idiosyncratic and increasing authoritarian rule. Romantic nationalism is always a questionable allegiance.

The urgent voices of intellect and idealism were ignored, if not silenced, by a senescent polity that referenced back to the Liberation of 1944 rather than to the existing state of things in 1968. A more imaginative response from Malraux would have been to engage the young rebels in conversation, remembering his own youthful desire for radical change. The Fifth Republic was founded in a crisis where democracy faced the serious threat of fascism. A decade on the crisis was the unfulfilled promise of social change. Malraux had crossed a line that need never have been drawn. The regrettable but frank conclusion has to be that he had surrendered his conscience in the name of a faded political vision.

Why, then, should we continue to read Malraux? His political achievement in widening the franchise of cultural appreciation must count in his favour. Governing policies that tend to philistinism, short-term accountancy and sub-literate populism might learn valuable lessons from a writer-statesman of stature. His stature was gained through novels like Man’s Estate that spoke authoritatively of civilized values under fire in an age of dictatorships. He could write with style, although the grandeur of theme took clear precedence in his scale of aesthetic values.

The problem, irreconcilable in this case, was between literature’s integrity of values and the political craft of compromise. What is a virtue in statesmanship (requiring negotiation and concession) is a failing in art (requiring firm purpose and resolute direction). Or so it may seem in the case of André Malraux. Arguably, that is to take too cynical a view of a life lived in action as much as in contemplation and composition. Others have found a fulfilling role in political life without betraying their integrity as thinkers and writers. But few in that fortunate position have been so deeply committed to responsible acts of governance as Malraux. Few have been so willing to risk their credibility. It may be that no artist should take such a risk. In Malraux’s case, having taken that chance, even his ideological opponents at this distance in time can offer some respect for the venture. At the same time we ought to consider the danger in embarking on such a venture. Malraux’s fate is a warning, if a noble one. A choice is foolish or courageous according to circumstances outside our control. A writer should not lose control of his script.

Geoffrey Heptonstall has made many contributions to The London Magazine. He also writes regularly for The Tablet. A novel, Heaven’s Invention, was published by Black Wolf in October. A paperback edition is due out in 2017. Other recent creative work includes a play, Ghost Wind, for Carabosse Theatre Co. Another play, Groby, performed on the London fringe in 2015 was published in 2016 in Gold Dust. He is the author of a number of other plays, as well as short fiction, poetry, essays and reviews published in a number of British and American magazines. He is at work on another novel.

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