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My review of ‘Malraux: A Life’ by Olivier Todd

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Military History magazine

December 2005


When the original French version of Olivier Todd’s biography Malraux: A Life was published in early 2002, initial response was lukewarm. Three years later, following the publication of an English translation (Knopf, 541 pp., $35.00), critical reception was likewise tepid.

André Malraux (1901-1976) was a French writer, military adventurer, art historian, and statesman; he was also an opportunist and self-aggrandizer. Military historians will find much of interest in Todd’s chronicle of Malraux’s Byronic adventures during the Spanish Civil War and as a resistance fighter for the French underground during World War II. In Spain, while not himself a pilot, Malraux organized and commanded the first Republican air squadron. Imprisoned by the Nazis, he later commanded a French brigade during the final campaign to retake Strasbourg. Todd also recounts Malraux’s youthful misadventures in French Indo-China, where he was arrested for plundering antiquities, and his firsthand experience of the Chinese Revolution of 1927. As a military man, by all accounts, Malraux displayed great leadership and courage.

However, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, Todd is shocked — shocked, I tell you — to learn that Malraux, like many writers past and present, embellished and even fabricated outright numerous details of his own legend. Moreover, Todd’s biography is distinguished by two rather distracting stylistic affectations. First, he writes primarily, but not exclusively, in the historical present (“As a novelist, Malraux’s eyes are on the Chinese Revolution; as a French citizen, he looks to the revolution in Russia.”).

Olivier Todd

More grating is the manner in which Todd alternates — often, from sentence to sentence — between third-person narrative and second-person commentary. After learning a fact about Malraux’s life, the reader is frequently graced with a nugget of authorial wisdom. Of a glamorous youthful paramour, Todd writes, “… [S]he enchants Malraux. She also flirts with [French publisher] Gaston Gallimard. One shouldn’t keep all one’s charms in one smile.”

The reader is told something, then asked a rhetorical question. Of Malraux’s first marriage and wife, Todd writes “There are affairs. Why should Clara deprive herself?” These queries can verge on the outlandish. An example: “In his letters and in the margins of his manuscripts, Malraux often draws cats, sometimes seahorses. … Do Malraux’s drawings, with their ironical smiles, indicate his regret at not being as gifted an artist as William Blake or Victor Hugo?” Well … perhaps not.

Todd’s commentary is more catty than chatty, and his hostility to his subject is palpable throughout. Ultimately, this is not a tone to make the reader comfortable. The author’s eagerness to expose his subject’s clay feet can leave one feeling a bit, well, like a voyeur. (There are tedious and altogether unnecessary logistical details of Malraux’s amorous afternoon rendezvouses with various Parisian literary ladies. Why should readers burden themselves?)

Bilingual reviewers have also faulted the translation by Joseph West, whose choices seem more reflective of a desire to match Todd’s animus towards Malraux then fidelity to nuance and context (e.g. the verb “camper” is translated as “shacked up”). What may have seemed urbane in the original, regrettably, comes off smarmy in the translation. Finally, one tires of Todd’s waspishness. With many readers on this side of Atlantic, ironically, Malraux will benefit from Todd’s relentless sniping, which eventually elicits the unintended — and classically American — response of rooting for the Underdog.

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