André Malraux: a French cultural phenomenon

André Malraux did not pass his bac, yet went on to become one of the most important cultural figures in French history, writes Samantha David

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André Malraux was born at the dawn of the 20th century (1901), left school at 17 without passing his bac, and never enrolled for any further education. Despite this he became one of France’s most respected intellectuals; a famous author, an explorer, and a leading politician. His achievements were so legion that in 1996, twenty years after his death in 1976, his ashes were transferred to the Panthéon in honour of his legacy.

From childhood he was withdrawn and painfully shy, suffering from a variety of tics which some biographers have taken to indicate that he had Tourette Syndrome. He had a vast appetite for all types of adventure however, and hero-worshiped figures such as Lawrence of Arabia, Victor Hugo and Michelangelo; men who excelled in a variety of ways, who were intellectuals as well as adventurers.

So when he dropped out of school, he continued reading, watching films, going to plays, concerts and exhibitions, constantly expanding his knowledge of contemporary culture. Alone, he studied modern and classical art, visited museums and frequented arts’ haunts. He got a job with a publisher and in 1920 he published his first book, Lunes en Papier.

He also devoured the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, transfixed by Neitzsche’s theory that the world is in continuous turmoil. He particularly aspired to be an ‘Übermensch’ – a heroic, exalted man who created great works of art and whose will alone would allow him to triumph over anything.

In 1921 he went to Florence and Venice with translator and writer Clara Goldschmidt, whom he married upon their return to France. Funded by Clara’s substantial inherited income, they then travelled to Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Tunisia and Sicily.

In 1923, his wife’s fortune was lost after a series of bad investments, and his travels came to a temporary end. Broke and grounded, Malraux gazed enviously at one of his favourite role models; Lawrence of Arabia (Colonel TE Lawrence).

His reputation in France was, and still is, that of a trouble-making guerrilla who wreaked havoc in Syria during the Arab Revolt. But Malraux saw him as an ‘Übermensch’; an intellectual, romantic, enigmatic warrior and hero. Lawrence had made his name excavating the ruins of Carchemish in the Aleppo Valley in Syria: Malraux would go to Cambodia.

So he and Clara went off to explore ruins in what was then the French Protectorate of Cambodia. They plunged into the jungle seeking archaeological artefacts to sell to European art collectors and museums but upon their return Malraux was arrested by the Cambodian police for removing a bas-relief from the Banteay Srei temple.

Clara worked tirelessly for his release, but he remained in prison until 1924, and the experience resulted in a lifelong commitment to anti-colonialism.

Finally back in France, he sold off a batch of paintings in order to fund another journey with Clara to Singapore, Saigon and Bangkok. In 1925, he returned to France and founded L’Indochine, a publication championing Vietnamese independence, wrote La Voie Royale based on his Cambodian experiences, and followed that with ’La Condition Humaine

He worked as the artistic director at Editions Gallimard, published several more novels set abroad and continued travelling: Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, Arabia, Persia, Japan, the US, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Yemen and Russia.
He often implied that he had been to China during the 20s and had had a hand in fomenting the uprising in 1927 which led to civil war, but in fact visited the country for the first time in 1931.

His daughter Florence was born in 1933, but his marriage with Clara was faltering. He started an affair with arguably the most famous female author in Paris at that time, Josette Clotis, and by 1936 he and Clara had formally separated.

Malraux declared that he had only married Clara for her money, and for her part, Clara retorted that he was so withdrawn and aloof that despite their marriage she felt she’d never known him.

Life back in France

In 1936 and 1937, Malraux went to Spain, joined the forces fighting the fascist regime, and used his experiences in his novel L’Espoir, which was made into a film in 1938. He joined up at the outbreak of the Second World War, and was almost immediately taken prisoner in France and sent to work on a French farm.

Aided by his half-brother Roland, he managed to escape from the farm in 1940, the same year that Josette Clotis gave birth to his son Pierre-Gauthier. As André Malraux was still married, Roland officially recognised the child so that he could be given the name Malraux.

Back in the free zone, André Malraux settled in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (PACA) with Josette and the baby. They moved to Corrèze (Limousin) in 1943, where their second son Vincent, was born and at the end of March 1944, after much prevarication and shilly-shallying, he joined the French Resistance.

He was not a fighter. Even in Spain he had never learned to shoot straight, and many in the Resistance agreed with the Spanish officer who declared he should either be disciplined, sent home or shot. His stories were exaggerated; his exploits vainglorious; his contribution mainly exaggeration, misinformation and self-glorification.

In late 1944, Josette died in an accident at a train station, but her death does not appear to have knocked him far off course. He continued producing fiction, including many tales of his own derring-do during the war, claiming for example to have been in the Resistance since 1940.

In 1945, he was awarded a DSO along with a handsome collection of French decorations, and then he moved in with pianist Madeleine Malraux, his half-brother Roland’s widow, her son Alain (i.e. his nephew) and his own two sons by Josette. (As a member of the Resistance, Roland had been arrested by the Gestapo and died only two months previously in Germany.) Clara and her daughter were still living in Paris. Malraux finally divorced her in 1947 and married Madeleine the following year.

After the war, Malraux attached himself to General de Gaulle, organising propaganda until 1953 when De Gaulle fell out of power. Malraux then kept a low political profile, travelling to Greece, Egypt, Iran, New York, Italy and Switzerland.

In 1958, when De Gaulle came back to power, he took up the post of Minister of Information and Culture, and this was when he really made his mark on France, according to Pierre Coureux, President of the association Amitiés Internationales André Malraux. “He used his time to nurture all the arts in France. He moved against torture in Algeria, against colonialism, against repression and also supported post war cultural development.”

