We see the adventurous young Malraux move from 1920s literary Paris to colonial Cambodia, Cochin China, and Spain in its civil war. Todd charts the thrilling exploits that would inspire such novels as Man’s Fate, but, just as fascinating, he also traces Malraux’s lifelong pattern of lies: claiming friendship with Mao, he was called to tutor Nixon, despite having met the Great Helmsman only once; a minor injury becomes in recollections a near-mortal battlefield wound; stories of heroism in the French Resistance omit to mention that Malraux joined up just a few weeks before the Allied landings.
With meticulous research, Todd separates myth from reality to throw light on a brilliant con man who would become a national hero, but he also lets us see Malraux’s genuine achievements as both writer and man of action. His real life and the one he embroidered come together in this superb biography to reveal how Malraux, the protean genius, became his own greatest character.
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The Jeanne-Caroline was a squat, heavy dogger of ninety-three tons, fitted out in Dunkirk; a decked vessel with three masts, heavy but fragile in bad weather. In careful, slanted handwriting, the muster roll of the Jeanne-Caroline gives an account of the shipwreck in which Jean-Louis Malraux, sailor and ancestor of André Malraux, met his end: “Today, the 25th day of April in the year 1836, at three o’clock in the night, being at 63∞ latitude 11∞ longitude west fishing for cod in Iceland . . . ,” an ordinary seaman was “summoned for the duration of the storm and in the call of duty to replace the fishing captain, who had fallen overboard, lost and presumed dead.” The testimonies of a novice cooper and a ship’s boy agree: seven men were lost, including Malraux, Jean-Louis, thirty-two. Jean-Louis’s father also died at sea.
Four years before the death of ordinary seaman Jean-Louis, his wife, Françoise, a greengrocer, had given birth to a son, Émile-Alphonse, André Malraux’s paternal grandfather.
Among Jean-Louis’s forebears figure a plumber, a shoemaker, a vintner, a cooper, a dock laborer, a ship’s carpenter, and an unmarried mother; Françoise’s ancestors include an employee of the city toll office, a concierge in a Paris hotel, and an infantry major glowing with campaigns in America and Spain.
Malraux fathers died young—killed by seas or oceans off every coast and by firedamp in the mines to the east of Dunkirk, toward Lille and Valenciennes. Untimely bereavement force-fed orphans and wives a compost of suffering and uncertainty.
Émile-Alphonse, Jean-Louis’s son, was born on July 14, 1832. Breaking with tradition, he kept mainly to dry land. On a rare sea excursion, he was thrown overboard in broad daylight. He was a little deaf and talked in a loud, high voice. He could read, write and count very well. He dropped “Émile” and kept “Alphonse” as a first name. He was ambitious: he turned cask maker, wine taster, seller of spirits, and master cooper before becoming a ship owner. He was somebody: the town records him as being a maritime expert. Alphonse had his own headed paper and houses in the nicer parts of Dunkirk: Rue du Jeu-de-Paume, Rue Jean-Bart. He lived in the town center, four hundred yards from the port.
He managed his ten-ship fleet with authority. He embarked from time to time to supervise captains and curse crews, or just to please himself. Despite his average height, he cut an imposing figure at home and at work. With his employees, he spoke French and Flemish. At thirty-five, starting to bald but still with a superb mustache, he married Isabelle Mathilde Antoine, without passion, and gave her eight children in fifteen years. The fifth, Mathias-Numa, was not provided with a Christian first name—his father’s way of teasing the priest.
Two maids looked after Alphonse’s bourgeois residences with their costly furniture, tasseled curtains, padded armchairs, plants in pots, curios, and seascapes. “Bon Papa” Alphonse collected model boats. They amused the children and grandchildren. As his miniature collection increased, the full-scale one dwindled: his shaky fleet suffered from British and Norwegian competition. His fortunes ebbed, and in 1898, Alphonse financed only two ships.
Alphonse was rough with his employees and tough with his children—he once sent two of his sons to the cellars for two days, one down with the wine, the other among the cheeses. Sporting a little goatee and a top hat, he might often have been taken for a dandy. And he was sometimes an eccentric: when the town hall refused to find a public meeting place for the Jews, Alphonse invited them in. The town council wouldn’t give a piece of wasteland to some traveling performers; the incorrigibly rebellious Alphonse put up the circus. He was a bad-tempered character—with character. The Malraux clan had its whimsical eccentricities: one was known for drinking wine out of a chalice; others led a “wild life”; others still neglected their children.
Widowed in 1890, Alphonse slept with his dog, a Saint Bernard that looked like a big bear cub. Alphonse scolded his daughter Marie when she cried. Jacquot, their parrot, picked up the phrase “Pleure Mimi, pleure Mimi.”
Alphonse’s sons longed to leave Dunkirk. Not Alphonse: he loved his town, the North Sea, its melancholy dunes, the houses whitewashed with lime, their walls of pink and brown brick, the tiled roofs, the landscapes floating between softness and sadness under the gray and mauve clouds in winter. Alphonse held his rank, expanded in selfishness, saw to his business, raised his children, contemplated with circumspect benevolence the sailors, dockers, and tradesmen around the Freycinet dock.
