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The Most Important 20th Century Novel

November 16, 2012

“What do I care about what matters only to me?”                                                  Andre Malraux

This blub from Penguin’s 1970 paperback edition of Anti-Memoirs shows how even a staid British publisher got breathless over “the French Hemingway…”

“Andre Malraux is one of the most extraordinary men alive. After agitating for revolution in China and Annam in the 1920s, he commanded the Republican air force in the Spanish Civil War and joined the French Resistance in the Second World War. At times an archaeologist, an orator, a philosopher of art and distinguished author (whose novel La Condition Humaine has entered European consciousness), he has crowned a glittering career with his years as Minister of Culture in the French government.”

Part of what sets fire to the blurb is… Annan was the French protectorate name for central Vietnam, and this copy is being written in 1970, two years after the Tet Offensive, as the despised American War there was winding down. The copywriter cheers “the extraordinary man” for having abetted the future first.

Malraux, in his twenties, had come among Southeast Asians on a money-making mission to pilfer forgotten Cambodian temple statuary from the jungle-hell grown up along the ancient Royal Way. The government caught him at it. He also championed the earliest incarnation of the communist insurgency there which, in the second half of the century, after twenty years of fighting, ultimately broke French will and then America’s heart.

It was not revolutionary politics or Marxist philosophy or praxis (the action) which magnetized Malraux, who even as a young man was a mythomaniac: a legend in his own mind. No, what moved and excited his masculine courage was the possibility of restoring human dignity to a people utterly debased by French colonial rule.

Malraux never did become a communist. First of all, as a famous intellectual, he publicly denied the end justifies the means. But, more urgently, for a great artist this political conversion would amount to suicide. The arts are “the canary in the coal mine” of human freedom. Communism begins by killing the arts, especially the verbal ones, since it lives off a systematically falsified conscience. Malraux’s own fiction proves even genius cannot finesse this trap.

In his 1936 short novel, Days of Wrath, when Malraux tries to embrace communist solidarity in the face of fascist torture, his brilliance vanishes; and the book was immediately put aside as a weak embarrassment. Even so, alone among the century’s major political authors — George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Victor Serge, Ayn Rand — Malraux came closest to celebrating what the others desperately warned us against.

Malraux’s first novel, 1928’s The Conquerors, and 1934’s Man’s Fate, are both set among the communists at war with the Kuomintang in Twenties China. At this historical moment, what is at stake is everything — historically, man’s fate — since, nearly a century ago, the rise of a communist China along side Soviet Russia would seem to  create an irreversible momentum toward socialization of the planet.

By serving as a postwar bureaucrat in General de Gaulle’s conservative government, Malraux dismayed his many admirers on the Left, but Man’s Fate “entered European consciousness.”  What novels have been absorbed into the American psyche? Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Maltese Falcon, Gone With The Wind, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451?

Man’s Fate, when read today, still feels new and exciting. Starting abruptly on the night before the 1927 communist insurrection in Shanghai, a young Chinese terrorist is about to stab a sleeping arms merchant. Nothing from then on seems anything less than fresh; this is not an historical novel; it is an urgent narrative Present which has never stopped happening right now. Except, we know what the characters do not. The insurrection will fail.

Expect Thirties Modernist international film noir atmospherics — Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang ought to have brought Man’s Fate to the screen — characters who take the reader’s interest by storm (especially the utterly unique Baron de Clappique who, like Sherlock Holmes or Falstaff, walks out of the story and into real life), anguish and hope and love, women’s rights, sexuality, drugs, violent actions set loose among people who seem more accessible in the 21st century than they did when the novel first came out. And, finally, there is Malraux’s world-famous climax, historically accurate, which will appall and astound and harrow your soul with wonder.

Genius gets ahead of our contemporary interests, it lasts at a distance, waiting for us to catch up. This work of genius is a must-read in Obama’s second term. Man’s Fate is the most important novel of the 20th century.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Emmett Grayson permalink
    November 17, 2012 7:15 PM

    Thanks for more reading recommendations, sir.

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