Commentary Magazine


Felled Oaks: Conversations with de Gaulle, by Andre Malraux

Mon Général

Felled Oaks: Conversations with de Gaulle.
by Andre Malraux.
Translated by Linda Asher. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 160 pp. $6.95.

Without any false modesty, Malraux remarks in the introduction to this short book that “we possess no dialogue between a man of history and a great artist.” Though it may be easier to say whether a politician or soldier will be remembered—whether he will have “left his mark”—than to decide whether an artist deserves to be called “great,” it is easy enough to give Malraux, the author of Man’s Fate, the benefit of the doubt. Besides, in their different ways, both Malraux and de Gaulle aspired to great, heroic action, and on occasion, they achieved it. A proper dialogue between two such men would be interesting. For various reasons, however (which are interesting in themselves, if not surprising), what follows Malraux’s immodest introduction is not really a dialogue, and this partly accounts for his book’s seeming to be much longer than it is.

The so-called dialogue which Malraux records and comments on took place before, during, and after lunch one day in December 1969, at the General’s famous country house at Colombey. Earlier that year, de Gaulle had dared the French to do without him, as he had often done in the past. This time, for a change, the results of the referendum obliged him to go. He devoted his retirement to writing his memoirs, and it was in the midst of this work that he invited his former Minister of Culture to visit him. As it turned out, although de Gaulle did not die for another year, this was the last time Malraux saw the man who had given his life its focus.

It seems that the talk that day was not exactly informal. “Intimacy with [de Gaulle] did not mean talking about himself, a taboo subject, but about France (in a certain way) or about death,” Malraux says. Homely touches are kept at a minimum—the General’s cat curled up in a corner of his study, lunch with Madame de Gaulle, and a few jokes are about all the familiarity that the reader is allowed. For the rest, both de Gaulle and Malraux definitely have “a certain way” of expressing themselves, that conveys the feeling of the book’s title well enough, but kills any chance for the sort of interplay that “dialogue” is supposed to involve.

The “felled oaks” of the title allude to Victor Hugo’s lines, “Ah, what a dreadful sound they make in the waning light,/The oaks being felled for Hercules’s pyre!” The feeling is one that attends the death of god-like heroes, a mythological image more Germanic than French. Malraux makes it explicit, and if he reports de Gaulle’s words accurately, the General felt much the same way. Malraux, in fact, without seeming to realize that he is contradicting what he said in the introduction, declares later on that “My purpose was to set down not a dialogue between General de Gaulle and myself, but a dialogue between a will that held France at arm’s length, and the snow which covered the vast forests, empty of villages since the Great Invasions, and which the General was wearily folding about him.”

This poetic type of commentary is similar, at least in method, to that employed by Malraux in his previous book, Anti-Memoirs, published in 1967. He coined the term “anti-memoirs” to signify writing that is not confessional, trivial, or in a strict sense even personal, but deals with large philosophical and historical issues like death and revolution through the medium of the writer’s experience. What triggered these often abstract speculations in Anti-Memoirs, according to Malraux’s stylistic device, were the memories of talks the writer had had over a period of forty years with various men, from the famous (Stalin, Mao, Nehru, etc.) to the obscure (a Parisian pimp in Malraux’s tank company in 1940).

In Anti-Memoirs as well, there was an air of brooding melancholy. Nothing that Malraux remembered did not have a profound, and usually lugubrious, significance. Not unconvincingly, he harped on that old idea, the decline of European civilization, which was supposed to be ineluctable and final in spite of the individual heroic Europeans who might still live and act. He kept staging dramatic confrontations—both realistic and metaphorical—that seemed to come complete with lights and sounds, like the nocturnal spectacles he arranged at Versailles and the Arc de Triomphe during his regime as de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. Yet Anti-Memoirs was a work of art that capitalized on the risks it took, and measured up to Malraux’s better novels, while Felled Oaks (which is actually just a small advance section of the second volume of the Anti-Memoirs, the remainder to be published after Malraux’s death) is an interesting failure.

It fails on its own terms. Evidently Malraux wanted to move his readers with the portrait of a hero who has been deprived of his leading role and is now patiently, tragically, awaiting death. Also, he must have wished to associate himself with de Gaulle’s noble anguish, as he had associated himself with the General’s politics for more than twenty-five years. But because their talk is a dialogue of the deaf, with each man pronouncing epigrams and epitaphs that the other doesn’t seem to hear, and responds to only as if by accident, and because the pronouncements are often pointless or worse, the picture that emerges is far from satisfactorily tragic.

“Malraux, really, between you and me, is it worthwhile?” de Gaulle sighs, after offering an Olympian overview of the last several centuries of French history. The question is a non sequitur, and at any rate Malraux doesn’t bother to try to answer it. Any sentence in the interrogative that either man utters is rhetorical, the answer being contained in the question. There may as well be an identity of views between the man of history and the artist.

On two closely related matters they do seem to be in perfect agreement: the French are demoralized, and nothing heroic should be expected of them. In such a state of affairs, a man who has had quite different dreams for his countrymen is best advised to be stoical. “Character,” de Gaulle declares, “is above all the ability to disregard insults or abandonment by one’s own people.”

