'Malraux: A Life' by Olivier Todd

Author, revolutionary, liar. Wait, perhaps ‘creative assembler of semi-factual data’ might be a better way to describe the extraordinary life of Andre Malraux.

At the start of several revisionist Western movies, title cards tell the audience to beware. One of them begins the story thusly: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was, but it’s the way it should have been.” Another states: “What follows is true, mostly.” Still another says: “This story is true. Or if it isn’t, it should have been. And furthermore, the author does not give a plugged damn.”

(Note: no guarantee of total accuracy here; that is just how I remember things and so I put them into print.)

Believing in your own creations can be a virtue for an artist or writer, but when your public life is also something you’re formulating, what you get are caprice, fantasy, prevarication, wonder, and awe. In short, what you get is Andre Malraux.

Quick Sketch

Here are the brief biographical details of Malraux’s life: Born in Paris in 1901. Suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Wrote bestselling novels and anti-establishment art history books. Founded the Indochina in Chains newspaper in protest of French colonialism. “Liberated” cultural artworks from the East. Fought in the Spanish Civil War and WWII (on the good sides). And had a decade-long career as a Minister in the French government.

Malraux: A LifeInteresting enough for a couple of lifetimes, but when you toss in Malraux’s dedication to mythmaking, you’ve got something that is continually fascinating. His affairs, feuds, altercations, interactions, and inventions are delicious to observe. Meanwhile, his appropriation of convenient — if not entirely accurate — details helped create the perception of a life that seemed Larger Than Reality.

In Malraux, Todd writes, “the journalist and the novelist are mixed together, to the disdain of literary purists.” In one chapter, Todd says Malraux isn’t in any particular city, “he is living in his novel.” Malraux “refers to himself at the time as le forcat de la plume — the convict of the pen.” And he describes the act of writing as “a permanent fistfight with oneself.”

At one point in his life, Todd notes, Malraux “adopts the name of one of his own heroes and starts calling himself ‘Colonel Berger.’ Fiction and reality penetrate each other.”


I’d like to get this confession into the record: I didn’t really get to read “Malraux: A Life” by Olivier Todd because the book is in French and I am woefully ignorant of that language. Instead, I read the translation by Joseph West. There is no way for me to tell if it is a good or bad translation, but I do know that the book was continually fascinating.

This work reads like nothing I’ve ever encountered, but is that because of Todd or West or a combination of the two? The style of writing is a literary permutation of two painterly styles, pointillism and fauvism. It seems politely under control but then careens off-the-rails for just an instant before whumping back on track. It offers a word-picture of subtlety and striking detail in some passages and then becomes a not-so-sotto voce sarcastic commentary for a few delightful seconds.

Look at how Todd compares Malraux and Ernest Hemingway, first using facts but then ending up in his own reverie:

For Hemingway, “Comrade Malraux” is a poser; to Malraux, Hemingway is “a false hard man” and “a madman who has delusions of simplicity.” But the two literary adventurers do have points in common. They have a physical and intellectual need to see history at first hand and write about it. War is one of their powerful literary drugs; they have great admiration for physical courage and are themselves brave. This admiration leads to exhibitionism. I am wounded, I handle guns, I fly in planes, I harpoon big fish, I hunt for biblical ruins, I get to the top of mountains, I hack a path through the jungle where statues sleep. . . therefore I am. Spain satisfied both writers’ appetite for bravery, blood, and death — the raw material of two novels that leave their mark on the period.

When writing about Malraux’s use of amphetamines (Maxiton and Corydrane) combined with wine and whiskey (“and plenty of them”), Todd quickly sums up the situation: “Alcohol on top of these multiplies the effect. To an idiot, these substances would give the impression of being intelligent; to the intelligent, the conviction of becoming talented; to the talented, the certainty of their genius.”

