Malraux, Camus and the Nobel Prize

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    André Malraux (1901-76) was born in a bourgeois quarter of Paris, Albert Camus (1913-60) in a working-class district in the provincial Algerian town of Oran. Despite their different backgrounds they had significant emotional, intellectual and aesthetic affinities. Camus’s father was killed on the Marne in October 1914; Malraux’s father committed suicide in December 1930. Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus by asserting: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ In Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of Altenburg the motives for the suicide of the hero’s uncle, Dietrich Berger, remain mysterious. Malraux and Camus did not write about each other (though Camus planned an essay) and left no detailed accounts of their meetings, but it is possible to trace the intriguing progress and sad dissolution of their friendship.

    The young Camus first saw Malraux in June 1935 when the famous writer gave an eloquent, fiery and spellbinding anti-fascist speech in Algiers. Camus was then a student at the university. Malraux had been notoriously arrested for stealing Khmer sculpture in Cambodia, had published The Conquerors (1928) and The Royal Way (1930), and had won the Prix Goncourt for Man’s Fate (1933), his novel about the betrayal of the Communist revolution in Shanghai. In July 1935 Camus told a friend ‘how much I admire André Malraux.’

    That same year Camus asked permission for his amateur theatre to produce an adaptation of Malraux’s latest novel Days of Wrath (1935). The title comes from the medieval hymn Dies Irae about the fate of the saved and damned in the Last Judgment: ‘Days of wrath and doom impending, / Heaven and earth in ashes ending.’ In this novel and in Camus’s The Stranger the hero is tried and condemned to death. But in Malraux’s book Kassner, a Communist leader arrested by the Nazis, is released when a comrade takes on his identity. Malraux replied to Camus’s request in a one-word telegram, “Joue” (Play), and pleased the recipient by using the familiar tu form. Herbert Lottman wrote that in January 1936 Camus used ‘off-stage narration’ and ‘rapid shifting of scenes through use of spotlights’. The play was a great success and roused the enthusiastic audience to sing the Internationale.

    Malraux had a heroic career in the Spanish Civil War and World War II; Camus, suffering from chronic tuberculosis, was a non-combatant. During the Spanish war in 1938 Camus, still fascinated by the courageous adventurer, wrote to a friend that ‘Malraux prefers the epic aspects of revolution . . . and risks his life every day to justify his way of seeing.’ After attending a private screening of Malraux’s poignant film based on his Spanish war novel, Man’s Hope, Camus exclaimed, ‘I was overwhelmed. What a joy to be able to admire something wholeheartedly.’ When he finally met Malraux through their mutual friend, the writer and journalist Pascal Pia, Camus added, ‘I spent a fascinating hour with a person full of tics, feverish and disorganised, but with an amazing intelligence.’ Malraux had acquired his nervous tics flying combat missions in Spain.

    In 1941 Pia sent Malraux, then an editor at the leading French publisher Gallimard, the typescripts of Camus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Malraux enthusiastically praised the powerful ideas and persuasive technique: ‘I read L’Etranger first. The theme is very clear. . . . [It] is obviously something important. The strength and simplicity of the means, which end up forcing the reader to accept the character’s point of view, are all the more remarkable given that the fate of the book depends on how convincing this character is. And what Camus has to say, what he has to convince us about, is not insubstantial.’ Malraux added that Sisyphus is ‘remarkable, and what he has to say gets through, which is not very easy. The book completely illuminates the novel.’ Camus gratefully responded, ‘You are among those whose approval I sought. . . . If my manuscripts bring me nothing but the pleasure and sympathy of some minds I love and admire, it will be quite enough.’

    Malraux was pleased to see two favourable references to himself in Sisyphus. Camus placed Malraux with Dostoyevsky as a novelist-philosopher and also stated, in his discussion of Kafka, that ‘Malraux’s thought . . . is always bracing’. Camus’s two books, published in 1942, immediately established his reputation and were also a great coup for Gallimard. But Malraux had considerable perspicacity to recognise their merit. In three notorious examples of modern literary blindness, André Gide had rejected Proust’s Swann’s Way, T.S. Eliot would reject Orwell’s Animal Farm and Elio Vittorini would reject Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

    The two authors had their first social meeting at the Gallimards’ Parisian flat early in 1944. Lottman reported that they ‘seemed to take to each other at once. They left the Gallimards together’ and Camus planned to walk Malraux home. Instead, they changed direction, turned toward Camus’s house and continued to converse until the German curfew drove them home. Though Malraux was a compulsive talker, Camus managed to get a word in and later said they had had a lively rapport.

