Planet Malaquais – Emilie Bickerton

Emilie Bickerton on Geneviève Nakach, 'Malaquais rebelle'. Biography of a world-wandering modernist writer. First published in NLR #84 (Nov–Dec 2013).

‘The idea of more contact with those interfering cops and stinking detectives; of having to provide work papers going back twenty-five years and rent bills from every shelter I ever slept in . . . Oh, with that thought I’d rather end my days gloriously stateless.’ So Jean Malaquais wrote to André Gide in 1949, as he faced the prospect of putting in another application for the French passport that had always eluded him. The Polish-born writer had spent over two decades in the country at this point, had served in its army and built a literary reputation, but he would never be welcome there, nor would the keepers of the canon ever find a place for his three novels, Les Javanais (1939), Planète sans visa (1947) and Le Gaffeur (1953). Malaquais remained the original javanais of his first novel, a man who went wherever the work was, carrying the richest fictions in his mind and expressing them in a unique prose. His slender but attractively strange and special oeuvre has finally become more accessible indirectly, in the very clearly written, well-documented and engaging Malaquais rebelle, the first biography of the author, by French scholar Geneviève Nakach.1 She paints the portrait of a man whose first thirty years were so tumultuous it is not surprising his last sixty were spent slowing down.

Malaquais was born Vladimir Malacki in Warsaw in 1908, into a secular Jewish family. His schoolteacher father communicated a passion for French culture and literature that inspired the teenage boy to write his first poems in that language, and never switch to another. At the age of seventeen he left Poland with a visa for Palestine and began what Nakach describes as his ‘forward flight’. He spent time in Romania and Egypt, then came to France via Marseille and arrived in Paris at the end of June 1926. During his travels he picked up some fifty jobs, from dishwasher to mechanic to electrician on the Paris–Orléans line. In the French capital, Malaquais had what proved to be a decisive meeting with the young leftist militant Marc Chirik, who had come from Moldova and was working in an assortment of manual jobs. Chirik, who had been expelled from the French Communist Party and was now heavily engaged in revolutionary politics, had a profound influence on Malaquais’s political outlook, shaping his early critique of what he saw as the Soviet Union’s ‘state capitalism’.

In the late twenties, Malaquais began sending out short stories for publication in French journals, with mixed results. He also started a novel, using the cumulative experience of work and world-wandering as material. For money he had taken a mining job in the South of France, then washed dishes on a ship to Dakar, and gone on to Algiers and Casablanca. In the mid-thirties and back in Paris, he worked in the abattoirs at Les Halles, while pondering a move to Spain to join the revolutionary forces there. Extremely enthusiastic about their prospects, he made contact with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, and specifically with its Lenin International Column, an organization made up of foreign sympathizers, under the leadership of dissident Bordigists. But Malaquais was quickly disillusioned when the POUM called for unity among all ‘republican’ forces in a military bloc against Franco—a move that he saw as the end of the Spanish Revolution.

During this time he also met André Gide, another decisive encounter. Gide had published an article in the Nouvelle Revue Française expressing what he perceived as the malaise arising from intellectual work; Malaquais, who was always exhausted after a day’s work and struggled to find time or energy to think, considered him very lucky indeed, and fired off a few angry letters rebuking what he saw as Gide’s romantic idealization of manual labour. Summoned to rue Vaneau, the young man quickly changed his tone—to ‘Mon cher Maître’, and then progressively ‘Mon cher vieux’. The original dispute was not insignificant, however, and there was always an undercurrent of this tension between the intellectual and the worker in their relationship. Malaquais said he could never entirely shake off his ‘psychology of the poor man’. In the realm of politics they soon found shared positions, especially after Gide returned from the USSR in 1936 and published his bleak account of what he had found there. Retour de l’URSS announced a final break with Stalinism, provoking an angry response from Louis Aragon, who would remain a staunch ally of the USSR for decades to come. It was a very public dispute between two of France’s most respected literary figures over the left’s relationship with Stalinism, and Malaquais too intervened, publishing an article in defence of Gide and against ‘the professional patriot’.

