André Malraux — Novelist and Activist
The next piece in Vol,4, issue March 1938, is F.W. Dupee’s discussion of André Malraux. Dupee traces Malraux’s novels in relation to his politics, and by doing that, makes the piece a brief history of central problems in the communist movement as understood by Partisan Review: from the time of Stalin’s rise in the Soviet Union, through the Chinese war between 1927-37, which posed the Chinese CP against Chiang-Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, and in the Spanish Civil war, ongoing still in 1938. This is a function, of course, of Malraux’s own internationalism which led him to fight in revolutionary struggles, and to write a number of novels about revolutionary situations. In the process of his literary assessment, Dupee lays open Malraux’s own contradictions as novelist and activist. But Dupee invites his reader to let judgements on both vocations to be seasoned with doubt and uncertainty, as the Malraux novels investigate literary themes of psychological confusion and complication. “André Malraux” belongs to the same category, I would say, as Edmund Wilson’s piece on Flaubert (see this blog, “Flaubert’s Politics, October 7, 2016) — both good examples of the PR idea of good literary criticism. And as a good member of the PR group of editors, Dupee manages to tease out traces of Trotskyism in Malraux’s novels. read Dupee’s full text here:
Dupee shapes his argument through Malraux’s sequence of novels — The Royal Way, The Conquerors, and Man’s Fate. Malraux’s first novel, Dupee says, is about an abstraction: the ‘twins obsessions of death and action.’ It was something of an abstract blueprint for his later works. In his second work, The Conquerers, Malraux sketches persons who embody psychological conflicts within activism, so that while the characters lack literary depth, they make up for that with the contradictions of their political roles. SO it is that the central figure, Garine is both a member of the Communist Party, but is also engaged in a personal quest for heroic action: ‘Garine is an adventurer in politics.’ Garine is a figure of nihilism and his counterpart, Borodine, is a ‘professional revolutionary.’ Dupee associates this opposition between ‘traditional nihilism,’ and ’emotionally unassimilated Marxism,’ with Malraux’s ‘heritage as a revolutionary child of the petty bourgeois’. So, in The Conquerers, these two figures “Merely confront each other across an abyss of mutual incomprehension; and the novel, striving to bridge the disjunction, breaks in two”. In Man’s Fate, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1933, Dupee finds that Malraux has created a “hero who now combines in himself, as a conflict of imperatives, the death-ridden solitude of the individualist, and the fraternal drive of the collectivity.” The man acts on his own but for the group, and this opens space for Malraux to present characters who have ‘a psychological unity, and the novel has a dramatic unity to correspond.’ Dupee allows Malraux to be a ‘semi-Trotskyist’ ; though with the advent of the ‘people’s front’, Malraux retreated from his anti-Stalinism. It remains unclear if he was an actual member of the CP, though he supported it until after WWII, when he became a Gaullist minister of culture.
The last part of Dupee’s argument is that in L’Espoir, Malraux’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, he is unable to write truthfully himself. He allows some political arguments and debates to be present, but by handing those scenes to the Anarchists, Malraux “finds in the Anarchists a politically harmless equivalent for the element of dramatic conflict.” Dupee’s Malraux is as flawed as a Stalinist can be, but he is also stimulated by and drawn to the psychology of personal heroism and collective activism as they produce crises of intellect and of strategy within revolutionary struggles. And so Dupee is able to to show how the structural and literary flaws of Malraux’s novels are regulated by their political investments.