    Two incidents that took place during the Nazi occupation in 1944 illuminate their friendship. While editing the clandestine newspaper Combat, Camus was also active in the Resistance. Malraux found him a trustworthy and dependable comrade. Curtis Cate wrote that Malraux turned to Camus for urgent help when ‘he needed a hide-out for an English major [George Hiller] he had brought with him and who was arranging to have weapons parachuted to the maquisards in the Dordogne.’ Camus explained that he had no room in his flat and was closely watched by the Gestapo, but he was willing to take the risk and managed to hide the major with a friend.

    In a freak accident in November Josette Clotis, Malraux’s common-law wife and mother of his two sons, fell under a train and was killed. It is significant that on the same day Malraux stopped in to see Camus, whom he could count on for human warmth and sympathy. In a photo taken in the Combat office, Camus—thin, frail and sickly—wears a shabby dark shirt, black tie and baggy trousers. Leaning his right arm on a table and holding a cigarette in his bunched left fingers, he stares shyly at Malraux with half-open mouth. The swaggering Malraux—wearing a military beret and uniform with officer’s epaulettes—puts one hand in his pocket and lifts ahabitual cigarette to his lips. With tilted head and eyes swiveled to the right, he looks sideways at Camus. In this scene, the warrior clearly dominates the civilian. As Malraux observed, ‘Intellectuals are like women, soldiers make them dream.’

    Yet surprisingly, at the end of 1944, Malraux began to harshly criticize Camus’ ideas. Conversing with a friend, Jean Lacouture noted, Malraux ‘jibed against left-wing intellectuals . . . of the Café de Flore (which for him, at this time, meant Albert Camus).’

    Their next meeting, arranged by Arthur Koestler in the spring of 1947, was unfortunate. Koestler recalled that Camus did not need ‘much persuading to meet Malraux.’ Lacouture reported: ‘They started talking. “The proletariat . . .” Camus began. “The proletariat? What’s that,” interrupted Malraux. “I can’t have people throwing words like that around without defining them. . .” Camus became impatient and got bogged down in his definition. . . . It was a disaster—and the effects lasted a long time.’ In the late 1940s Malraux quarrelled bitterly with Sartre and insisted that Gallimard stop publishing Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes. When the publisher asked Camus if it would be better to keep Malraux or Sartre, Camus remained loyal to the older writer and advised him to keep Malraux.

    By the mid-1950s it was obvious that the two authors expressed similar themes. Denis Boak observed that Malraux had popularised the concepts of destin, fatalité and angoisse long before Camus, who was ‘undoubtedly greatly indebted to him for their terminology . . . . The real similarity between Malraux and Camus lies in their [belief in] the apparent futility of a world without transcendence . . . and it is clear that Malraux and his formulation of the ‘absurd’ played a great part in Camus’s early development.’ Carl Viggiani also noted their portrayal of ‘heroism, the conqueror, revolt and revolution, solidarity, the rectificatory function of art, the writer as witness’.

    But the two friends inevitably had serious political disagreements. Malraux, a fellow traveller, justified Stalin’s Purge Trials and the slaughter of his Anarchist allies in Spain as necessary measures in the fight against fascism.

    Camus, who joined and then left the Communist Party in the 1930s, was more concerned with moral standards and condemned Malraux’s political expediency. Malraux opposed French colonialism in Algeria; Camus was loyal to the cause of the French settlers in his native country. In Antimemoirs Malraux said Russia would be France’s principal enemy in the Cold War; Camus thought France’s main enemy would be America. Malraux joined de Gaulle’s Right-wing government as Minister of Cultural Affairs; Camus disliked de Gaulle, rejected organised politics and remained loyal to the Left. Their conflicts sowed the later seeds of discord.