At the time of Gide’s death in 1951, Malaquais said he would never have been the writer he was had he not met him. This vital, formative influence comes through most clearly and touchingly in their published Correspondance (2000), also edited very well and informatively by Nakach. In their letters we read Gide’s elegant but ruthless verdict on Malaquais’s first manuscript, La Rage au ventre, which he encouraged the young man to ditch, but only so as to concentrate on writing another immediately. In 1939 when Gide read the resulting Les Javanais, an account of workers in a lead and silver mine in the South of France, he declared himself ‘considerably astonished . . . at times you manage to attain an extraordinary lyricism of a very rare and special quality which delights me; it has an epic grandeur, at once comical and tragic . . . it is an absolute success.’ Gide was not alone in his admiration, and it is striking to see what a diverse group of supporters the novel attracted. Les Javanais made its first appearance in serial form in the daily newspaper of the Confédération Générale du Travail, Le Peuple. The young publisher Robert Denoël, gaining notoriety at the time with Louis-Ferdinand Céline on his list, bought the book after the more prestigious Gallimard had refused it, and also convinced Vladimir Malacki, as he still was, to change his name to coincide with publication. Trotsky, on reading Les Javanais, was inspired to write an article announcing ‘a new great writer’ whose name ‘we must remember’. He noted the story’s social dimension—the mine workers hold a strike when rumours circulate of an imminent closure—but praised its author for not trying to prove any particular idea or position in regard to his subject-matter. Les Javanais never lapsed into propaganda, Trotsky said; it confidently assumed the status of art. ‘And yet at the same time we feel at each moment the convulsions of our time, the most powerful and the most monstrous, the most important and most despotic . . . [The] combination of personal, defiant lyricism and violent epic poetry, which is that of its time, perhaps makes the charm of this novel.’ The literary establishment also found much to praise, and awarded Malaquais the Renaudot prize in 1939, ahead of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée.

While his book was receiving accolades, Malaquais was cut off and miserable in the trenches. He had been called up in September 1939, serving first in the 620th Pioneer Regiment, where he was engaged in exhausting manual labour. He was then moved to various other units and posted around small towns in the Alsace region, experiencing no fighting but much discomfort and depression. When he heard about his literary success he requested and was granted leave. He enjoyed the moment, but it was an isolated one, in what Nakach describes as ‘the worst’ period; a turning-point involving experiences that would mark him for life. In his nine months as a soldier Malaquais was deeply shocked by the intensity of his revulsion for his fellow-men: the crassness of their talk, the nauseating smell, their apparent delight in all things base. ‘I envy those with the ability not to think about tomorrow’, he wrote in his Journal de guerre (1943), ‘not to think about the cement and the dirt—about life. Not thinking. Whatever happens, those who can avoid thinking have already won the first round.’ His disgust was always tinged with shame. He hated the troop, hated himself for not even being able to try to be part of it, and yet was compelled to write because of his belief in human beings, because of his desire to grasp what moved them. He wanted to pay homage to their spirit, but his experience as a soldier had shown him a side of humanity he detested, leaving him unsure whether war reduced men to animals or whether it revealed their true nature. Whatever the truth, he hated to be so close to it each day and writing became a way of channelling his anger. ‘If I ever get out of this war alive, I would like my testimony to have the taste of blood that has been vomited on a newly grown leaf and given to the reader to chew on.’

