The Condottiere

We live in an age when biography flourishes, contrary to earlier expectations. The reason for this is the decline of the novel and the rise of popular interest in all kinds of history, and biography belongs within history. The problem is "all kinds": for appetite may be fed by a wide variety of junk food. We are now inundated with biographies and autobiographies that are illegitimate, sleazy, twisted, often obscene and fraudulent. Curtis Cate's Malraux is of a different order. It is an excellent work, this biography of a very interesting man.

Malraux was a writer and a 20th-century condottiere. That makes him interesting enough. The problem is that, unlike in the case of other writers or artists, the man is more impressive than his works. The corpus of his writings is enormous; but his many novels are, at best, ideological period pieces, and I wonder whether his grand books about art will survive beyond coffee-tables where, because of their beauty, they surely belong. Like much of French literature—and philosophy—of the last 50 years, the old French virtue of clarity is not very apparent in them, though there is a fair amount of French wit, not necessarily of the superficial sort. Malraux was an intense man, with an extraordinarily quick (and sometimes incisive) mind. Some of his aphorisms are good, but they give the impression of having been thrown off in the course of a rapid conversation—or, rather,...

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