    The Nobel Prize committee refused to honour Malraux, who was closely connected to de Gaulle, and resented the French government’s attempt to influence their decision. Malraux was envious and furious, Camus modest and generous, when Camus won the Nobel in October 1957. The forty- three-year-old Camus (the second youngest winner after Rudyard Kipling) had been suffering from writer’s block and felt, in mid-career, that most of his work was still unfinished. When informed that he’d been awarded the Nobel he repeatedly said, ‘I wish Malraux had got the prize. He deserved it more than I did,’ and insisted that Malraux ‘would have won it if it wasn’t for his politics.’ The older author appreciated Camus’s respectful remarks and told him, ‘your public statements do honor to us both.’ Camus reaffirmed that Malraux ‘has always been my master,’ but Malraux’s daughter found ‘it was best not to mention the Nobel Prize in the vicinity of her father.’ Camus praised his main rival. By contrast Hemingway, who won the Nobel in 1954, stated with false modesty that minor writers with no hope of winning—Bernard Berenson, Carl Sandburg and Isak Dinesen—deserved the award. If the Nobel committee had waited a few more years to give the prize to Camus, he would not have been alive to receive it.

    Though Malraux and Camus took opposite sides in the Algerian struggle for independence, in 1958 they agreed on humanitarian efforts. Malraux told Camus, who opposed capital punishment, that he had personally given de Gaulle Camus’s appeal to commute death sentences. Malraux tried in vain to appoint Camus as de Gaulle’s ‘permanent ambassador of the French conscience in Algiers.’ In response to accusations of torture by the French  army, Malraux ‘offered to send France’s three Nobel Prize laureates— François Mauriac, Roger Martin du Gard and Camus—to conduct an investigation in Algeria.’ But Camus was unresponsive and this idealistic plan also failed.

    In a photo of 1959, at the opening of Camus’s theatrical adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, both men wear dapper suits and are more evenly matched than in 1944. Camus, in profile, now has a more sceptical look. Malraux, head bent reflectively and right forefinger touching his thin nose, seems to be holding forth. But this was their last meeting.

    At 2 P.M. on January 4, 1960 Michel Gallimard, driving his fast and expensive Facel Vega at 90 miles per hour, had a tyre blowout or broken axle and lost control of the car. He crashed into a tree near Sens, broke up the car and instantly killed his passenger, Camus. (Malraux had been a prisoner in Sens, 75 miles southeast of Paris, in World War II.) Malraux, then cultural minister, ordered his chef de cabinet to go to the scene of the accident and take charge in the name of the government. Malraux also told him that Camus had ‘refused all religious ceremony, so if anyone suggests any kind of ritual, such as blessing of the body, you must oppose it.’ He then made an appropriately high-minded pronouncement: ‘For over twenty years the work of Albert Camus was inseparable from the obsession with justice. We salute one of those through whom France remains present in the hearts of men.’ On the very same day Malraux had written to Camus that the government had given his troupe of actors (from which he recruited several stunning lovers) their own theatre. A year later, in May 1961, Malraux’s two sons were also killed in a fatal car crash.

    Camus’s early death at the peak of his fame sanctified him while Malraux, closely associated with de Gaulle, was demonized by the Left. Many years later in an interview of 1975, the year before his death, Malraux took a parting shot and denigrated Camus’s work. He disliked the allegory in The Plague, said he found the novel ‘so dull that he finished reading it only out of a feeling of obligation,’ and dismissed Camus as an ‘inferior writer and really a “man of the theatre.” ’ Despite their thematic similarities and Camus’s sincere tributes, Malraux felt Camus was both different from and inferior to himself, and rejected the younger writer as his intellectual disciple and heir. Malraux had been generous to the provincial, unknown Camus, but resented him when he won the Nobel Prize and became a formidable rival. Intensely competitive to the end, Malraux revised his favourable view of Camus to assert his superiority and strengthen his own reputation.


    Jeffrey Meyers published a chapter on Malraux in A Fever at the Core, chapters on Camus in Painting and the Novel and Homosexuality and Literature, and several articles on each of them. He brought out Rob eal: Correspondence with Alex Colville in 2016.