The impulse to flee the group and seek distance, yet always have as his subject that same group, was a difficult contradiction for Malaquais to resolve. He knew he must not give in to the temptation, as he saw it, to use writing as a mere refuge, a reason to justify standing alone and isolated from a world he so often found depressing and enraging. He reminded himself of this frequently in his diaries: the Journal de guerre written from September 1939 to July 1940, and the Journal d’un métèque (1997), which he started immediately afterwards on 13 July 1940—the day he arrived back in Paris, having escaped from an improvised German prisoner-of-war camp where he had been confined a month earlier, in the Nancy region. The last entry in this second diary comes the day he set sail for Mexico from Marseille on 8 October 1942. In both journals Malaquais resolved never to become ‘a man of letters’, saying that he preferred to think of himself as a labourer who works his material (words) to give form to shapeless mass, and keeps a healthy distance from his subject. ‘Told in the first person, the life of a man is ineffable. We have neither the distance nor the detachment that is necessary. It is in fiction, in poetry, more rarely in the essay, that writing is at its best because it is being practised unknowingly. The writer only talks about himself when he talks about something else.’

Of course, ‘something else’ was also personal experience, and he put what he had lived through into his fiction. The action of Les Javanais, the most spirited and light-footed of Malaquais’s three novels, takes place in the mining environment he had known intimately a decade before. A British-owned mine employs some two hundred men, nearly all foreigners, who live in nearby shacks and cabins nicknamed ‘the Island of Java’. The ‘Javanese’ are all rolling stones, and in the novel’s prologue a nameless first-person narrator meets Maniek Bryla, a young dreamer wandering the streets of Paris, looking for somewhere warm. Their visions of the future clash: Bryla’s is full of hope and adventure whereas the narrator is world-weary. Both then disappear from the novel, which is otherwise narrated in the third person, but Bryla returns in the closing pages to what is by this time a deserted Java. Book-ended in this way, the novel can be read as an attempt to understand Bryla and the hope and despair contained in his forward flight, which certainly evoked Malaquais’s own. In the prologue, the narrator accuses Bryla of pointless idealism, telling him ‘it’s not a question of calmly snuggling down in the muck inside the cage; you’ve got to break it open, smash the whole system of constraints’. This accusation hangs over the novel, as many of the Javanese seem more willing to snuggle down in the muck, even in the face of unfair dismissal. But, as Trotsky had observed, there is no moralizing in the tale; we come to understand why some characters snuggle down and others rattle at the bars, and why, in the end, it may be the narrator of the first pages who is the idealist, not Bryla.

The narrative of Les Javanais varies between intermittent reflections on the Island and the Javanese as a universal mass of men roaming the earth, and, more often, a bird-like swooping down into the minds of a dozen or so of the characters, men and women, workers and bosses. The prose is structurally polyphonic, woven from many voices, and the French, itself often slangy and obscene, is super-charged by irruptions from the assorted languages of homelands in four continents; the title connotes exoticism, and the linguistic strangeness of ‘double Dutch’. A few concentrated sentences illustrate the unique texture of the writing:

What can you do in a place like Java, a bastard island tied to the devil’s tail? Me cago en Dios, says the Javanese, if he’s a dago. The Russky, he says yob tvoiu dushu. Same words, same pious moans, in one language after another. Henri Lehoux, the only real Frenchman in the place, eyes up women’s backsides. A right whore for fuck’s sake, he thinks, consoling himself.

The immediate questions of survival occupy the thoughts of the Javanese: the hard labour, described with clear-eyed brutality, but also those dead moments on Sundays when nostalgia and longing creep treacherously into their minds. The future and past are both hopelessly remote, one a daydream, the other painfully severed. Like the soldier in the trenches, the miner who does not think will be more likely to survive from day to day, though he will not get out of the mines. The narrative hovers around various characters and their private intrigues, but events are propelled forward by the recent request the local police sergeant has received from his superiors to expel all illegal workers from the mine. This means breaking his entente cordiale with the mine boss, who has long bribed him with fine malt whisky and cigars. The workers strike in response, with limited success, and the novel concludes with their exodus, though one old man stays behind, wandering the empty island, hearing all its voices and thinking of the two thousand men he has seen pass through in two years. The sadness of these final pages lingers and mixes with the promise contained in human movement and the search for another homeland.