The third son, Alphonse’s fourth child, had the same Christian name as the first son, who died at four. This Fernand-Jean bis, a “replacement child” as psychiatrists say, simultaneously expunged and recalled the death of the firstborn.He was known simply as “Fernand,” dropping half of the first name: a familial custom began. Fernand lost his mother at fifteen. He quit his studies. At eighteen years old, with blue-gray eyes, average forehead, five feet seven, he enlisted in the army for four years to get away from Dunkirk and his father. The military authorities note that Fernand “has nothing beyond” scraps of secondary education, despite “a basic knowledge of Spanish.” This enlisted man “can ride,” notes the recruitment service, so he is drafted into the 21st Dragoons Regiment. He makes corporal, then sergeant.
After being discharged as a noncommissioned officer, Fernand takes various jobs in small Parisian banks. His father, Alphonse, made a fortune; why not Fernand, too? The stock exchange beckons him. Panama, Suez, Longwy Steel—it’s all there for the taking! Fernand calls himself a broker. In fact, he is a half-commission man, an intermediary between the exchange broker and the clients. He goes after his commissions with a jaunty step, looking good, feeling good, baiting his line with shares, adorning his patter with accounts of booming capitalism and triumphant colonialism. Steering his way among bonds and Treasury bills, Cuba 5%s, Chargeurs Réunis, Fernand was at ease in a world that drew all sorts. The French, at this time, were keen dabblers in the stock market.
Fernand thought up ideas to patent: unbreakable lightbulbs, self-acting pumps, puncture-proof tires. He attempted to master perpetual motion. He worked away on extravagant projects with unshakable optimism but never filed any patents. The broker or banker or engineer—depending on who asks and when—is even better with women than he is with his clients, thanks to his supple gait, good looks, curly, oiled mustache, and fantastical mind. His father, impatient to marry him off, finds him a reasonable heiress with a good dowry. But at Malo-les-Bains, Fernand falls in love with Berthe-Félicie Lamy, the daughter of a baker from the Jura region. Her father died when she was fourteen. Berthe’s mother, Adrienne, née Romania, is a seamstress of Italian extraction. Her family includes artisans, businessmen, a sculptor, a soldier.
On March 24, 1900, as Sarah Bernhardt is having a triumphant success in L’Aiglon, Berthe Lamy, nineteen, and Fernand Malraux, twenty-four, are married at the town hall of Paris’s Eighteenth Arrondissement, despite a grumbling Alphonse. They move into 53, Rue Damrémont, in the west of the Eighteenth. Fernand rents a five-room apartment in a recently finished building by the architect Émile Blais, whose bourgeois houses are popping up all around the Montmartre cemetery. At the turn of the century, it is said that in this neighborhood one meets plus de rupins et moins de rapins—more swells, fewer daubers. The newlyweds visit the World’s Fair and the first Métro line, from Maillot to Vincennes, opened that year.
At four in the afternoon on Sunday, November 3, 1901, Georges-André Malraux is born. His birthday—a propitious presage, perhaps, or a heinous heritage—falls on his mother’s. The name “Georges” is in fashion. The Malrauxs quickly drop it: it will be André. Fernand himself does not register his son at the town hall. The widow Lamy, the infant’s maternal grandmother, takes care of that formality with the uncle Maurice Malraux, a traveling salesman. The authorities, in accordance with Mme. Lamy’s claims, record the father as “business employee.” From one document to another Fernand’s profession metamorphoses.
On Christmas Day 1902, Berthe brings Raymond-Fernand into the world. The child lives for three months. Berthe is not getting on with her husband. He seeks reassurance or amusement in increasing numbers of indiscreet affairs. For lack of achievements, he wreaths himself in conquests. At four, André Malraux threatens to call the garde champêtre if his parents go on bickering. Berthe screams that she has “had enough of giving birth to dead babies,” alluding to a miscarriage. Fernand Malraux goes away, comes back, then leaves for good.
His departure is the third blow in a row for André’s mother, after the death of her father and that of a son. Berthe does not show it, but she is hurt. From now on she must depend on God and her mother, the head of the clan. Adrienne has sold the bakery and bought a greengrocery in Bondy, outside Paris. She converts it into a confectionery and moves in with her daughter Marie, André’s beloved spinster aunt. Berthe and her son go to live with the two women at Bondy. His parents’ separation leaves its mark on André but is also his salvation.
