André Malraux’s Debt to Dostoevskii, Part 2

Written by: Ronald Batchelor


Read Part 1 of Dr. Batchelor’s post on André Malraux here.

Dostoevskii’s Kirillov and Malraux’s Tchen are in numerous ways identical in their psychological make-up. First, their throbbing, nervous habits. Kirillov’s jagged, staccato manner of speech resembles remarkably closely the awkward, muscular way in which Tchen, and Hong for that matter, chop up their sentences with little or no regard for formal grammatical niceties. Of Kirillov, the words: “He spoke abruptly and not altogether grammatically, transposing the words rather queerly and getting muddled if he had to use a sentence that was too long”, prelude Tchen’s speech: “His tone, the structure of his sentences had, even in Chinese, something sharp, brief; he would express his thoughts directly, ignoring the usual turns of phrase”. This shared avoidance of the conventional method of expression reveals their acutely disturbed personalities, not just in what they say but rather in the epigrammatic, distorted brevity of their words.

Little wonder that, given this important resemblance in their type of expression, Kirillov’s and Tchen’s suicidal gestures should provide key episodes in their respective novels. The Russian character’s commitment to suicide proves indispensable to Verkhovensky’s machinations, if the revolution is to succeed. It is designed to put the Tzar’s police off the scent, allowing Verkhovensky to unfold his diabolical plan with no further interference. Similarly, the fulcrum of Man’s Estate occurs pointedly at the close of Part Four which recounts Tchen’s suicidal mission to assassinate Chang-Kai-Shek. The extremely close correlation in Kirillov’s and Tchen’s demonic act, and the placing of that act at a critical stage in the dénouement of both novels, together with both characters’ convulsed thoughts and words, convincingly demonstrate the prototype of the arch rebel that Malraux must have seen in Dostoevskii’s deranged hero.

There exists a pressing immediacy in the way Dostoevskii’s and Malraux’s characters are presented. A sense of the dramatic, of suddenness, determines the scene structure in both sets of novels. Most critics would concur over the exclusive importance Malraux attaches to the uniqueness of the scene, in the urgently felt, tragic sense of the term. The most salient chapters in Malraux’s novels are precisely those conceived and developed in the form of scenes where the hero (there are no heroines in Malraux’s novels, as opposed to Dostoevskii’s) is seen to play out his role as actor. A similar stricture may be applied to Dostoevskii. This phenomenon is largely explained by Dostoevskii’s oft-conjectured original ambition to embrace a career as playwright, hence his short pieces Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov which never saw the stage. Whatever the reasons for this growth in Dostoevskii’s dramatic sense, his plots and vital ideas arise organically from the confrontation of characters within any given scene. This heavy stress on the scene reappears most prominently in Malraux’s novels, which carries us from calculated conjecture to firm fact, for Malraux states explicitly in connection with Dostoevskii’s novelistic art, and notably his use of dialogue: “Dialogue is the most striking means of action on the reader, the possibility of making the scene ‘present’: a third dimension.”

Malraux’s acquaintance with Dostoevskii’s vivid technique of sharply focused scene construction helped him to discover and realize for himself the various suspenseful potentialities of the novel, the first of which resides in the illusion of the present moment, hence the emphatic, form of “present”, as italicized at the end of the previous paragraph. The search for the present moment, with the concomitant elements of immediacy, fact and dynamic movement, emerges as the decisive factor in their scene construction. Although all Dostoevskii’s major fiction is written in the past tense, he contrives, through the markedly present nature of the individual scene, to convey the impression that his characters are instantly before us, in the here and now. This technique doubtless explains why Malraux places his characters “in medias res”, since he opens all his novels as if we were right in the middle of an action. The very beginning of Man’s Estate is a most striking example of this technique.: “Would Tchen try to lift up the mosquito net? Would he strike through it?”

