André Malraux has died. Is it possible, today, to write of him, when television, radio and press are full of memoirs of him, paeans to him, and excerpts torn from his works?
Is it indeed possible, without falling into the now ubiquitous platitudes which have come to surround him, to do so without a careful rereading and reassessment of his books, which had so marked the thinking of not just my own generation? For one needs to consider anew not only his works and actions (he coined the aphorism L'homme est ce que'il fait), but also his deepest motivations, contradictions and dilemmas – his obsession with death and suicide, his constantly emphasised agnosticism and with it his incessant going back over metaphysical questions. He would return again and again to what he called le sacré and once wrote with irritation – “the deed does not take the place of the absolute, but does allow us to forget about it”. Tied up with this was an overuse of religious vocabulary when discussing art, thus creating muddle and confusion among art, aesthetics and religion, while at the same time it is precisely about religion that one may find in his works so many incisive and scintillating thoughts.
A man of the Chinese revolution – I shall never forget my first meeting with him in Daniel Halévy's snug sitting room, it was just after his return from China and his completion of “La Condition Humaine”, this angel of revolution with his fiery sword, his fine face marked by incessant twitches – he was at that time still a welcome guest in the Kremlin (indeed had returned from China via Moscow), subsequently he was a hero of Red Spain, wrote what was probably his most beautiful novel, “L’Espoir”, became the god of the French left, became totally immersed in the “days of contempt” fight against Hitler. War, Résistance, and then his sudden, total devotion to de Gaulle – I might almost say his Act of Faith in de Gaulle – in his own words “I chose France” – this new point of departure which came to define all his further activity. Few now remember the shock and outrage which this caused among his most dedicated followers within the revolutionary Left.
What was it, therefore, that constituted Malraux's prime motivation for the commitments he undertook, the causes he espoused – from the Chinese revolution to Bangladesh – if not first and foremost the defence of the oppressed, the enslaved, the downtrodden, wherever they may be, and it was precisely this which brought him so many friends, comrades and adherents throughout the globe. Malraux the campaigner was imbued with the myths of all times and civilisations, which he knew well and drew upon constantly, and which he reinforced through his many faceted cultural interests and his extraordinary ubiquity. (As one of his friends wrote: “It’s a fact that when he mentioned Prometheus, one never quite knew whether he wasn’t simply looking for a box of matches”.) Malraux was also imbued with a sense of theatre and at times his theatricality turned to bombast making his speeches hard to bear (witness those he gave at the Acropolis or at the funeral of Jean Moulin), delivered in an emphatic style reminiscent of Sarah Bernhardt. But what of it! For it was these speeches, as I now learn, which inspired and still inspire the young with enthusiasm, with the feeling that through them they are discovering hitherto unknown spiritual horizons. This was not just theatre, but rapid, delirious myth formation – the processing of reality at lightning speed and so forceful that people who had been eye-witnesses to certain events and had indeed recounted them to Malraux, would find his written account of them unrecognisable.
And yet the flair, vitality and pathos of his writing gave proof of his undying, all-transformative imagination.
In remembering this fellow-combatant of so many battles, for all of which he paid a personal price, I would like to say one thing, quoting Słowacki –
Never was an honourable man indifferent to me
– and these words Malraux could also say, for such he was.
Among French writers of that period, there were only two who immediately and without reservation not only understood the idea underlying the creation of Kultura, but were prepared, openly and unambiguously, to help us.
The first of these was Georges Bernanos. How did my connection with him occur? I think it was as a result of what he had written about the Warsaw Uprising, the only piece of such calibre and force written by a Frenchman. I then sent him a copy of my open letter to Mauriac and Maritain, written during the dying phases of the Uprising. To this I received no French response, other than from Bernanos. Later, when we were in the process of putting “Kultura” together, I wrote to him asking whether he might want to write a piece for us. He responded by return not only promising to send a text, but also adding that there could be no question of his accepting a fee. Our collaboration, however, never came to fruition. A few weeks, or perhaps months, later, Bernanos was no longer alive.
Neither Mauriac nor Maritain had replied to my open letter, which had been addressed to them. Maritain was then de Gaulle's ambassador to the Holy See, and he must have regarded my letter as a faux pas, for at that time one had to keep silent about Poland – because of Russia!
As for Mauriac, I later visited him in Paris and touched upon his lack of response to my letter. He replied by shrugging his shoulders but, as I thought, his face betrayed a measure of embarrassment. But again this was a time when de Gaulle was politicking with the Soviets, which he needed to do in his play-off with the USA and Great Britain. Silence would have to prevail over the Warsaw Uprising. Ah, these Poles, always doing something out of turn!
I cannot now precisely remember what the general attitude in France towards Poland and Stalin’s Russia had then been – but my own experience of trying to get “Na nieludzkiej ziemi” (The Inhuman Land) published might serve as a telling example. It was, I think, Malraux who sent my manuscript to Calmann-Lévy, and ten days later I had received a response from the appropriate editor to say that the work was accepted for publication. The editor’s name was Raymond Aron. He advised me to make some cuts, for stylistic reasons, in two chapters. However, within a week I was summoned to Calmann-Lévy himself, to be told that his own “assessment of the work was very different to Monsieur Aron's. It cannot appear under my imprint. There is too much about the Poles, the French aren't interested. One would have to cut the book back very significantly, and – more importantly – you are too anti-Stalinist. That won't do. You will have to undertake a re-write, beginning with a pro-Stalinist position and allowing yourself only a measure of criticism towards the end of the book.”
