Man's Fate is the 1933 existential war novel written by French author Andre Malraux. Set during the onset of the Second Chinese Revolution, the story chronicles a pivotal 22-day event in 1927 in which a Communist uprising seeks, but ultimately fa...
Man's Fate (French: La condition humaine, "The Human Condition") is a 1933 novel written by André Malraux. It was translated into English twice, both translations appearing in 1934, one by Haakon Chevalier under the title Man's Fate, published by Harrison Smith & Robert Haas in New York and republished by Random House as part of their Modern Library from 1936 on, and the other by Alastair MacDonald under the title Storm in Shanghai, published by Methuen in London and republished, still by Methuen, in 1948 as Man's Estate, to become a Penguin pocket in 1961. Currently the Chevalier translation is the only one still in regular print. The novel is about the failed communist insurrection in Shanghai in 1927, and the existential quandaries facing a diverse group of people associated with the revolution. Along with Les Conquérants (1928 – "The Conquerors") and La Voie Royale (1930 – "The Royal Way"), it forms a trilogy on revolution in Asia.
In 1958 Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition, one of her central theoretical works, whose English name is identical to the French title of Malraux's book; to avoid confusion, Arendt’s book was translated in French first as Condition de l’homme moderne (The Condition of the Modern Man), then as L'Humaine condition.
Georges André Malraux DSO (3 November 1901 – 23 November 1976) was a French novelist, art theorist, and Minister of Cultural Affairs. Malraux's novel La Condition Humaine (Man's Fate) (1933) won the Prix Goncourt. He was appointed by President Charles de Gaulle as Minister of Information (1945–46) and subsequently as France's first Minister of Cultural Affairs during de Gaulle's presidency (1959–1969).
By Christopher Hitchens
ISAIAH BERLIN once described someone whom I will not name as "that very rare thing: a perfect charlatan." Admit that this ostensibly lethal criticism contains a note of reluctant admiration, and you have the tone of Olivier Todd's newest biography, "Malraux: A Life" (which has been translated from the French by Joseph West). André Malraux was one of the most prolific self-inventors of the 20th century, and it is "the Malrucian legend," as much as the life itself, that is Todd's subject.
This is perhaps a pity, since it causes Todd to devote more space to the succeeding stages of Malraux's dazzling metamorphoses -- from marginal arriviste to major cultural impresario of Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic -- than to the novels by which he is chiefly remembered. One might make that "the novel": "La Condition Humaine," or "Man's Fate." Published in
1933, it did for fiction what Harold Isaacs's "Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution" did for scholarship. It pointed up the increasing weight of Asia in world affairs; it described epic moments of suffering and upheaval, in Shanghai especially (it was nearly filmed by Sergei Eisenstein); and it demonstrated a huge respect for Communism and for Communists while simultaneously evoking the tragedy of a revolution betrayed by Moscow. Somewhat lushly Orientalist in its manner, the novel was ridiculed for its affectation by Vladimir Nabokov and hailed as prescient by Arthur Koestler.
For Todd, the author of several works, including a biography of Camus, all this is of less importance than the knowledge that Malraux had spent almost no time in China itself. Toward the end of this book, he hits on a near-perfect Left Bank encapsulation for his subject. Malraux was, we learn, "autonomous in relation to facts." That is to phrase it mildly. One of the characters in Flaubert's "Sentimental Education" is described as being so corrupt that he would happily have paid for the pleasure of selling himself. Malraux was such a fantasist that he would have paid handsomely for a forged narrative that was designed to deceive himself. He invented a relationship with Mao. He exaggerated his role in the Spanish Civil War. He fabricated a glorious past in the French Resistance.
Like all supreme con artists, he did possess the knack of being in the right place at the right time, and of scraping acquaintance with the great. As I turned the pages, I was put in mind of a Gallic version of Harry Flashman: fast-talking and protean, covered with unearned glory and full of embellished traveler's tales from many plundered colonies. (Malraux preferred to imagine himself as T. E. Lawrence. Either analogy would be imperfect in one respect: Malraux was a heterosexual but seems often to have preferred food and drink to sex.)
He was born in 1901 in Paris, the son of a small-time stockbroker. His first overseas adventure was the one that made him notorious: an expedition in 1923 to French-ruled Cambodia, during which he amputated priceless bits of sculpture and statuary from some ancient temples. Arrested and charged for this, he managed to induce quite a number of Parisian intellectuals and aesthetes, including André Gide and André Maurois, to take up his case as if it were an injustice being committed by the colonial authorities. Going even further than his fellow Andrés on behalf of another André, the Surrealist André Breton added, with magnificent condescension to the Cambodians, "Who in their homeland really cares about the preservation of these works of art?" The price for all this chutzpah was that Malraux then had to take up the cause of the colonial indigenes as if it really mattered to him. Moving to Saigon in the mid-1920's, he helped to produce a troublemaking newspaper, L'Indochine, which ventilated the many complaints of the Vietnamese about forced labor, land expropriation and police brutality.