Malraux never lost his passion for artists and the arts, and saw them as essential in the rebuilding of France; the only way to restore national identity and pride. “He made ideas important, thinking and creating. He wanted to reform life, put humanist values at the centre of post-war life in France.”

He initiated the Maisons de la Culture, across the country, centres which contain libraries, exhibition and performance spaces, as well as teaching facilities with the idea that culture should be within everyone’s grasp. “Culture was his religion,” says Pierre Coureux. “He was given a tiny budget but he managed to reconstruct France’s cultural life, make people proud of their country.”

The Loi Malraux (1962) identified historic city centres and protected them from redevelopment. It also introduced tax breaks to financially help reconstruction of these city centres, which is perhaps one reason why today tourists love France and the beautiful architectural heritage which makes so many of its towns tourist-magnets.

Malraux was also one of the first politicians to understand that cultural exchange is a powerful political and diplomatic tool.

Lending French artworks to other countries demonstrates the breadth and richness of French culture; a lesson that President Macron is still putting into action with his loan of the Bayeux Tapestries to the UK.

The speech that gave France back its pride

André Malraux is particularly remembered for the speech he gave when resistance fighter Jean Moulin’s remains were moved to the Panthéon in 1964. It centred on De Gaulle’s achievement in keeping France together during the Nazi occupation, and in reconstructing France after the Liberation. It also lauded the role of the Resistance during the war.

Jean Moulin, he said, was the man who united the disparate groups into a cohesive whole. If it was easy for the Resistance to blow up a bridge, it was also easy for the Nazis to repair it, he explained. But bit by bit the Resistance realised that once the groups were working together, it was just as easy to blow up 200 bridges, and much more difficult for the Nazis to repair them all at once. And that was Jean Moulin’s role; uniting the efforts of individual groups.

Ignoring the various politics of each regional group or each leader was vital to the effort. Personal beliefs had to be sublimated to the overarching aim of France’s survival. That sublimation of the self for the good of the country, he said, was at the heart of ‘Gaullisme’. He then went on to describe in the most emotional terms Jean Moulin’s patriotism, his knowledge of precisely what awaited those arrested by the Gestapo, and his eventual arrest and gruesome torture.

Malraux used all his literary skills to paint an emotional picture of Jean Moulin as the head of the French Resistance, which was slightly overblown.

He then conjured up a heart-warming, eye-glistening image of legions of loyal French citizens working faithfully for the Resistance, despite the threat of Nazi atrocities, living in the shadows, risking everything for the sake of the country, completely glossing over the multiple instances of French collaboration and betrayal. In 1964, nobody was interested in looking at history through a clear lens.

He used the speech to re-write French history, spin it into a glorious tale of derring-do, massive courage, and victory wrested from the hands of the devil by French peasants and beggars armed with bazookas. The speech was rapturously received, giving as it did, pride back to the French people, many of whom were secretly all too aware of the truth. But here was a government Minister glorifying the French response to the Occupation.

It took many years before France was able to look at its history more clearly and the country is still coming to terms with its role in the Second World War.

Malraux saved Sarlat but left locals stone-faced

In a new series featuring rural time travel, Jane Hanks looks at key events in the history of one of Dordogne’s most popular spots

Over two million tourists visit Sarlat, Dordogne every year to enjoy the warm stone of its medieval buildings. It has the highest concentration of classified buildings per square metre of any town in Europe.

However, this would not have been possible without the Loi Malraux passed in 1962, which was designed to preserve France’s architectural heritage at a time when town centres throughout the country were falling into disrepair and demolition and rebuilding was the fashion.

Sarlat was the inspiration for these regulations that would change many of France’s historic centres. However, the transformation was difficult for its residents at the time, who were forced to undergo building works whether they wanted them or not.

Culture Minister André Malraux was already aware of the exceptional quality of buildings in Sarlat, and 42 had already been classed as historic monuments, before his law came in.

However, at that time, the ancient buildings were in disrepair. Hardly any had bathrooms or toilets and few had running water. The heavy stone lauze-tiled roofs were damaged and extremely dangerous and many windows had been blocked up for tax purposes.

The population, around 1,300, was nearly twice today’s figure. Malraux said his new law had two aims: “to conserve our architectural heritage and improve living and working conditions.”

It was not just the façades that were to be upgraded, but also the streets themselves and the buildings’ interiors.

Standards used were those applied to new council houses, HLMs, which meant each household was to have a bathroom, electricity and running water.

A third of the cost of the restoration was paid by the state and owners could get a low-cost loan at 5% over 20 to 30 years for the rest. Work in Sarlat began in 1964, at around the same time as the law was also applied to Lyon, Avignon, Troyes and Le Marais in Paris.

However, not everyone was happy. Many of those living in the town centre were elderly and their families had lived there for generations. They had to move out during the works and not all of them returned, not adjusting to the change even though rentals were kept at the council housing rates of the time.

In a TV documentary, one elderly resident was asked whether she would be happy to have a bathroom at last: “Ah, we don’t need a bathroom. We’re too old. We won’t know how to use it. We don’t understand what it is.”

Another man, whose father and grandfather had lived there before him, was not at all pleased he had to move out during the works: “I want to stay in my home”, he said.

Some people complained they were not kept informed properly, but the works were obligatory and if you lived in an area designated as a secteur sauvegardé, you were required as an owner to restore your building. Not everyone could afford it and some had to leave for good.

It was an enormous upheaval as buildings were restored, and streets repaved after lighting was installed.

In the first five to six years work on 40 buildings was completed, and the restoration project continued into the early 1970s. Social life was boosted with the creation of lodgings, shops and public spaces and tourism increased as word spread about the new found beauty of Sarlat (pictured today, inset).