Two French intellectuals remembered
ndre Gide died 50 years ago, aged nearly 82. A very different writer and person, Andre Malraux, a member of another generation, who was a close friend of his, was born in 1901 and died in 1976. They were both highly intelligent, gifted, controversial, and typical French intellectuals.
Gide, who spectacularly rejected the puritan morality of his Protestant ancestry, was basically a narcissistic esthete. Though he wrote some 50 books, including significant fiction, several plays, and essays on a great variety of subjects, including notable literary studies, his most lasting achievements are his Diary or "Journal," which he wrote from 1889 to 1949, and his various other personal memoirs, including those written in the first decades of the past century, in which he disclosed and defended his homosexuality.
This was only one of the many ways in which he deliberately scandalized his contemporaries, for his declared intention was "to disturb." "The public," he wrote, "always prefers to be reassured. This is, indeed, the profession of some writers. Too many of them..." The text is from his "Counterfeiter Diary," a commentary on his most extensive novel, the many-layered The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-monnayeurs, written 1919-1925), originally inspired by newspaper stories, including the final episode, a gruesome account of amoral teenagers driving one of their number to commit suicide. Raised in an ortho-dox Calvinist environment, he did not believe that children were innocent. He also brilliantly satirized in this novel fake and superficial avant-gardism used to seduce the young.
A major interest of his in that book and in other fiction like The Immoralist (1902) and the satirical Les Caves du Vatican (1914, translated as Lafcadio's Adventures, 1925) was to explore the limits of individual freedom. He spoke of "l'acte gratuit," the gratuitous act done without apparent motive, such as expectation of reward or public purpose. He was aware that it was an ambiguous concept, since it could justify bottomless evil as well as generosity and saintliness.
After the death of his wife in the late thirties, he finally revealed in particularly moving pages, entitled Et Nunc Manet in Te, the tragedy of his marriage with his cousin Madeleine. She and Andre truly loved each other, but she was devoutly religious and deeply attached to conventional moral values. She could not accept Andre's unconventional ideas and behavior, though she felt she had no right to tell him what to do or not to do. She lived in the country, always gentle and tirelessly charitable. He said he adored her as an ideal, like Dante adored Beatrice. Gide, who had rebelled against all bourgeois values, was probably the worst possible person to be married to a saint.
Gide himself was neither evil, cruel, nor violent. He was a civilized, brilliant critic, who had a subtle mind and a sense of irony. Unlike his friend Malraux, he cannot be described as a man of action. Independently wealthy, he could therefore indulge in writing what he felt was abiding literature without reference to any mercenary purpose. His amoral attitudes and approaches were not unrelated to some of the expressed sentiments of another esthete Gide knew well during his younger days, Oscar Wilde, though Oscar was undoubtedly wittier and more superficial.
Like Wilde, Gide did have a social conscience. Despite his pose of noninvolvement in political and moral issues, he did sign a petition for Alfred Dreyfus, victim of injustice, and wrote an indignant account of the inequities of the French legal system after an experience as a juror. He also eloquently denounced colonial exploitation in the French Congo and Chad after a voyage to Africa, and the tyranny of Stalin after a trip to Russia in the thirties. It goes without saying that he was wholly opposed to the Nazi spirit.
In a January 19, 1948, entry in his Diary, Gide argues that his various interventions in public affairs did not amount to a "commitment" (such as those of Jean-Paul Sartre) and, above all, had nothing to do with literature or his literary works. He described himself (more passively) as a "witness," though it would appear that his denunciations of colonialism and of Stalinism had a considerable political impact.
Gide often wrote beautiful, spare French and was for nearly half a century identified with a top French literary magazine and considered the leader of the avant-garde. While by no means always right, he was for decades considered the grand old man of French letters and was unfailingly interesting.
Andre Malraux records a brief dialogue between Gide and himself, dated about 1938:
Gide: "There are no stupid people in your novels."
Malraux: "I don't write to be bored. As for idiots, life is enough."
Gide: "Well, this is because you're still too young."
Unlike Gide, Malraux did not publish a diary. However, most of his half a dozen novels in colorful prose closely mirror his personal experience as one of the most remarkable adventurers of the past century and are quasi-autobiographical. He has updated them in his fascinating Antimemoirs, though he may not always have adhered strictly to fact.
A student of Far Eastern civilization, he records in one novel (La Voie Royale) impressions of his own expedition to the Cambodian jungles when in his early 20s. He got into trouble for smuggling some of the magnificent stone sculptures of the great thousand-year-old temples of Angkor out of the country.
Two of his best-known novels, The Conquerors and Man's Fate, deal with the Chinese Civil Wars of the 1920s, in which his role, apparently, was mainly that of an observer, though the rumor has been to the effect that he took an active role. Another novel, written in the early thirties, is a scathing indictment of the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. He was a leader in the fight against the Nazi assaults on justice and humanity and was one of the founders of the French League against Antisemitism.
In 1936, he organized and led the international air force supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and wrote what many consider his best novel about it, Man's Hope. Ernest Hemingway, who had admired Man's Fate, was angry about being forestalled in writing about the war and became obsessively jealous about Malraux, whose book I consider better than For Whom the Bell Tolls. He continued to be jealous about him during World War II, when Malraux continued to outclass him as a fighter. While Hemingway was not much more than an observer, Malraux headed a tank battalion, was wounded, and twice captured by the Germans. He escaped and led several resistance groups and then the Alsace-Lorraine brigade, which fought its way into Germany.
At the end of World War II, Malraux became Charles deGaulle’s Minister of Information, and, in the 1960s, deGaulle's innovative French Minister of Culture, famous for cleaning off the dirt of centuries from many French monuments and for brilliantly fostering cultural exchanges and a truly global view of artistic endeavor. He wrote a number of influential books on art, including The Voices of Silence, a book in which, among other things, he rethought the role of museums and of art throughout the world.
Malraux was nonreligious, and his novels show how deeply he was haunted by the horror of death, though he was a man of reckless courage. However, he always insisted on human dignity, and his abiding love of art throughout his life reflected his feeling that it was a way for man to survive himself. Malraux, intellectually brilliant, was clearly committed to the fight for justice. Gide, though he insisted that he was "just a witness" and paraded his estheticism, clearly got involved in the same fight again and again. This has been a honorable tradition of French intellectuals since Voltaire, as evidenced by the examples of Victor Hugo and of Emile Zola, among many others. However, the self-proclaimed champion on "commitment," Jean-Paul Sartre, managed to get on the wrong side of some issues which is admittedly one of the possible risks of getting involved.
The most convenient and compact French edition of much of Gide is the Editions de la Pleiade ("Journal," two vols., and two volumes of prose works and plays, totaling over 6,000 pages). Many of his individual works are in print in both popular and luxury editions. The Journals were issued in English in 1953, and the English version "Et Nunc Manet in Te" was issued as Madeleine in 1952. The Counterfeiters was published by Knopf in 1927. Many other texts by Gide are available in English.
The French texts of Malraux's works (excluding his volumes on art) are in three tomes of the Editions de la Pleiade (ca. 5000 pages); Les Conquerants, 1928 (The Conquerors, 1929); La Condition Humaine, 1933 (Man's Fate, 1934); L'espoir, 1937 (Man's Hope, 1938); are his three best-known novels, and have been re-issued in France in popular and luxury editions. A French edition of the Antimemoires (which has also been translated) contains 32 engravings by Marc Chagall. v
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