Andre Malraux was the quintessential adventurer-intellectual of the between the World War years.  Man’s Hope was on 1960s high school reading lists; Man’s Fate followed it for some, exploring the far reaches of the world they had come into, along with their own adventurer identities.  The Royal Way, in which Malraux captured his own illicit adventureering in Cambodia for forbidden archaeological artifacts, never quite got the attention of the other two –lacking a war– but was another manifestation of his Big-Ideas Big-Adventure interests.  It turns out that his model of how to be a man was T. E. Lawrence, the WW I British fighter-intellectual in the Levant.

In The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, Malraux’s last fictional work, he extends his inquiry and obsession into the nature of man, the struggle between individualism and fraternity,  and “that crucial region of the soul where absolute evil hangs in balance against fraternity.” To those already familiar with Malraux’s place in time and literary lineage the linkage to Lawrence (never named) will be somewhat clear. To those coming at him without such background, it will not occur;  instead, what will be in hand will be a odd text with several stand-alone and powerful sections on the violence of war but all strangely discontinuous.  For such readers, the book will seem to be a muddle, more or less interesting to me and not to you, almost by chance.

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“Chartres Camp,” a sort of a forward to the pages titled “The Walnut Trees of Altenburg,” describes a prison camp in France, much like the one Malraux himself spent time in.  It was not one of the work camps of Germany to be sure.  The prisoners were given paper and pencil to write letters home; they are still in France.  But the words of the narrator, suffering the cold, the hunger, the fear as German tanks flash shadow and light through bars and barbed wire, can surely be taken as Malraux’s:

“As a writer, by what I have been obsessed for the last ten years, if not by mankind?  Here I am face to face with our basic essence. … In this place, writing is the only way to keep alive.”

And what is it he writes?  Including the opening “Chartres Camp,” there are five short fictions, each centering on a different man (or men), and place. The first is in the POW camp, described by the narrator/Malraux, just after the fall of France.  Another is a short biography of the omniscient narrator’s German father prior to WW I, a spy, consular and military strategist, written under “the sign of Lawrence” according to Conor Cruise O’Brien in his introduction. Two passages, widely separated, are of war itself, a poison gas attack in WW I and a bucking out-of-control tank in WW II written –“under the sign of Tolstoy.”  The fifth, the middle section, is a discursive-philosophical interlude on the nature of man –under the sign of Nietzsche — between several old men gathered for the grandfather’s funeral, dead after an unexpected suicide.  This section will be the most perplexing to most readers.  In fact, I would suggest not trying to integrate it, linearly,  with the other sections; read it as a separate intellectual exercise; let the connections appear as they might.

In Part I, following the “Chartres Camp,” the narrator’s father, Vincent Berger, a French-German from Alsace — part of Germany at that time– had been a professor at the University of Istanbul.  Recognized for his talents, he was taken in by the German Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire as an aide and propagandist. From there he is discovered by, and becomes the privy counselor of, Enver Pasha the strong man of the Young Turks leading the uprising to save the Ottoman Empire from the inept and corrupt Pasha.  Thus, this part of the book becomes the T.E. Lawrence analogue,  in whose “philosophy of action, action precedes philosophy.”  Malraux, through his fictionalized father, retells a story of war in the Middle East and subsequent wanderings in India and Afghanistan, and of his own youthful idealism.

In the second section Berger returns to France and the walnut trees of Altenburg for the burial of his own father, Dietrich, the narrator’s grandfather.  The executor is Dietrich’s estranged brother, Walter. At the estate, Berger, along with other friends of Dietrich and Walter –a scholar and best friend of the great philosopher of “pride, severity,strength, hatred, revenge,” Friedrich Nietzsche– enter into conversation.  They pick up where they have left off,  for decades, sometimes with each other, and sometimes simply with themselves.  Often, as we read, a particular line is unattributable to any one in particular:

“What changes more than anything else, my dear fellow, is what people believe in when they don’t believe in themselves.”

For those who have read, and retained, other books by Malraux, the preoccupations will be familiar:

Walter: Fundamentally man is what he hides.

Vincent: Man is what he achieves.

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“I have heard a lot of nonsense talked about suicide,” my father used to say, “but for a man who kills himself boldly I have never encountered any feeling but respect.”

Malraux’s own persona will be clear in the description of Vincent Berger.  What was his enthusiasm for adventure?

It was mixed up with the need to get away from Europe, th lure of history, the fanatical desire to leave some scar on the face of the earth, the attraction of a scheme to which he had contributed not a few of the finer points, the comradeship of war, the friendship.

The gnawing question for all throughout is: What is man?

“…from beliefs, myths, and above all the multiplicity of mental structures, can one isolate a single permanent factor which is valid throughout the world, valid throughout history, on which to build one’s conception of man?”

Are are men, and man, connected? What is an individual, what a community?

“The more men partake of their civilisation, the more they resemble one another… But the less they partake of it the more they fade away.  The everlastingness of man can be conceived, but it’s an everlastingness in nothingness.”

The pervasive sense of the absurd, which gripped so many of Malraux’s generation is with them…

“We know that we did not chose to be born, that we would not choose to die.  That we did not choose our parents.  That we can do nothing about the passage of time.  That between each one of us and universal life there is a sort of … gulf.  When I say that each man is deeply conscious of the existence of fate, I mean he is conscious — and almost always consciously so, at certain moments, at least– of the world’s independence of him.”

Berger, the narrator’s father, and youngest of the men at the gathering, whom we now know to be a man of action,  one who has ventured beyond the pale of Europe and Christendom, contributes what he has seen and now believes:

In Eastern fables there were merchants and fabulous birds, princes and jinns: but no man.  Islam — the whole of Asia, perhaps– was concerned with God, but with man, never.”