One more example of Todd’s style, this in a paragraph about Malraux traveling the globe and popping in on embassies to view the world’s political situation, in this case China:

The People’s Liberation Army has occasionally, almost absent-mindedly, bombarded the Taiwanese islets of Quemoy and Matsu. The Nationalists respond with sweet little bomblets filled with candy and toys. The Chinese Communists have overindulged their internationalist enthusiasm and waged a minor frontier war with India. The Indian Army took a beating.


Being contrary can get you into trouble and/or set you apart from the pack. Contrariness ran in Malraux’s family. One of his grandfather’s children “was not provided with a Christian first name — his father’s way of teasing the priest.”

Thinking himself “an accursed poet of genius,” Malraux scrapes by as a seller of rare books, or semi-rare, or … “Is this one a fake? But isn’t it beautiful! An object’s value, like its beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.”

That “genius” thing haunts him throughout his life and he was always pointedly aware of himself and his position in the French literary universe. “As a writer, one can revolt, one can remake the world, and in France the aura of the profession brings you fame.”

Malraux, between sixteen and twenty, a precocious but immature young man, wanders Paris in search of his path. His energy, his curiosity, his good manners, and a rare visual memory ease his movement within the world of literature and visual arts. People find him irritating but charming. He doesn’t bother with national or international political news, nor with religion, which he has not thought of since receiving presents at his First Communion. He thinks he lost God around the age of twelve or fourteen as one might mislay an empty wallet.

“Malraux the mythomaniac and his inventions are brilliantly justified…from a literary point of view. Why shouldn’t a writer elaborate a systematic vision of the world with lies (among other things) at its heart?” Why indeed.

Delightful Shocks

I kept enjoying little shocks throughout the book. A wonderful sardonic comment here, a delicious peek into human nature there. Consider this two-sentence description dealing with Malraux’s relationships with his first wife, Clara Goldschmidt, and one of his mistresses, Josette Clotis: “After corrosive insults, he returns to romance with Josette. Malraux does not realize that Josette likes (let’s keep it at that) many writers.” You have to admire Todd’s use of the parenthetical phrase in that sentence!

Or take this lovely bit of writing concerning European journalism in 1936: “The right-wing press in Paris proclaims that the insurgents are closing from the north and are twelve miles from Madrid — wishful printing on their part.”

Or this description of Malraux’s approach to communication, both verbal and literary:

He mixes the true and the false to convey a powerful impression of personal experience. Spanish airmen were indeed tortured, but not those from his squadron. Let’s just simplify; something is bound to remain. Malraux is getting closer in practice to a Leninist conception of truth and morality with all its inherent dangers: what is true is what serves the Party, and what is false is everything that harms it. Once this principle is accepted, the necessity, explanation, and justification of the slippery slope — as well as (although not for Malraux) any crime — follows.

Vexing Indexing

Initials and acronyms appear throughout the story but are frequently not cited in the back of the book, leading to page-flipping to find the first use of the full name of the organization being referenced. For example, SOE is on pages 275, 277, 281, etc., but is not in the Index, nor is Special Operations Executive. Same difficulty with the acronyms POUM, SFIO, PCG, MUR, FTP, FFL, FFI, SDECE, FLN, and CDR. Other than that, however, the Index is good, although it would have been nicer if the English translations of Malraux’s book titles had been included (they’re in the chapter notes instead).

Bottom Line

Too many wonderful moments to even summarize here (Malraux shooting at enemy tanks with just a revolver, his being captured by the Gestapo, Malraux marrying his sister-in-law after the death of his half brother, and Malraux spreading a rumor that he is to succeed Charles de Gaulle as the leader of France are four that immediately come to mind).

Andre Malraux’s life, as captured in “Malraux: A Life,” is the gol-darnedest amalgamation of fact, fiction, and literary art you’re likely to find for a while. As Todd writes, “We have been happily cast off into a sea of literature.”

Book Summary:
“Malraux: A Life” by Olivier Todd; Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-0375407024, 560 pages, 32 photographs, $35. .


This original review is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article. Editorial illustration based on book jacket created by Christopher L. Simmons. Reproduction or republication in whole or in part without express permission is prohibited except under fair use provisions of international copyright law.