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Left, right and centre

ANDR MALRAUX by Curtis Cate Hutchinson pounds 25
ON THE surface, Andre Malraux's life was built on contradictions. A committed left-winger, he became Minister of Culture in a right-wing Gaullist government. An admirer of non-European art and firm anti-colonialist, he achieved notoriety after being arrested in Cambodia while trying to export the sculptures he had stolen from a Khmer temple in 1924. Not only a writer, but a very intellectual one, he never completed secondary school, and saw himself as a man of action. His political and ideological beliefs seem to have been determined by, or at least subordinate to, his love of adventure and his gambler's instinct. Among writers, he would compare himself to Conrad, but his personality was closer to that of Hemingway.

The two did meet, once, at the Ritz in Paris during the Liberation, where Malraux found "Papa" Hemingway stripping down and cleaning some guns with the members of his personal bodyguard of resistants. Malraux was 42, Hemingway two years older, but they went at it like jealous adolescents, each trying to outdo the other in boasts of his wartime exploits; until, in Hemingway's account, one of his young henchmen took him aside and asked: "Papa, on peut fusiller ce con - can we shoot this prick?"

Hemingway, much as he loved playing with guns, had observed the hostilities as a news reporter; Malraux took an active part in his wars, whether as "Colonel Berger" of the Resistance, or organising his own air squadron in Spain (he couldn't drive a car, let alone fly). Between his Cambodian exploit and his meeting with Hemingway in the Ritz, he had - among other things - helped to edit an anti-colonialist newspaper in French Indochina, tried with Andre Gide to undertake a mission to Nazi Germany, been to the 1934 Writers' Conference in Moscow, flown across the Empty Quarter of Southern Arabia to look for the Queen of Sheba's palace and written a number of much-admired novels, including La Condition humaine and L'Espoir. The last of these gave its title to the film, made by Malraux partly on the actual locations, which gives the most authentic account of the Spanish Civil War.

For a biographer, this amounts to a far more exciting package than most writers can offer. However, Cate makes little attempt to explore Malraux's psychology: here, too, the writer (who suffered all his life from facial tics, whose father and grandfather both committed suicide, and whose relationships with women were predictably complicated) gives us an over-supply of material. Cade merely recounts, without imposing much shape on the life as a whole. Though Malraux's achievement as Minister of Culture was not quite what one might have expected from his militant and bohemian past, it was remarkable. The leftist Malraux was responsible for an important move to decentralise culture by setting up maisons de la culture in provincial towns, while the Gaullist Malraux spent a lot of money on grandiose projects such as cleaning the monuments of Paris and excavating a moat round the Louvre. He antagonised the art establishment at the national theatre and, famously, at the Cinematheque where he tried to sack the eccentric founder, Henri Langlois. Led by Francois Truffaut, the elite of the French film world rushed to Langlois' defence and Malraux climbed down. The affair, in February 1968, is seen as the prelude to the student rebellion in May the same year.

How significant was he as a writer? The English reader will find it hard to judge: Cate doesn't believe in quoting the original French, and seems loath to put it into English. It is difficult to imagine that listeners found Malraux's speeches spellbinding from this sample: "if we wish to maintain our mobilisation of energy such as it was in the past, it is according to a technique similar to that of the Communists that we should act..." (Papa, they cried, on peut fusiller ce con?)

For his brilliance as a conversationalist, we have only the word of those who heard him, but they are generally agreed. The dissenting voices, like that of Jacques Copeau, are "astonished that so much intelligence and lucidity, backed by so much ardour, leave one with an overall impression of disorder and confusion". Some critics have felt the same about the novels, with their facile existentialism, and more still perhaps about the writings on art. Malraux was the author of a handful of works that are significant testimonials to their age, and the creator of myths, first and foremost his own. His best work, effectively recalled in this biography, was his life.