Renaissance homme

Novelist, politician and intellectual adventurer, Andre Malraux turned his life into a masterpiece. By Patrick French; Andre Malraux: A Biography by Curtis Cate Hutchinson, pounds 25
There is an essay in Bruce Chatwin's book, What Am I Doing Here, that records a meeting with Andre Malraux in the early Seventies. "At one point in the conversation," writes the young star-gazer, "he turned his green eyes on me and said: 'And Genghis Khan? How would you have stopped him?' " This - from a man who combined the polymathic historical range of Goethe with the physical daring of TE Lawrence, a man described by his biographer as belonging to a tiny band of people "whose genius is so many-sided and whose curiosity is so all-embracing that they overflow the narrow banks of a single speciality". Chatwin's response was understandable: "Silence".

Malraux was born into the bourgeoisie of Paris in 1901, leaving school early to become a rare- book dealer and publisher, and later a writer of surreal stories and anti-Dadaist criticism. A brief career as a stock- exchange speculator was unsuccessful. Following a shoot-out in a dance- hall in Montmartre and a rather dashing elopement to Italy with his girlfriend, he packed his bags with anti-snake vaccine, quinine pills and half a dozen hacksaws before setting off for the jungles of French Indochina.

Posing as an archaeologist and an expert on Khmer art, he extracted seven large stone carvings from a ruined temple. These were installed in camphor-wood coffins and put on a steamer to Phnom Penh, only to be intercepted by the colonial authorities. After 10 months' imprisonment for theft, Malraux was released on appeal and expelled to France.

Far from being daunted by this experience, he and his wife set off back to Saigon with a left-wing lawyer. There, they established an aggressively anti-colonialist newspaper. Like a pair of Elizabethan pamphleteers, the lawyer and the temple-robber needled and exposed those in power so mercilessly that their printing presses were soon impounded. They managed to obtain replacement lead type from some Jesuit fathers in Singapore - crucial French accents were smuggled out of official newspaper offices by sympathetic Vietnamese - and the production of L'Indochine Enchainee could begin again.

But they were soon overwhelmed by official obstruction, denounced by the corrupt French Governor of Cochin China as "Bolshevist traitors." Penniless and dispirited, Andre Malraux returned to France to write novels. First came a philosophical meditation on the Orient, and then Les Conquerants, a story set in revolutionary Canton which narrowly missed winning the Prix Goncourt. Malraux was, at this point, 26 years old.

Before long he was flying over the Arabian Desert on a wild goose chase in search of the Queen of Sheba's palace. He went on to become a film director, a fiery anti-fascist campaigner, the organiser of a bomber squadron during the Spanish Civil War, and was captured as a Resistance leader during the Nazi occupation of France. (He operated under the name "Colonel Berger", but the author's features and pronounced facial tics were so well known that the alias convinced nobody.) Curtis Cate is particularly interesting on this period, and has turned up new material about Malraux's wartime exploits. There is a good anecdote about a bragging contest between "Colonel Berger" and Ernest Hemingway in the Paris Ritz over who had commanded more men, reminiscent of Hemingway's genital-measuring competition with Scott Fitzgerald down the road at Michaud's.

The story of Malraux's life is such an extraordinary tale of bravado and variation that Curtis Cate could hardly fail to write an exciting biography. This book bas several faults, none of them fatal. A glance at Chatwin's essay proves that, when it comes to a character sketch, length is not important. For example, both writers mention Malraux's meeting with Mao Tse Tung - Cate records that Mao gave him a vase; Chatwin that Malraux found the Great Helmsman's hand "pink as if it had been boiled". Cate's language is sometimes stilted, the index is poor, and there is a lack of historical context about political events. It would also have been better to leave quotations from Malraux in the original French, or at least to have translated them properly. Quasi-translation such as, "With them, it's all of Josette's part that is reduced to nothingness" are not much use to anybody.

Another weakness, which is largely explained by Malraux's having left no diaries or revelatory letters, is that the book gives little sense of the subject's inner thoughts or feelings. There was a personal coldness about him that was often noted by his contemporaries, and in emotional matters he was formal and immature. Like a good French bourgeois, he had a pretty mistress dressed by Dior tucked away in an apartment. On glimpsing her, one of Malraux's colleagues remarked, "Won't be easy to call her 'Comrade', will it?"

Towards the end of his life, Andre Malraux became a government minister under the regal regime of his friend Charles de Gaulle. Sadly, his capricious methods of administration damaged his political credibility, and Graham Greene published an open letter denouncing him for his failure to condemn French conduct in Algeria. For the soixante-huitards, the revolutionary hero of the Spanish Civil War and the Resistance was an old-fashioned irrelevance. Although his literary fame was untarnished, his tendency towards giddy, fantastic, imprecise (and stereotypically Gallic) writing grew.

But as Chatwin wrote, "What makes Malraux a great figure is not necessarily his verbal performance or his writings. His life is the masterpiece." This Life is no masterpiece, but it still gave me great pleasure to read.