The narrator observes:

In [my father’s ] rather assertive manner they recognized their own vocabulary, their verbal duels and allusions.  Intellectuals do not like one of their number being involved in action; but if he makes a success of it they are more curious about him than about anyone else.”

Or, as another character says earlier, ” Intellectuals are like women, my dear chap, soldiers make them dreamy.”

The characters of Malraux’s imaginings are familiar with novelists and their work –Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky– deep observers of man, whom they call on to make or support points of their own.  Conversation touches on the Zend-Avesta and Koran, anthropology, Melanesian tribes. potlatch man, the encounter with death, mummification, Freud, Hegel, Hamlet, Orestes, conversations that one has read about and seldom participated in, after sophomore year at university.

Part III leaves the Altenberg conversations behind, not to be spoken of again, to go with Vincent, this time to the Western Front;  11 June, 1915 to be precise.  Now an officer in the German army, he is assigned as liaison to Professor Hoffman (based on the actual Fritz Haber,) the inventor of a new kind of gas: Phosogene!  “…ten times as strong as chlorine,” and better than chlorine,  which “unfortunately can be seen!”

Haber’s rule states that, for a given poisonous gas, C x t = k where C is the concentration of the gas (mass per unit volume), t is the amount of time necessary to breathe the gas, in order to produce a given toxic effect (death), and k is a constant, depending on both the gas and the effect. Thus, the rule states that doubling the concentration will halve the time, for example.

The first trial of the gas, Germany against the Russians, is to take place. Hoffman is in the trenches; the cylinders are ready.  “The wind’s still perfect, still perfect!”  It is here  we read one of the most powerful descriptions of gas attacks we can find in literature.  Not as compact and horrifying as Wilfred Owen’s famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est but, over several pages, searing in its intensity and descriptive power.  He writes not only the men, but the horses, the trees and flowers, all plant life ravaged, “under the sign of Tolstoy,” as O’Brien tells us.

Berger is thrown from his horse, terrified by the scent of the gas:

In the open field in front of him, over a distance of more than three hundred yards, the gas had not left an inch of life.  On the tufts of grass, flattened where the wind had made scythe-like patterns on them, the sun was shining with the same dim light as it sheds on coal.  A few rows of apple trees were left standing, decomposed, and hanging like moss-covered trees, their dung-coloured leaves plastered against the dead-looking branches.  Apple trees, pruned by man, killed like men: more dead than the other trees, because fertile.  All the grass underneath them was black, a black never seen before.  Black the trees enclosing he horizon, and slimy, too; dead the woods across which some shapes of German soldiers were now moving, plunging deeper into them on seeing my father get up.  Dead the grass, dead the leaves; dead the earth on which the galloping hooves of the bolting horses were vanishing into the wind.

The German soldiers running into the gassed trenches to kill any Russians still alive are so appalled, so unbelieving at what they are seeing that they drop their guns and try to lift those still living out of the trenches to higher ground, many of them having torn off their tunics and trousers to relieve the burning.

All the dead, more or less naked, scattered across a pile of tattered clothes, clutching each other in convulsive groups.  …  Feet were sticking out of this petrified swarm of dead bodies, big toes curled like fists.  And what upset my father more than their lead-coloured eyes, more than those hands twisting in the empty air, was the absence of any wound.

The absence of blood.

Berger himself is finally taken off, his breath “wailing from the pit of his lungs like a foghorn through the mist.”

Now, “The Walnut Trees” over.  A closing chapter heading tells us we’re back at “Chartres Camp.” For a sentence or two we seem to be. The narrator tells us “I am in a hurry to get to the point at which writing, at last, is not longer only a change of hell.” Then, with no transition, we are no longer in the camp but inside a WW II tank, with the narrator, a Frenchman,being tossed like a “stone against the turret,” as it races across a broken field against the German army his father once served in.

Pradé was only getting a run-up,, and is now reversing.  How many seconds before the shell?  All of us have out heads tucked into our shoulders as far as they will go, and Bonneau is still yelling.  Leaning heavily on its nose, its tail in the air like a Japanese fish, the tank backs out, buries itself at an angle in the face of the ditch, vibrating from end to end, like a thrown hatchet quivering in a tree-trunk.  It slips, collapses.  It is blood or sweat running down my nose? … one of the tracks is thrashing the empty air … My helmet bangs against the turret, and my head seems to be swelling, although anticipation of the shell is still driving it into my shoulders like a screw…

And so the book ends, the narrator (“I”) surviving the tank attack.  Not in mortal danger for the moment, he thinks about man: “knowing the meaning of the ancient about the living snatched from the dead.”

The End.

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Clearly, this is not a book for a casual reader, even if once captured by Malraux’s earlier Man’s Fate or Man’s Hope.  It takes re-reading and some prior knowledge, and interest not only in the subject at hand –what is man?– but what he is as Malraux understands him:  “the nobility … of the only animal that knows he has to die.”

He was overwhelmed by a lightning flash of certainty, as urgent as this slight hissing in his throat: the aim of life was happiness, and he, fool that he was, had been engaged in other things instead of being happy! Scruples, human dignity, pity, thought were nothing but a monstrous fake, the bird-calls of a sinister power whose mocking laughter would ring in one’s ears in one’s last instant of life.

Even with that, the book — originally intended as part of a trilogy, and early parts destroyed by Malraux or his captors — is ragged, a work in progress, never finished,  its unity, if there is one, Malraux’s “obsession with violence,” as O’Brien thinks in his preface.  For those fond of puzzles, of wrestling with expression and intention, with man in his violence, this may find its place on the Malraux shelf of a well thumbed library.

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