It is hard to believe that de Gaulle, fresh out of power, was making a purely impersonal observation. Much of the biographical evidence on him shows that he was extremely sensitive to “insults,” real or imaginary, directed at him or at “France” (the two were confused in his mind), and that he seldom forgot or forgave. At the same time, he characteristically courted “insults or abandonment” with his inflexibility, which Malraux was struck by as early as 1944. The stated reason for de Gaulle’s abdication in 1969 was that the voters had not supported some relatively minor reform proposals of his by a great enough percentage; for de Gaulle, however, it must have confirmed his worst fears, and his low opinion of the French, all over again. Power passed to his protégé, Georges Pompidou, whom de Gaulle distrusted. In his self-exile at Colombey he maintained an outward stony serenity while he wrote his memoirs, as he had done between 1945 and 1958, when he had known how to wait. But now he was an old man, and even if slightly senile must have understood that this really was the end. Did he have nothing to say about Pompidou and the other Gaullists?

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Most of the French have heard that in private de Gaulle could exercise a cruel, slashing wit, as much at the expense of his followers as his enemies, and that he could be nearly as vulgar as Lyndon Johnson (who in almost every other respect is the General’s opposite). The following bit of gossip reported by Malraux from that day in the country is the only sign that de Gaulle possessed these qualities:

[Malraux reminds de Gaulle that de Gaulle said to him after coming back from John Kennedy’s funeral, concerning Jacqueline Kennedy] “‘She is a brave woman, and very well brought up. As to her fate . . . she is a star, and she will end up on the yacht of some oil baron.’”

Did I say that? Well, well! . . . Actually I would sooner have thought she would marry Sartre. Or you!

Instead of this kind of thing—which is, after all, a sort of dialogue, even if only between a “straight man” and a comic—Malraux concentrates on the exchange of high-flown epigrams. Maybe he was motivated in part by a resolve not to indulge the crowd’s universal, sordid desire to see its heroes unbuttoned. The effect, however, is not sublime but merely pompous. “There is a pact twenty centuries old between the grandeur of France and the liberty of others,” de Gaulle intones, and Malraux nods agreement, although this “pact” would have come as news to Goya, about whom Malraux once wrote a book. Even the near-gossip sounds like something that might have been made up by the anti-Gaullist satirists at the weekly journal, Le Canard Enchainé:

I asked him, “What impression did Indira Gandhi make on you?”

Those fragile shoulders on which the huge destiny of India rests—and they don’t shrink from the burden! Besides, what does it matter?

The possibility that de Gaulle was showing his age, was beginning to lose his grip, should not be ruled out. “Le gouvernement a perdu contrôle de ses facultés,” Le Canard Enchainé headlined during the university uprisings of May 1968. Malraux, also, has not been well for some years. But if, by the time this “dialogue” took place, both men had crossed that strange, shifting line that separates the tragic from the ridiculous or pathetic, maybe the fact that they found themselves suddenly and finally on the sidelines was as much to blame as physical degeneration. They had led adventurous, dangerous, heroic lives. From 1958 to 1969, they had been at the center of what power there is in France. Malraux gave every indication of relishing it. He initiated and supervised projects in education, the arts, archaeology, etc., traveled to many continents, and threw himself into political campaigns on the Gaullist side—an effective speaker at mass meetings, Malraux knew how to get a crowd on its feet. When de Gaulle left the stage, there was no question of Malraux remaining. Both then entered on what may be the most dangerous phase of all in a hero’s life: the years of his old age, when he has been put out to pasture, having been deprived of the luck and glory of dying in action. Unintentionally Malraux gave an eloquent hint of how damaging such leisure can be for a man of his genius when he made the gesture—intended to be heroic, but actually ridiculous—of offering to go to Bangladesh to command a tank regiment at the age of seventy. Unlike the gestures of a younger man, which only seem hopeless but are really bound to be vindicated (like de Gaulle’s speech over the radio from England in June 1940), these motions of the aged hero are spastic, and they only interrupt briefly his preoccupation with distant memories, his brooding on his approaching death from absurd, “natural” causes. “Dying has never interested me—nor you either,” Malraux says to de Gaulle with heavy irony.

It is impossible to be afflicted with such a frame of mind and still keep in touch with the rest of the world. Nothing illustrates this better than de Gaulle’s and Malraux’s misunderstanding of the causes of the national crisis of 1968. In the words of the two old men, the young people at the Sorbonne who demonstrated in May, sparking a general strike, were “misguided,” and their leaders were “nihilistic.” But the implicit sense is that in the eyes of de Gaulle and Malraux the students were contemptible, and not because their politics were wrong or their principles nonexistent or even destructive, but because the students were not heroic—because they were pint-sized, or at most, human-sized, and did not make worthy opponents. The most impressive personality to have sprung up during the “events” was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He must have seemed, to men who may be remembered above all for defying the Nazis, like nothing so much as a worrisome clown. Yet Cohn-Bendit, by taking some of the glow off the legendary hero, helped to hasten his exit. De Gaulle knows this, but he does not wish to, or cannot, face the implications. There is a bitter, stupid note in his complaint to Malraux, “What we wanted (between you and me, why not give it its true name—greatness) is ended.”

A historian undoubtedly could find that this complaint is made in every generation. It is no less false coming from a man who can lay rightful claim to having achieved greatness once. The complaint, betraying intolerance and a lack of empathy, is all the more unattractive coming from someone who was once considered, almost universally, a misfit with a botched career. In fact, most of the Free French and the non-Communist Résistants were oddballs and outsiders to begin with. Maybe not too surprisingly, power had its well-known effect on some of them, and age finished the job.

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