Bondy was a small, suburban town of five thousand inhabitants to the northeast of Paris. Despite its sawmills, ironworks, and boiler works on the banks of the Ourcq Canal, the industrial boom had passed Bondy by; it was neither popular, like Livry Gargan, farther out to the east, nor fashionable, like Saint-Germain-en-Laye to the west. Civil servants, petits bourgeois, farmers, and manual workers rubbed shoulders on its noisy streets. Flat barges, loaded to the brim with coal, lime, fodder, and boards, were towed along the canal by horses or mules. The surrounding flat, open country with its farms, woods, and forest led away to Alsace-Lorraine and beyond, toward Germany, the traditional enemy. During the fall, in this part of the Aulnois region, the countryside is either veiled in mist or covered with fog. In the summer, sometimes the heat becomes stifling.
Adrienne’s house is at 16 Rue de la Gare, in the heart of the trading district. On the ground floor is the confectionery with its shelves, bags, and jars and its rich aroma of coffee and chocolate, ginger and tea, spices and brown sugar. Preserves and alcohol are stored in the cellar. The bedrooms are upstairs: André has his own room. He is the only boy in this reconstituted family, and he never helps with the household chores. The women ask nothing of him, not even, when he is old enough, to serve customers in the store. They accept or invent the idea that he is not very practical. At the side of the house, an archway leads through to an inner courtyard. In the same street, old man Gouisard sells prime vegetables. There are a locksmith, an ice cream maker, Dumet’s haberdashery, the bar Les Vins de France, the grocery-cum-café Au Rendez-Vous des Archers. Opposite Adrienne’s shop stands a large, prosperous café, Au Rendez-Vous du Marché, Maison Girerd. At the end of the week the cover of the trees and Girerd’s musicians draw crowds. Near the town hall a stable smells of straw and dung. There is a hairdresser’s, then Cartier’s hardware store, then Madame Chandel’s little café. Farther on are a printer and binder, warehouses and sheds.
André twitches, starts, makes faces, sniffs, sneezes, grunts, and blinks. He has Tourette’s syndrome, at the time a little-known ailment, and one that affects only a small number of people, most often male. Doctors say that his tics will disappear with adolescence. André’s Tourette’s shows in bursts of muscular and vocal activity. Behind the hyperactivity there is a lively yet mellow look, both serious and mocking; this little boy exerts an influence over his friends despite everything. Some earn the right to become his friends. André attends small, private lessons, some at the Institution Dugand, which has twenty pupils. There, in 1907, André meets a greengrocer’s son named Louis Chevasson, a calm kid one year older than himself. He becomes André’s confidant. He is amazed by the assurance of this Malraux boy, his ease, and his memory. Louis is one of the few local children to be accepted by the Lamy ladies. Henry Robert, another friend, goes to the local school. He observes that André Malraux, the “petit monsieur” with his private lessons, is not allowed to play in the street or on the little squares of Bondy. André does not “hang about” outside.
In theory, Fernand Malraux sees his son once a week; he takes him to a restaurant and boasts about his triumphs on the stock exchange. For the Easter and summer holidays, he packs André off to his grandfather in Dunkirk. The town, the sea, the countryside, and, above all, Alphonse’s personality charm the child. At his grandfather’s, André lives in the world of a solid, powerful man. Alphonse is more affectionate with his grandchildren than with his sons or daughters. When aunts, uncles, and cousins are rounded up at family reunions, Alphonse plays the patriarch. The role suits him, for a few hours.
These breaks spent in Dunkirk are glorious moments for the boy. A few days after his eighth birthday, on November 20, 1909, his beloved and respected grandfather dies at Dunkirk’s town hospital. The local newspaper, Le Nord-Maritime, carries the headline “Tragic death of an old man.” “Last night, Alphonse Malraux, 76 years old, of independent means . . .
fell in the attic while carrying tools. He wounded himself seriously in the head, and the doctor had him taken to hospital. The unfortunate man suffered a stroke at three in the morning.” At the cemetery, a menhir gravestone marks where Alphonse Malraux lies. Some mutter that Bon Papa had had too much to drink.
André paints, on cardboard, canvas, and china plates. A year after his grandfather’s death, he sketches and colors three black sailboats on a leaden background. Behind these boats, one can make out the trace of a woman’s head—perhaps André’s mother. This accomplished little work, melancholy in its colors, evinces a precocious talent, as does the profile of a dog’s head painted by André at the same period—perhaps the Saint Bernard belonging to Bon Papa.
Fernand was now the only man in André’s universe: a disturbing, imposing, but absent father. The Bondy triad surrounded the child without stifling him. But André had, as R. D. Laing would put it, a knot: his mother, enfeebled by her woes, shaped and misshapen by her rudimentary Christian faith, had little physical closeness with her son. A sensual component was missing. Apparently she found him ugly.
André was well educated and stood up straight; a model child in black-and-white or sepia photos. Jabot collar at three years old, gray school apron with a merit badge and skeptical pout at seven, a sailor suit or musketeer’s outfit at eight, stiff collar and black jacket at ten, and, a little later, dressed for his First Communion, with an armband. There are few photographs where the little boy, so admired and carefully dolled up, is laughing or smiling. He sniffs, shakes himself, sometimes chases away women and friends with abrupt gestures: the twitching child seems to want to push away those who surround him.