The allure of Stalin and the fear of Stalin were the prevailing sentiments in the Paris of the day. People whispered stories about the abduction of political émigrés, a wait and see atmosphere developed, it seemed that the Bolsheviks might also overrun France, the then powerful French Communist Party revered Stalin as a god, and Jean Kanapa spoke a different language to the one he does today, reviling Stalin’s opponents as vipères lubriques. It was at this time that the same Calman-Lévy published Arthur Koestler's “Darkness at Noon” to resounding success. Apparently the publisher took fright to such an extent that he did not wish to print a second edition (or so the rumour went).
Sitting one morning in Koestler's hotel room in Paris I was speaking about Stalin, probably all too vigorously. Suddenly we both noticed that a sheet of white paper had been slipped through into Koestler's room under the door linking to the adjoining room. On it someone had written “Be careful, not so loud, a Soviet delegation is staying in the hotel”. Koestler exploded: “So here too, one must talk about Stalin only in whispers!”.
In 1945, soon after my arrival in Paris from the 2nd Polish Corps in Italy, I visited Malraux. Many years had passed since our former meeting, but in spite of this I immediately experienced what I can only describe as a feeling of fellowship. We had barely known each other all those years ago, so it was not so much about me, more about Poland. In his mind Poland existed, not as the prevailing French cliché of the day, La Pologne digne et malheureuse, nor as the communist caricature of a fascist Poland – he seemed to sense the country's hidden nerve, the sense of its history and its recent tragedies. He was fascinated about anything I could tell him about Soviet Russia. (It is another matter that he remembered something I had told him, which many years later he recalled in his “Antimemoires”, but so transformed by its grandiloquent presentation that I could barely recognise its source.)
During those early meetings in 1945, I remember Malraux mentioning that de Gaulle owned all the books and writings of Józef Piłsudski which had been translated into French.
It was then that he said: “I am very busy (if memory serves he was working on “Les Voix du silence” at the time), but whenever you at “Kultura” will be in need of help, get in touch with me – whatever I can do, I will do”.
We did not impose on this willingness to help, but on the few occasions we did turn to him, he was always forthcoming with assistance to the best of his ability. In 1954, when we had received notice to quit our first premises in Maisons-Laffitte, where we both worked and lived, and had nowhere to go thereby putting our publishing activity under threat, he wrote the following letter, which appeared in the press. It made a difference:
To the Editorial Board of “Kultura”
Our own experience of foreign occupation, which remains in our memory, inspires in us feelings of fraternity and moves us to readily identify “Kultura” as a journal of an occupied country.
You are right in saying that the battle you have undertaken as a group of people is a solitary one, as solitary as any one individual who says NO to a victorious tyranny; this relative solitude represents the price which your justified pride pays for your moral, political and material independence.
The very fact that “Kultura” has to vacate the premises which sheltered it for the past seven years is a proof of this independence. The financial aid you are receiving, from Sweden, from Latin America, is further proof of this independence, precisely because it is not enough. But the best proof of “Kultura’s” independence is each and every issue.
My feeling is that if the world understands your dramatic predicament inadequately, it is primarily because it perceives Polish culture to be Slavonic culture and all too closely related to Russian culture. In this it is forgotten that although there is such a thing as Russian genius, Russian culture does not exist in the same sense that we perceive the cultures of Western nations; rather a bond, complicated and ambiguous, with Byzantium; and that Polish Culture, tied to the Latin world is one of the cultures of the West. Hence Poland is currently under alien cultural occupation (and not in cultural symbiosis), which oppresses you equally with its physical occupation. And hence the historical significance of your intellectual endeavour.
You do not defend Poland in the name of the Treaty of Versailles, nor in the name of capitalism, for you reject both one and the other – instead you highlight the deep social injustice to which your country has fallen victim in the name of social justice, you defend the freedom of expression against the occupation imposed upon you, just as we did against Nazism and the Germans; you are among all those who between 1940 and 1944 defended all freedoms, as so many had done in the past. You smuggle Orwell’s book into Poland, and not the book of some doctrinaire, not unlike our republicans who sent into France Victor Hugo's “Châtiments” within hollowed-out busts of Napoleon III. Without any doubt, it is time for the West to understand that you and they are indelibly linked, for all resistance is a matter of perseverance, and readiness for war demands strength of spirit.
Malraux is no longer with us, but he has not ceased addressing us. At the beginning of next year his “La Pérrenité de l'homme et la litérature” will be published – the typescript of the book was already with Gallimard last year, but he then withdrew it to re-work it in total; it consumed hour upon hour in the latter months of his life.
In spite of all this I found some things in this man difficult to accept: his febrile verbosity, seemingly less and less under control; his unceasing mythologizing of everything he said and wrote; I still ponder who this man really was, with his flashes of brilliant thought and his great generosity, who took an active part in all the upheavals of our times, who thought so much, who wrote so much about what was going on in the world, who wrote so much about the art of all times and cultures, and so brought them closer to us.
But perhaps what was most important in this man was that he knew how to be a friend.
Malraux, who had written “the deed does not take the place of the absolute, but does allow us to forget about it”, this man of incessant action, who lived in a ceaseless throng of close colleagues and friends, died alone in a hospital, with no lover, no friend, no priest, in a chambre stérile to which only his doctors had access. Perhaps there in that lonely enclosure he may have suddenly experienced the grace of silence and redemption – and with that absence of sound this man thirsting for the absolute may have been rewarded, allowing him of a sudden to say “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. He knew these words for sure, he knew everything.