In three puffs, like a dandelion ball, an island has vanished into thin air, and not a scar or a sign is left on any known map to mark the site where it had once existed . . . Atropos with her shears had passed that way, and snip, snap!—nothing remained. Java on the Côte d’Azur had changed its geographical position. The men had emigrated to colonize other islands . . . they had somersaulted like strolling players along the road into the great unknown, and they had left a memory of their excommunication like so many ghosts revisiting as vampires the haunts of their active life.

Malaquais’s second novel, Planète sans visa, also drew powerfully on lived experience, this time that of the maelstrom of Marseille from 1940 to 1942. He and his wife (the second of three), Galy Yurkevitch, had fled Paris to the still-unoccupied South as the crack-down on Jews, immigrants and leftist militants intensified. Day after day, they chased the elusive paraphernalia of the nation that would allow them to leave, but the effort took two years of watching ships sail with other fugitives aboard—Victor Serge, André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss among them. For Planète, Malaquais condensed these events into a few months in 1942. The novel, again narrated in the third person and closely following ten or more of its sixty-odd characters, opens with the announcement that Marshal Pétain is coming to visit. This provokes a fresh wave of round-ups and crack-downs, and the bids to leave become increasingly frantic. Events are reported from various points of view, and the chronology, while in general linear, weaves back and forth through the characters, who include the high official of the Préfecture, a camp watchman, a German soldier, a Russian family, an opportunist American art collector, a few managers and staff from the co-operative factory Surcor, and a handful of revolutionaries. The Occupation is the novel’s inevitable conclusion, but the characters go their own way, with differing mixtures of luck and resolution playing their part—some on ships bound for elsewhere, others taking the lonely and treacherous road to Spain, others still disappearing into the camps.

The fabric of Planète is historical and political, and there is much resonance with Malaquais’s own experience, though he freely exaggerated the role of the revolutionaries, whose part in reality had been marginal, and likewise that of the American Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee. The Surcor co-op receives an inglorious portrayal, evoking Malaquais’s unhappy experience at Croquefruit. We also see in some key characters clear traces of Chirik, Serge and Gide, and their debates provide the novel with its richest passages, politically and intellectually. Like a handful of couples in Planète, Malaquais and Galy did indeed escape Marseille in 1942. Gide had intervened at a critical moment and managed to enlist the help of both Fry and Justin O’Brien, his own English translator in the United States, to secure exit visas. The couple stayed in Mexico until the end of the war and while in exile, as he wrote Planète, Malaquais mixed with other leftists, including Serge. The two men fell out permanently over the level of support to give to bourgeois democracies in the face of Nazism, prompting Serge to write a withering portrait of Malaquais in his diaries. Nakach is disappointingly brief in her treatment of the episode, but in a letter to Chirik, written from Mexico in 1945, Malaquais gave his own version of events, describing Serge as a ‘vulgar opportunist’ who wanted to bring together a wide range of political currents—socialist, democratic, Christian and even liberal-Conservative. ‘The clash took place during a public meeting where I told him he was headed for a United Front that included the English Tory Party. He made it personal . . . It left him completely isolated.’

In 1947 Malaquais returned to France, though once again he was granted only a carte de séjour. His Planète had a mixed but high-profile critical reception, and the novel was nominated for the Goncourt, narrowly missing out on the prize. Shortly after this, he began work on a third novel. However, Nakach categorizes this post-Planète period as self-reflective and full of self-doubt. There were also financial constraints, since his novels had not generated enough money to live on. Malaquais began looking for academic positions, and would write Le Gaffeur amid numerous geographic and professional upheavals. His forward flight had turned into something rather more circular, less driven by a spirit of freedom and adventure. He took a visiting professorship teaching literature at New York’s New School in 1948, and was then awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that provided him with a salary till 1950. He moved to Vermont with Galy, and there combined writing Le Gaffeur with translation work and trips to Paris and Venezuela.