Both Dupee and Malraux have been somewhat lost to later readers, mostly because of failures attached to their reputations during their lifetimes. Dupee, a bit like William Phillips, had the label of ‘writer’s block” chalked on him, which suggested intellectual impotence. Though Malraux won the Prix Goncourt, he had a more vexed reputation: he appears to have exaggerated and lied about aspects of his heroism in warfare; and then there was the issue of his Gaullism. Of the European writers that Partisan Review contributors wrote about, it is a lot easier to admire Gide than Malraux. Mary McCarthy said that Dupee was an admirer of Gide, and Edmund Wilson; significantly, “Our interest in Gide was spurred mainly by [Dupee]. At least it was at his urging that we published Gide’s second thoughts on his trip to the Soviet Union, which I translated.” (see this blog, “But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia,” December 26, 2016)
But it is arguable that Dupee’s essay on Malraux has had a more recent effect on the fame of Malraux, if only because it was Dupee who first diagnosed Malraux as suffering from personal ‘mythomania,’ a category used again by Malraux’s biographer, Oliver Todd. In Judith Thurman’s review of Todd’s book when it was published in 2005, she has a go at both Todd and Malraux that is amusing though harsh: Todd’s biography is understood as a forensic examination of lies, exaggerations, omissions and other sins of Malraux as a public intellectual.
“But, despite his cool Anglophilic rigor and his regard for fair play—an expression that has no French translation—Todd’s portrait suffers from a tone of snide and at times vulgar contempt (“Hitler and Mussolini are not Malraux’s style”) that has the paradoxical effect of heightening Malraux’s stature, and the reader’s partiality to him, despite his flamboyant self-aggrandizing. Milton’s Satan is the same sort of character“.(c Judith Thurman, The New Yorker, May 2, 2005)
For Dupee, hope for a possible rekindling of interest in his work is implicit in Mary McCarthy’s 1983 eulogy cum review of his place in the Partisan Review Pantheon when his second book was published posthumously. The complaint about Dupee’s writer’s block became, twisted round like a mobius strip, a complaint about him writing only ‘miscellaneous’ pieces. McCarthy begins with this, and shows us the modern, even post-modern figure of DuPee:
“I have liked being miscellaneous,” Dupee roundly declares in the foreword to The King of the Cats (1965), sounding a note of defiance, of boyish stubbornness, where to the ear of a different author an apology might have been called for. “Fred” was taking his stand as a literary journalist, a flâneur, a stroller, an idle saunterer, in an age of academic criticism, of “field” specialists on the one hand and fanatic “close readers” on the other.” McCarthy also remembers that Dupee “remained the magazine’s authority on Malraux and the aesthetics of action; I remember a very long article, in several parts, I think, that he was writing on Malraux and could not seem to finish. Composition was hard for him then. There was no question with him of a “writing block,” like the one Dwight Macdonald got when the wind of radicalism went out of his sails, but the act of writing was painful, and Malraux was his most agonizing subject”.
It might be that some of Dupee’s respect for and caution about Malraux came from Dupee’s own activist aspirations. Frederick Dupee was a mid-westerner, and when he went to University at Yale, he became friends with Dwight McDonald,and joined him, after graduation in starting a journal, called…The Miscellany…. which lasted for a year, from March 1930. Dupee joined in with the Longshoreman’s Union, leafletted with them, and joined the CPUSA. But working for the Communist Party in the period of the Moscow Trials while intellectually engaged with Rahv and Macdonald at PR was bound to cause conflict, and as Alan Wald tells it, “One day at the [CP] office, he turned to his young assistant, Samuel Sillen, and said “You know, I really can’t take any more of this,”and he walked out. Having read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Dupee refused to carry out the order given him from the Stalinists to try and persuade prominent members of the “American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky” to stand down; it is said that he went first to Mary McCarthy, who burst our laughing. And his name is first on the list of editors of the 1937 relaunched Partisan Review.
In her review from 1983, McCarthy regrets the loss of Dupee’s ‘idealism,’ –his activism and the energy and excitement he was possessed by in the 1930s. But she tells an anecdote about him that is disarming: “I cannot find the idealism, as such, in his later writing. But it may be its long-term effects I notice in the growth indicators exuberantly branching and swelling in his later work. In 1968, anyway, at Columbia during the student strike, he risked some brand new dentistry to join a line of faculty drawn up to protect another group of “boyish idealists” from the forces of order and got a black eye for doing so.”