It was at this point, Todd dryly notes, that Malraux began to speak of his admiration for Gabriele D'Annunzio. As a model for emulation, this freebooting soldier and aviator might not seem so obvious. His freelance attack on Fiume at the end of World War I was the inspiration for the thuggish Mussolini and his later march on Rome. Why or how should it have appealed to the sensitive Malraux, with his delicate features and his nervous facial tic -- diagnosed by Todd as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome? But the later development of the Malraux myth makes it clear that D'Annunzio was in fact the near-perfect emblem for his vicariousness and ambition. Above all, he wished to be a hero, and the price in bombast and pretension and attitude-striking was one that he thought well worth paying. D'Annunzio was essentially a Nietzschean rhetorician who tried to dissolve the difference between word and deed. Malraux was to become a writer of fiction, and of quasi-fictional memoirs that he hoped would be taken literally.
One of those who stood aside from this division -- Raymond Aron -- regarded himself as prose and Malraux as poetry. In the meltdown and ferment of culture and civilization that succeeded the First World War, how banal it must have seemed to favor mere liberal democracy. But Aron's later judgment of Malraux ("one third genius, one third false, one third incomprehensible") would be remarkably useful in evaluating the novels with which Malraux made his reputation. These adaptations of his Asian travels, "Les Conquérants" (1928), "La Voie Royale" (1930) and "La Condition Humaine," amounted to a trilogy on the Chinese revolution. In tone, they swung awkwardly between a sort of vulgar Marxism and a Bonapartist invocation of la gloire. Indeed, Malraux never lost his admiration for Napoleon, and produced a potboiling biography of him at the same time.
By this stage, Malraux had been compelled to confront the figure of Trotsky, who was a special synthesis of the cosmopolitan intellectual, man of action and wielder of power. His expulsion from Stalin's Soviet Union in the late 20's had been partly the result of a furious debate on the future of the Chinese revolution. (The first edition of Isaacs's "Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution" actually bore Trotsky's preface.) Todd devotes a brief chapter to Malraux's fascination with this epic figure. As ever, the Frenchman was torn between an admiration for a historic personality and a queasy consciousness that he himself had debts to pay and credit to keep in the Parisian leftist milieu. He did not waste all that much time in making up his mind. After an absurd, melodramatic proposal to mount a rescue team of intellectuals to snatch Trotsky from his place of exile in Alma-Ata, Malraux simmered down a bit and later read Trotsky's rather flattering critique of "Les Conquérants" in La Nouvelle Revue Française. When Trotsky's long exile wanderings brought him through France in the
1930's, Malraux went to call upon him and the two men discussed everything from Céline to cinema. But by then, the cultural ascendancy of the French Communist Party was making life distinctly tough for dissenters on the left, and Malraux seems to have decided that the old Bolshevik was just another loser. He began to pitch his tent with that most tiresome of the intellectual factions of the 1930's: the regulars at international conferences of writers and scholars.
Trotsky's own later verdict on this exhibition -- "Malraux is organically incapable of moral independence; he was born biddable" -- now appears quite restrained. Many Western intellectuals had to find their way through illusions about 1917, and make their own painful accommodations with the awful truths they discovered about Stalin. Malraux, who knew about the persecution and murder of Stalin's opponents well before most people had learned the facts, made a conscious decision to join what he must have thought was the winning side. Nothing else can explain his appalling, flatulent verbiage about the heroic continuity of 1789 and 1917, or his dogged attendance at sham events that were openly and cynically controlled by the Soviet cultural commissars.
But his chief excuse for this behavior became, paradoxically, his finest hour. General Franco's invasion of Republican Spain, as the surrogate of the Axis powers, provided our hero with the opportunity to become a sort of impresario of the left. Annexing some of the prestige of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and trading on a very slight experience as an airman himself, Malraux flamboyantly decided to provide the Spanish Republic with air cover.