Throughout this period, Malaquais remained politically engaged. Nakach stresses his loyalty as a sympathizer of the revolutionary left, consistent in his positions though always declining membership of any organization. This latter point is not entirely accurate, however. In 1947 he had joined the Gauche Communiste de France, a splinter group centred on the Bordigists, with Chirik and Maximilien Rubel among its leaders. He contributed political texts to the GCF’s journal, Internationalisme, and participated in its meetings whenever he was in Paris. From the United States—where he was also close to Herbert Marcuse and the News and Letters group headed by Trotsky’s former secretary Raya Dunayevskaya—he acted as go-between for the GCF. He would receive and pass on documents and archives, while Chirik in France would read aloud in meetings his detailed accounts of life in the US, his analyses of the labour situation, the state of the economy and the political ramifications of the Cold War. Malaquais remained uncompromising in his two-pronged critique of the Soviet Union and the USA. It was, according to Nakach, this anti-Soviet posture that saved him from closer inspection by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, though his 1949 Hollywood venture with his close friend Norman Mailer would suffer directly. The two men wrote a screenplay for Samuel Goldwyn based on The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s acerbic portrait of the film capital. The project swiftly ended when the producer rejected their script as ‘un-American’, and MGM demanded a rewrite in which the bad guys did not get away. Malaquais and Mailer refused, bought back the screenplay and tried, without success, to make the film themselves.

Le Gaffeur was published in 1953, the same year the GCF disbanded. This third novel had been, by all accounts, the most excruciating for Malaquais to write. At first sight it seemed very different from the earlier two in both content and form: the previous model of polyphonic third-person narration had been replaced by a rather spare allegory of the near future told in the first person. And yet Le Gaffeur is as recognizably Malaquais as his other works—historical context has disappeared, but it is replaced with a standard ‘City’, a metropolis some time in the near future; the descriptive writing is sparse, but this only accentuates the same themes of statelessness, identity, heroism and resistance; the narrative may be in the first person, not third, but the way of approaching situations, analysing and capturing them, is entirely familiar and done through the telling detail. As the novel opens, we follow Pierre Javelin, an apparently ordinary man living in ‘the City’. He has had a bad day, and now returns home to find his wife gone and his home occupied by a grotesque couple who claim they have lived there for years—and who in the world is he? Javelin tries to reason against this apparent madness, but finds his identity slipping away—his signature and fingerprints no longer match, there is no trace of him in the phone book, no neighbours will vouch for his person. At every turning, the City’s bureaucracy comes down on him. Finally, he discovers the source of his problems: a collection of poems he had written on loose pieces of paper, and then printed and distributed anonymously. Pierre, it seems, is not alone in his quiet resistance to the City, and now the City wants to snuff him and his comrades out.

Heroism and resistance, and the absence of a tangible future, are at the heart of Le Gaffeur. There is no determinate context, and the enemy has no face either: it is not the lazy, whisky-drinking bosses of a coal mine or their dispirited illegal employees; nor is it the weasel pétainistes rounding up Jews. In the City there are no individual fates; everyone suffers identical deaths—as in hell, where ‘everyone screams differently and burns just the same’. So, the best anyone can do is refuse the role the City has allotted them. ‘To each monster its hero’, concludes Javelin. His act of resistance is to refuse to die the death of beasts, in abjection—‘No, I’m talking about not dying at all’. It is a bleakly triumphant conclusion, then, as Javelin slinks away holding his cat, to ‘a snug corner where they won’t be badly off’—triumphant but sad when we remember how that same snug corner had been evoked at the start of Malaquais’s first novel, where it was the symbol of defeat. Now Malaquais’s hero is the man who resolves not to write any more dissenting poetry, like ‘the model citizen who, because he defies the traffic regulations, takes himself for a rebel’.

