André Malraux’s Debt to Dostoevskii, Part 1

Written by: Ronald Batchelor


Few critics would dispute the contention that the central, dominating force in André Malraux’s novelistic vision is the towering figure of Fyodor Dostoevskii. Numerous references would support this statement to the extent that it seems pointless to dwell upon the matter. Suffice it to quote the summary, yet telling, remark by the French commentator J. Carduner: “He (Dostoevskii) is for Malraux THE novelist” (Carduner’s upper case). Clearly, critics have come to regard as axiomatic Malraux’s inheritance of Dostoevskii’s fictional universe, with all this implies by way of conceptual, structural and even stylistic considerations.

For the establishment of this literary affiliation, we need search no further than Malraux’s own remarks, and those of his first wife Clara. To take the latter first, we are informed in her Apprendre à vivre (p.271)=(Learning to Live) that, from his late adolescence, Malraux already expressed a deep sensitivity to Dostoevskii’s works. This sensitivity increased unabated throughout Malraux’s productive period as a novelist, attested to by two random quotes. When referring to the value of dialogue in the construction of a novel, Malraux states: “It is suggestive, dramatic, elliptical, suddenly isolated from the whole world as with Dostoevskii….”. Second, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is shown to be “one of the three solitary figures in world fiction”.  Dostoevskii, then, emerges as the supreme role model for Malraux. He is the highest authority and yardstick by which Malraux judged all works of fiction. Yet, the Russian writer achieved immeasurably more than this for Malraux. He helped to focus a whole host of ideological principles, modes of thought and literary techniques which his French admirer was to absorb, modify and reproduce through the prism of his own imaginative powers.

The primary link between the two novelists is one of mood or the way their characters have their being. This mood relates to their search for heightened consciousness and intensity of experience. It serves little purpose to labour the fact that, from Notes from Underground (1864) to The Brothers Karamazov (1880), all Dostoevskii’s protagonists seek an inner illumination, an ever-deepening awareness of their personalities, some higher, albeit unclear, spiritual dimension or vision. As J. Lavrin points out, it is not a question of morality or happiness, or even mundane, average happenings, but of the Dionysian, the demonic, the excessive, dangerous experience, the living on the edge. The suicides of Svidrigaylov (Crime and Punishment), Kirillov and  Stavrogin (both The Devils) and Smerdyakov (The Brothers Karamazov), together with the insanity of Prince Myshkin and Ivan Karamazov, are the logical, predictable consequences of the neurotic surpassing of the individual’s capabilities. Now, the most conspicuous factor in Malraux’s intellectual development is that, well before he published his first novel, The Conquerors (1928), he charted a similar Dionysian path. When he states: “Measure all things in relation to the intensity of human life”, and “I cannot conceive of man independently of his intensity”, he underscores the strained, psychological tautness of his own fiction, and suggests an attraction for the very dark forces sweeping through Dostoevskii’s novels.

This pervasive condition of stress naturally determines the manner in which both writers conceive of a number of jointly held ideas.  Unavoidably first is the concept of the tragic which binds Malraux to Dostoevskii more closely than any other.  Since Malraux views the modern novel as “a privileged means of expression of the tragic in man”, it presents no difficulty to understand why he set such great store by Dostoevskii whose most striking imaginative writings fall within the category of “novel-tragedies”(Mochulsky, p. 433). The theme of the tragic, in the sense of Greek tragedy (mankind versus the universe), provides the most serious and definitive clue to the Malraux/Dostoevskii association, for from it arises the notion that the novel should no longer be viewed as a rationally constructed series of events, supported by a wide authorial presentation of characters resting upon historical and biographical data but as the forum for energetic and vivid debates of an ontological and fundamental character. Ivan Karamazov’s oft-quoted formula “If God is dead, all is permitted” (The Brothers Karamazov, p.77, p.309) shifts the axis of the novel from the psychological and social realism of a Flaubert or a Turgenev to a permanent preoccupation with metaphysics. The psychology of the heroes in Dostoevskii’s and Malraux’s works is marked by a struggle with the meaning of life, and this is precisely what Malraux affirms in The Days of Wrath: “The novel…is reduced to two characters: the hero, and the meaning of life”.

Dostoevskii and Malraux consider the novel as the manifestation of an underlying anxiety, of a higher, more pressing consciousness, of the eternal, irreducible questions. It could be argued that they both see fiction as the dramatized form of a theological treatise where characters run the endless gauntlet of suicidal despair and forlorn hope in immortality. The common ground of metaphysical anxiety is more clearly focused in the narrow context of the revolutionary urge. Kirillov, and Shatov (The Devils), and Hong (The Conquerors) together with Tchen (Man’s Estate), provide an excellent case in point. To take the Russian characters first, most critics agree that their social and political dissidence is intimately bound up with religious disquiet. The political restlessness carrying them to the USA and Switzerland reflects a deeper kind of mental instability which, in turn, indicates some disastrous change in their relation to the world and to some form of higher being. That Kirillov should be prepared for self-immolation to promote Peter Verkhovensky’s revolutionary plans expresses his intense dissatisfaction with world chaos. Obsessed with God Himself (Dostoevskii’s capitals), Kirillov attempts to rise above his condition as a mere mortal through sheer will power. Suicide as an act of self-will is the result. The critical point of comparison here is with Tchen’s frenzied thought: “To escape the human condition…is the will to power, a will towards the deity: every man aspires to be God”. Quite consistently with Kirillov, Tchen performs, some four pages later, his suicidal attempt on the life of Chang-Kai-Shek, realizing his own drive towards the god-head. As a prelude to his act, he reflects: “Terrorism had to become a mystique”.

Kirillov and Tchen both underscore the metaphysics of rebellion, a rejection of all forms of religion as a fruitless and meaningless remedy to man’s deformed image of reality. They are, of course, not isolated in their insurgent posture for it is shared by most of Dostoevskii’s characters, from Raskolnikov to Ivan Karamazov, and by Malraux’s Garine (The Conquerors), Perken (The Royal Way), and Kyo (Man’s Estate). Moreover, Ivan Karamazov’s contention in the chapter “Rebellion” forms the very kernel of Malraux’s theory of revolt, witness the following words: “Please understand, it is not God I do not accept but the world he has created. I do not accept God’s world and I refuse to accept it.” These words shape Malraux’s basic assumption in his postulation of art as the highest form of revolt against the inscrutable, hostile forces of the universe. Like Ivan, Malraux cannot acquiesce in his unjust condition of suffering and limited knowledge, viewing the artist’s supreme efforts as an attempt to replace chaos with a humanized order, and universal incoherence by a permanent, artistic and reasoned pattern.

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham. He has published many books on French and Spanish language, often with sec...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!