Todd is bent on puncturing most of the balloons that Malraux sent aloft in his long and boastful career, but even he cannot forbear to applaud once or twice in this account. Of course Malraux's flying circus was made up of aerial coffins, frequently piloted by unscrupulous mercenaries or crazed idealists. Of course Malraux himself claimed to have been on expeditions where he never flew, and to have sustained an honorable combat wound that was actually the result of an ignominious crash on takeoff. Mais que voulez-vous? A bit of dash, and an element of resistance, were added to the desperate struggle for the defense of Madrid. Yet Malraux was not quite the French Hemingway. He seconded all the falsehoods of Stalinism in Spain and excused all of its crimes, and went back to Paris to try to persuade André Gide to bury or postpone his classic of anti-Soviet disillusionment: "Retour de l'URSS." Todd himself, here, is somewhat hard to follow. He introduces the later French Resistance hero Jean Moulin as if we should already know who he was and what he was to become (which we doubtless should, but still), and he makes a confusion between the poet John Cornford and the philosopher Maurice Cornforth that, even given French disdain for the mere empiricism of British Marxists, shakes one's confidence in his grasp of the subject.
Malraux wrote, in "La Voie Royale," that "every adventurer is born a mythomaniac." This could serve as a decoding of his next phase: the Nazi occupation of France. Most of the story is one long profile in prudence. Until well into 1944, he rebuffed all efforts to recruit him into the Resistance. Once again seeing a turn in the tide, he signed up just before the Allied landings in Normandy. His hero Napoleon used to ask, of any new general, "Is he lucky?" Malraux had the luck of the devil. He made some useful friends in British intelligence and managed briefly to cut a figure during the siege of Strasbourg. Every single claim he subsequently made can be demonstrated as false by Todd, but there was a general need to pretend that the Resistance had been more epic than it really was. At the close of hostilities, Malraux was even approached by de Gaulle, who had heard garbled accounts of his record, and from then on Malraux was able to stick like a limpet to an authentic man of destiny.
It deserves to be said that he stuck through thick and thin, remaining at the general's side even during the years of political exile. He became the public intellectual of the R.P.F. (Rassemblement du Peuple Français), the slightly shady populist projection of the Gaullist personality. His genius for publicity, and for the making of windy rhetorical presentations, served him well. When de Gaulle took power again in 1958, Malraux at first took charge of state broadcasting and information (in which capacity he told a number of cheerful lies about the collapsing French position in Algeria). But it wasn't long before he found himself in the position of inventing a Ministry of Culture for an otherwise rather prosaic government.
At this point, and given a certain recent froideur on the international front, some American readers may be thinking of Malraux as a typical French combination of pseudo-intellectual and valet du pouvoir. So it's of interest to note that he was always drawn to the United States. At the outbreak of World War II he had prophesied that America would be the decisive country in ending the conflict, and he was fond of saying that the United States was the first nation to rise to international pre-eminence without having sought the role. As minister of culture, he made tremendous overtures to the newly elected Kennedy administration, charming the former Miss Bouvier in particular and arranging to have the "Mona Lisa" brought for a special showing in Washington.
ALL his life, he was able to parlay one meeting or acquaintance into another, and to stay one jump ahead of his reputation. This, combined with his fascination for the superman, allowed him to bring off the following coup. As de Gaulle's minister, he was able to visit China in
1965 and to persuade the rather baffled Chinese authorities to grant him an audience with Mao. Todd's account of the interview is by turns hilarious -- Malraux claimed to have led "peasant units" during the war against Germany -- and revolting: Malraux's abject sycophancy tired even the ailing despot. The meeting was brief and platitudinous, but in later accounts, including his gloriously mendacious "Antimémoires," Malraux turned it into a major summit of great minds. In consequence, and also because he had been seen so often with the Kennedys, he was invited to brief Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger before they set off on their visit to Beijing. Malraux must have known he was on very thin ice here, and could have been exposed as an impostor at any moment, but he carried off the bluff with considerable aplomb. It is even possible that by this stage he had come to believe his own story.
Malraux's favorite symbol was the cat, and he would often inscribe his letters with an image of a feline. Todd admirably resists the temptation to make a cliché out of this metaphor, but I shall not. The man really did have nine lives, and he almost always landed on his feet. The upheaval in Paris in 1968, with which he may have felt a small sympathy, nonetheless allowed him to combat the street theater of the student revolutionaries with some histrionic gestures of his own, and he survived the eclipse of his hero de Gaulle with some credit still left.
The end was not glorious. Malraux's facial tic was accompanied by a black dog of depression, and he became dependent first on alcohol and then on a succession of medications. His family life deteriorated horribly. When the end came, in November 1976, two sprays of red flowers were delivered to the cemetery. One was from the French Communist Party, which he had fawned upon in the 1930's and turned upon in the 1940's. The other was from the restaurant Lasserre: grand scene of many of his dinner-table revolutions. On his bedside table, after his death, it was found that he had scrawled the words: "It should have been otherwise." A more apt, if lenient, epitaph might be located in "La Condition Humaine": "Ce n'était ni vrai ni faux, c'était vécu." "It was neither true nor false, but what was experienced."
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor at New School University. His most recent book is "Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays."
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