Nakach’s enthusiasm for Malaquais’s novels is rather contagious, and her treatment of them is sharply done. She weaves in useful comments from the author himself—though these form part of her presentation of the work, a procedure that slightly confuses Malaquais’s intentions with Nakach’s assessment of the finished result—and provides a good account of the reception of each novel in France at the time of its original publication. Malaquais stands apart as a writer, she argues, because he is the only one to have taken the cosmopolitan and internationalist spirit of the 1930s in Europe and turned the material into novel form. Nakach entertains the possibility of locating Malaquais within Erich Auerbach’s account of modernist literature—where ‘a kind of end-of-the-world atmosphere’ prevails—but concludes that he does not fit in: ‘Readers of Malaquais are not led down a dead end, even if the world depicted in Planète is one in which millions of men live weighed down by a sky pregnant with menace. Malaquais’s subjects are always active, not acted upon.’ As Trotsky had done in 1939, Nakach also rejects the frequent comparisons with Céline. He is not ‘the far left’s answer’ to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à credit. Both used (or invented) a popular vernacular and broke with traditional literary forms, but the similarity ends there. Malaquais wrote to evoke all the possibilities and hopes contained in the lives and minds of men, not to cut them down.

The tradition Malaquais might more naturally fall into is ‘proletarian literature’, but Nakach distances him from this very quickly, following his own disavowal of any such orientation. ‘Only one kind of class culture can exist, and it always belongs to the dominant class’, he wrote in 1936. Yet in subject-matter his work certainly has relevant precedents, among them Maxim Gorky’s story ‘Twenty-Six Men and a Girl’ and the—recently revived—short novels of the Japanese communist Kobayashi Takiji, in particular The Crab Cannery Ship, written ten years before Les Javanais. In these, the subjects are workers on the margins of society, and in Gorky’s story the group is at the centre of the narrative, its ‘we’ functioning as one. The men chatter among themselves in their dingy bakery, as they do on Kobayashi’s ship. There is laughter and drinking and anger and sometimes fists fly, but the men are not much, if at all, individualized. The story of Kobayashi’s novel is the growth of solidarity. For Malaquais, in contrast, though his subject too was always the collective, fiction was richest when it drew on individual details and could not be used instrumentally to further a particular cause. ‘Just tell the story of people who itch, who eat, drink and go for walks—then, as you tell a story, you will allow these people to reveal their particular dramas’, he told Mailer. ‘The sooner you stop itching yourself, the sooner you will understand what it is that makes the man beside you itch’.

Nakach emphasizes Malaquais’s intention to erase the author’s voice in his work, and cites an abundance of instances in which he said as much. These are curious to read, because on the evidence of his three novels one can only conclude that he failed, and what a happy failure that was. He captured different voices, gave them all a characteristic flavour, but his own voice always remained, unintrusive but distinctive nonetheless. A Russian girl is losing her mind in a Marseille slum, seeing meadows outside when the windows give onto brick walls; a defecting German soldier obsessively revisits the night he beat Jews to death under the admiring eyes of his peers; two brothers from North Africa roam the streets in search of a drink because no religion could ever have imagined the thirst you get from working down a mine all day; an ordinary man screams at the reflective glass of an office counter, wanting only to know which department his wife works in—whatever the voice, whatever the thought, there is always this strange eloquence and rhythm, and the delighted playfulness with language we also find in Malaquais’s diaries and correspondence. What also comes through is a controlled or very crafted roughness. Writing was not an easy task for Malaquais. He worked slowly and meticulously—his average rate, in a good period, was two or three pages a day—and something of this effort is transmitted in the result. The prose flows but in a concentrated way. It has the feel of constructed brilliance, which separates Malaquais further from Céline, and also James Joyce, whom Gide had evoked in favourable comparison. When, in Les Javanais, for example, two miners are crushed to death by a collapsing tunnel wall, everything happens very fast, and we move in and out of various viewpoints to experience the tragedy. But each swerve in the narrative is coolly controlled:

The twenty men sat down to their dark vigil at the gate of the tomb. The immense, stark silence of the earth’s depths succeeded the noisiness of human efforts . . . One man, more stubborn than the others, was lying flat on his stomach trying to get his arm under the murderous weight, to reach his comrades. Old Giuseppe Ponzoni thought of his two sons lying buried in an Italian mine. Everyone was leaving him alone but Ponzoni won’t give up, he’ll carry on with the quick of the living, he won’t be lured away by voiceless memories . . . Daoud Halima knew about machinery, only yesterday he was dreaming about motor-driven mills . . . Elahacin ben Kalifa’s children were very young. The shack was falling to bits, a widow would weep among its ruins . . . The timekeeper was cursing into the telephone. What a foul job! But why put everything onto his shoulders? Good God. He’d gone bald with worry and his teeth were falling out.

Writing got even harder over time. Malaquais took months to produce just twenty pages of Le Gaffeur; the last fifteen cost him half a year. ‘The job of writing’, he said to Mailer in exasperation, while he was still working on the novel, ‘should take place independently of all notions of time, as though the writer should never die, or at least not before he is ossified by his own writing.’ With Le Gaffeur, it does indeed seem that Malaquais was spent. ‘Poetry was a device’, Javelin concludes, it ‘made me belong in spite of everything. Henceforth I shall be all refusal.’ These lines are all the more chilling to read when we know the novel was Malaquais’s last, and one wonders whether he too believed writing had become a mere device that made him feel he was a rebel when in fact he was doing nothing more than running red lights.

It is interesting to consider why he abandoned fiction, and whether those reasons were personal or of their time. Nakach suggests both, though the case for the latter is unconvincing. She sees his move as not untypical for his generation, with writers who had at least experimented with the novel going on, by the 1950s, to distance themselves from the form: Malraux, Sartre, Camus, Romains, Duhamel and Colette. But the paths these writers took are so divergent that it is impossible to group them together and suggest a tendency. In Malaquais’s case, the more compelling reasons for his break with fiction seem personal. After Le Gaffeur he was discouraged: his first two novels had been praised critically but their impact had not been lasting, and now his third, again celebrated by a number of critics, had generated even less public interest and sold badly everywhere. More profoundly, Malaquais seemed to have lost his previous compulsion to write fiction. ‘If only you knew’, he had told Gide fourteen years earlier, ‘of the near-physical bursting that fills me with pain and joy, hatred and especially with rebellion—so many and powerful feelings all at once that writing for me is a kind of deliverance, a relief, an organic and moral detoxification.’ In 1936 the reasons for rage and rebellion were immediate, and the stakes in resisting were high. Malaquais felt implicated in that fight; he lived it daily. Writing had always been vital for him, but it was to be the victim of what Nakach calls his post-war ‘aporia’:

Writing was his own way of domesticating the real and, as it were, his only way of living . . . Through his poems, his essays and his novels, through the optimism of his Javanais and the bursts of hope in his Planète, he had expressed the positive vitality, rebellious and independent, of one who was confident in the human capacity to escape barbarism and change the world. But all those things that had nourished his writing now abandoned him. The communist ideas had been distorted and betrayed—the finest militants were dead; his dreams had gone . . . He could not turn to his past, and he faced such a sterile present. Such was his impasse.

Unfortunately, Nakach links this impasse to Auschwitz, invoking Adorno along the way. It is a speculation too far, since there is no evidence in anything Malaquais wrote or said to confirm that he believed the Holocaust blocked him from writing more fiction. What actually happened to his family in the war remains unknown. Nakach reports that her own research was inconclusive. She believes it likely that many members died in the camps, but could not definitely trace the immediate Malacki family in any lists or archives, nor through inquiries she made on her visit to their home town of Warsaw in 2005. She also gleaned little from her interviews with Malaquais, who was extremely private in these matters, and there is nothing in his writing, published or private, to indicate that he knew what had happened.

