The last amusing Frenchman
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 April 2005)

He was an unlikely candidate for Grand Old Man of French culture: a soldier who shamelessly embellished his memories of conflict, an often irresponsible statesman, an author of infinite vanity. Yet Andre Malraux (1901-76) spent decades living within an aura of greatness. At the Pantheon, 20 years after he died, President Jacques Chirac installed his bones among all the other Immortals, but that gesture was superfluous. Malraux always knew a place awaited him in the Pantheon.

Olivier Todd's biography, Malraux: A Life (Knopf), which appears this month in Joseph West's English translation, recalls a time when -- there's no better way to say it -- Frenchmen were fun. They were the life of the party, not the dour moralists and obsessive theorists who plague us today. And if they were humourless, like Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre, that just made them more amusing.

Malraux was a clown, but a magnificent clown and sometimes brave. Today there are no such heroes and no such clowns, which suggests that our own era is either more honest or more prosaic.

It's fashionable to say that Americans invent themselves, sometimes even concocting their life stories, but long before that idea achieved currency Malraux made self-invention his life's work. He told his first wife, "I will sculpt my own statue," and he did it so well that even he was impressed. In his seventies, he considered himself the greatest writer of the century but realized, sadly, that he couldn't have the Nobel. ("They will never give it to a Gaullist. So be it.")

Malraux's novels, including Man's Fate and Man's Hope, are still read in several languages and his ideas about art remain influential. The Voices of Silence and his other books developed the idea of a universal cultural heritage, which he championed as French minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle. We can trace the widespread belief in art replacing religion to his discussions of sacred and "eternal" art. He considered great art "the supreme weapon against Death."

Olivier Todd knew Malraux and warmed himself in the man's intense "shamanic" magnetism. But the more he studied Malraux, the more he had to confront his idol's "megalomaniac escapades."

In his twenties Malraux was charged with stealing sculpture by prying it off monuments in Cambodia; the influence of various Paris intellectuals kept him out of jail and later he transformed that incident into a vaguely admirable passage in his life. Malraux fought in the Spanish Civil War and in the French Resistance, and saw China in revolutionary times. But when he spoke of these things later he was, Todd says, "autonomous in relation to facts." He didn't join the Resistance until late in the war but nevertheless established himself as a heroic fighter.

"He played with reality like an inventive child," Todd says. Malraux loved a quote from Napoleon: "One of the first principles of war is to exaggerate one's force." Todd says that those who admire Malraux must face a tough question: "Does lying matter?"

Malraux suffered all his life, Todd says, from Tourette's syndrome. As a boy, he would unpredictably twitch, make faces, sniff, sneeze, grunt, blink. Later, drugs and a little alcohol would moderate his symptoms; a lot of alcohol would exaggerate them. As a cabinet minister he was often drunk.

To the end of his life he retained, as they say, possession of all his faculties -- and in his case that included his penchant for mischief. At age 70 he planned to set up a private Foreign Legion to help the Bengalis in their struggle for independence from Pakistan. He was affronted when India (also on the side of the Bengalis) refused to take him seriously.

Malraux played his last role in geopolitics, a walk-on but an impressive one at the time, when he was invited to Washington in 1972 to brief Richard Nixon for his upcoming visit to China. It was believed, falsely, that Malraux and Mao Tse-tung were on intimate terms, Malraux having done nothing to correct this impression. After he left Washington one of Nixon's associates summarized his contribution to their discussions: He "does not address the person he is speaking to but an invisible audience that he aims to please and wants to disconcert, before leaving the stage, bathing in the applause of the invisible crowd."

Back in Paris, Malraux provided one of the most eccentric judgments of an eccentric life: "The President is a very warm person." No one else ever said that about Nixon, but then Malraux was always original.

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