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.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk