Incompatible pigeon-holes

December 5, 1995

Andre Malraux: A Biography
By Curtis Cate
Hutchinson, 1995. 451 pp., $49.95 (hb)
Reviewed By Phil Shannon Andre Malraux — now there was a writer to test the value of pigeon-holes. Stock market speculator on the Paris Bourse and temple-robber in France's colony of Cambodia in the 1920s, yet he also wrote the prize-winning Man's Fate about the crushing of the Chinese Revolution of 1927, a novel praised by Trotsky whom Malraux planned to liberate from internal exile in the Soviet Union in 1928. Then Malraux's allegiance shifted from Trotsky to Stalin, whilst he commanded a squadron of pilots against Franco's fascists in Spain, and headed a Resistance brigade in occupied France during World War 2. After the war, Malraux leapt from Stalin to de Gaulle's anti-communist crusade, picking up the job of Minister of Culture during the '60s, apologising as a "left Gaullist" for the French government's attempts to squash the revolutionary agitation of that decade. Through all this change and contradiction, and in Malraux's double life as writer and man of action, there is an underlying constant which readers of Cate's biography can discern if they have patience with Cate's verbosity. Man's Fate saw the transformation of the playboy-adventurer Malraux into the left-wing novelist. Whilst in Asia in the '20s, Malraux became outraged at the tyranny of the French colonial authorities in Indo-China. His resulting novel takes us to Shanghai in 1927 where Kyo, a Communist organiser of a revolutionary uprising, pleads, unsuccessfully, with Chinese Communist Party leaders and Stalin's Comintern representatives, not to follow Stalin's directive to cede political leadership of the revolution to Chiang Kai-shek's bourgeois Kuomintang and hand in their arms. The horror of the crushing of the revolution by Chiang is captured in one of Malraux's most powerful scenes — Kyo and 200 other wounded Communists waiting to be thrown alive into the boiler of a locomotive which blows its whistle after each victim. Trotsky praised the novel for its stand on the side of the Chinese insurgents, as he had praised Malraux's earlier novel The Conquerors for its "unforgettable picture of the General Strike" in Canton in 1925. The plaudits for Malraux's two novels of revolutionary China were qualified, however. An example of what Trotsky calls the "excesses of individualism" of The Conquerors is the hero, Garine, who is a revolutionary not because he is a Marxist but because he loves risk and adventure. Man's Fate, too, is not fundamentally concerned with the social dynamics or political heart of revolution but with the exciting prospects that revolution offers for individual, heroic men to struggle against the existentialist anguish of the certainty of death in an incomprehensible and indifferent universe. Malraux's failure to fully understand revolution, and his Nietzschean admiration for "supermen" able to rise above the human condition, led him from an individualistic infatuation with Trotsky (when Trotsky was a revolutionary hero), then Stalin (when the Soviet Union was the heroic bulwark against fascism), and finally de Gaulle. Malraux's Stalinist phase had a number of lows. Trotsky blew his lid when, at the time of Stalin's purge of old Bolsheviks in fraudulent show trials, Malraux argued that "Stalin has lent dignity to mankind". Man's Hope, Malraux's Spanish Civil War novel, is committed to anti-fascism, but its politics are orthodox Stalinist. Privately dissatisfied with some aspects of Stalinism, and impressed with de Gaulle as an anti-Nazi hero, Malraux became a leading figure on the left flank of Gaullism. He used his revolutionary past to disarm de Gaulle's critics of French censorship and torture in Algeria. Malraux's novel-writing days were behind him by now. His attempt to graft Marxism onto existentialism, and to fertilise with bourgeois individualism and Nietzschean willpower, had degenerated into a shabby niche for an ex-revolutionary in the established order. Malraux's hybrid philosophy could never have worked. His existentialist eyes saw humanity dwarfed and rendered absurd by cosmic indifference and the inescapable human fate of death. Marxists, however, see human history as a grand universe of its own. Living it is what matters, not anguishing over death. Malraux tried to fit into too many incompatible pigeon-holes. Despite a courageous personal involvement in the good fight in an age of fascism, war and revolution, Malraux, like many sensitive members of the intelligentsia, despaired of the mass of humanity triumphing over a hostile world. He gave this outlook an artistic expression in his novels which, if somewhat overrated, are still deserving examples of the literature of commitment.

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