Added to the authors’ immediacy of scene construction is the bewildering tempo characterizing the passage from one scene to the next. The speed of Dostoevskii’s plot development in a whirlwind, breathless succession of episodes hardly requires comment, while the ending of The Devils is doubtless the most conspicuous illustration of this device. Malraux most certainly found inspiration in this chaotic, almost crazed juxtaposition of scenes in which the hero rushes headlong to a catastrophic fate. Indeed, in an article on T. E. Lawrence, he comments: “Wouldn’t Dostoevskii have made of these scenes a panting succession of scenes?”

A multitude of characters, frenetic crowd scenes, discussions tumbling in, the one on the other, it all binds Malraux’s fiction to DO.’s in a most persuasive way. Malraux’s penultimate novel, the one he himself praised more than any other, Days of Hope, provides the most forceful example of a furious scene sequence. It contains 146 scene units, and hardly any scene lasts more than three pages, and this, in a straggling novel of nearly 400 pages. A further example: the beginning of Man’s Estate, contains four sub-sections, broken down into twelve small incidents: Tchen murders a businessman, visits Hemmelrich, meets revolutionary groups at Hemmelrich’s, Kyo goes off to meet Baron Clappique, Katow meets other dissident groups, Kyo and Katow engage in a conversation…

In this mad, critical fervour, time is of the essence, concentrating a very long novel like Crime and Punishment into seven days of Raskolnikov’s life. The huge novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is encompassed by a mere chronological span of some fourteen days, although even here, the essential action takes place over six days. The Idiot and The Devils follow identical temporal patterns. Needless to add, Malraux follows suit. In The Conquerors and Man’s Estate, he stresses not just the total time covered by the novels but also the day of the week, the time of day and night. The latter novel is held within the time limits of 21 March 1927 and July of the same year, and each chapter occupies no more than a day. Equally significantly, since the last chapter is no more than an epilogue, we may legitimately reduce the time span in chapters 1 to 6 from 21 March to April 4. Within the period of some fourteen days, Malraux furnishes exact details of time. e.g in one day, we read: 1.Tchen’s murder of Tang-Yen-Ta: 21 March, half past midnight. 2. At Hemmelrich’s: 1 o’clock in the morning. 3. At Gisor’s house: 4 o’clock in the morning. 4. The arms’ theft: half-past 4 in the morning.

The concentration of the time factor adds to the tension felt by individual characters, presented from different points of view. To provide a maximum of effect, Dostoevskii constantly adjusts the point of view, seeking unceasingly the most adequate angle of vision to suit the heightened sensibility of his characters. For example, after writing the whole of Crime and Punishment in the first person, he rewrote it in the third person, having considered three other possibilities. Exactly the same remark may be made of Malraux for he also, after writing his first novel The Conquerors in a first person perspective, wrote the next four novels in the third person, and then reverted to the first in his final work. We witness a persistent switching in both authors from third to first person point of view, with one aim: intensity of consciousness.

Dostoevskii and Malraux share a further highly expressive device emphasizing their characters’ apprehension, anxiety, and even repulsion: insect imagery, the study of which would justify an article in itself. Suffice it to say that insect imagery is an all-pervasive technique in most of the novels under consideration. Space restriction only allows of two examples from Dostoevskii and one from Malraux Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment views eternity as “something like a village bath-house, grimy and spiders in every corner”. In The Devils, Lisa remarks: I always imagined you would take me to a place where there was a huge, wicked spider as big as a man, and we should spend the rest of our lives looking at it and being afraid”. An identical transposition occurs in Man’s Estate where Hemmelrich sees a terrifying figure coming towards him. Terror transforms the figure into an “enormous insect”, “a monstrous insect”, and finally “a monster made up of a bear, man and spider”.

Malraux’s novels bear the unmistakeable stamp of Dostoevskii’s literary vision. His fiction contains more than mere echoes of his Russian model. They both place an unbearable burden on the individual, stripping him of his social and psychological accretions, emphasizing his extremities of mental and physical tension, in short, his nihilism.

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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...

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