After Le Gaffeur and up until 1960, Malaquais concentrated on his doctoral thesis, which was registered at the Sorbonne. In the late fifties he toyed with various topics—Kafka, Sade, the representation of love in the works of Byron and Flaubert—but eventually settled on a study of Kierkegaard, for which he mastered Danish. Sören Kierkegaard: Foi et paradoxe was published in 1971 in France and received respectfully but scarcely with acclaim. There followed short-term teaching appointments at the Universities of Texas and Wisconsin—where he met Elisabeth Deberdt, who would become his third wife. At this time he was also translating material for the Pléiade edition of Marx’s works. (He had been key in convincing Gallimard to take on Maximilien Rubel as editor of the collection, the first volume of which came out in 1963, the fourth and last in 1994.) Then in 1966, Malaquais and Elisabeth moved for two years to Australia, where he had been named visiting professor at Monash University. It would be his last academic position. After their return to the USA, he researched John F. Kennedy’s assassination for Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale (published decades later, in 1995) and also apparently began, but quickly abandoned, a fourth novel, Sable Sel Sol Sang.

When Le Gaffeur was first published, many critics made comparisons with Kafka. For Mailer, in his preface to a paperback re-issue in 1974, the novel was in fact written twenty years too early: ‘What looked bizarre in 1953 was now on the side of prophecy.’ Le Gaffeur still looks bizarre, though Malaquais’s imagined future has become even more familiar. The novel portrays a bureaucratic society trying to squeeze out critical thinking not by engaging with it but simply by instilling in citizens the knowledge that they are under permanent surveillance. This has obvious resonance today, as do the portraits of precarious labour and statelessness in Les Javanais and Planète sans visa. In this sense, it is tempting to see Malaquais as a kind of emissary from the future who might now find a receptive audience. In hopeful anticipation of this, the writer himself spent much of the 90s completely re-editing his first two novels, trimming eighty pages from the first, which came out in 1995, and nearly 200 pages from the second, re-published in 1999, a year after his death from cancer. Their reception was calmly celebratory but did not generate much in sales or encourage anything more than a superficial re-engagement with the works themselves. As for the Anglophone world, there was a brief period of enthusiasm in the 1940s and 50s when all the novels and diaries were translated, but since then everything has fallen out of print. The re-edited novels have never been translated.

Hanging over all this is the same question: why were Malaquais’s men from Java, his men without visas and his one man without a society, so quickly forgotten, and why do they continue, by and large, to be ignored? Given the force and originality of the work, this is surprising, but the reasons, an unfortunately integral part of the story, are neglected in Nakach’s biography. Malaquais rebelle does fine work as an introduction to the writer’s oeuvre, and paints a good portrait of the kind of world it was written in, but does not dwell on the shadow cast over the three novels. Part of the answer might lie, simply, in their linguistic difficulty: there are so many competing streams of consciousness, all expressed in their own invented idiolects, and points-of-view jump around within single sentences. Given this, one wonders what sort of reader Malaquais had in mind when he wrote. It takes time and sometimes re-reading to enter his worlds and grasp his characters, and this makes the oeuvre fundamentally different and automatically more distant than, say, the hell at sea evoked by Kobayashi. And, for those who do give Malaquais their time, the subject-matter is not written to comfort but to stir. When Gide finished Journal de guerre he told Malaquais he had ‘read it with a sinking heart, a sick heart . . . it is a painful, poignant, horrific document on the debacle, and about yourself’. Neither the diary nor Malaquais’s stories were easy to digest at the time, and they are no more so now, for all that they remain strangely invigorating testimonies from the world that inspired them.

  • 1. Geneviève Nakach, Malaquais rebelle, Le Cherche midi: Paris 2011, €18.25, paperback 381 pp, 978 2 7491 1727 0