Culture and Civilisations

Revelation and insight in autobiography: Leonard Woolf, Arthur Koestler, André Malraux and Vladimir Nabokov 

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Revelation and insight in autobiography: Leonard Woolf, Arthur Koestler, André Malraux and Vladimir Nabokov 

John Betjeman with Leonard Woolf (r), receiving an award for "Beginning Again" his autobiographical works 1911 to 1918.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” L P Hartley, The Go-Between

Leonard Woolf’s Growing, Arthur Koestler’s The Invisible Writing, André Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory all appeared between 1954 and 1967 in the mid-twentieth century. Except for Malraux, these authors — English, Hungarian, French and Russian — all wrote in English, which was the third language (after Hungarian and German) for Koestler and (after Russian and French) for Nabokov. Both men were exiles. To be young in the first half of the century was to witness worldwide social change: the Russian revolution, the spread of communism, two world wars and the breakup of colonial empires. These four autobiographies make important contributions to social and political history, and show how it felt to participate in these events. Koestler and Nabokov hated communism, Woolf and Malraux opposed colonialism. Koestler and Malraux had extensive experience in war and, like Gloucester in King Lear, saw “in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason.” 

George Orwell believed the principal aim of the genre was to tell the truth, however rare and difficult that might be. In Benefit of Clergy, his essay on Salvador Dalí, he argued: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying.” Torn between concealing and revealing the truth, these autobiographies provide memorable self-portraits and insights into the mind and character of exceptional authors. Their value also rests on exploring the self in relation to other people and places. They can be a confession, a reckoning, a summary of what a life has achieved. Personal, often intimate, each autobiography has to find its own literary form to tell the story that has also been the raw material of fiction. These works above all are feats of memory that recreate a lost world. The process of remembering can be enjoyable, reviving people and places where one was happy; or poignant for those exiles whose losses are cultural as well as personal.

In Growing (1961) Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) declares “the only point in an autobiography is to give, as far as one can, in the most simple, clear and truthful way, a picture, first of one’s own personality and of the people whom one has known, and secondly of the society and age in which one has lived. To do this entails revealing as simply as possible one’s own simplicity, absurdity, trivialities, nastiness.” But the triple emphasis on simplicity is misleading. His book is subtle, sophisticated and elegantly written. Looking back on his life of fifty years ago, he states that the main problem in writing his autobiography is the unintentional “distortion of truth that comes frequently from the difficulty of remembering accurately the sequence of events.” He verifies the dates and facts, as far as possible, by quoting his diaries and his letters to Lytton Strachey. Woolf’s autobiography is the response of a cultured and humane intellectual to extraordinary experience.

In January 1905, aged 24, Woolf became a cadet in the Civil Service of the British Crown Colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with an annual salary of £300. Exceptionally intelligent, he soon passed his examinations in Tamil and Sinhalese, Law and Accounting. Hard working and super efficient, he was rapidly promoted. After only two-and-a-half years he was given the tremendous responsibility of governing his own district in the extreme south of the island: about 1,000 square miles, with a population of 100,000. The British had won the Boer War in 1902 and, Woolf notes, in 1905 “the British Empire was at its zenith of both glory and girth.”

The dominant and recurring theme of Growing is Woolf’s sharp break with his past life as a student in Cambridge and the theatrical unreality of his new existence in Ceylon. He feels “as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream.” He is interested in the Portuguese, Dutch and English influence in Ceylon, and admires the primeval rural life that has continued for millennia without the use of machinery. He is emotionally attached to the country and to the lazy, smiling and well-mannered people of Kandy as well as to the independent, lively and laughing mountain people. He is particularly pleased to find that the Ceylonese, most unusually in Asia, have the same sense of humour as Europeans. (I felt the same attraction when I visited Ceylon in 1969).

Woolf fulfils his promise to provide an honest and shrewd analysis of his own character. Though most of his colleagues were educated at public schools and universities, nobody thinks or talks about the books and ideas he himself is passionately interested in. Supremely intellectual, he doesn’t fit into the philistine British colonial society, and is forced to create a façade to disguise his suspicious and disconcerting brilliance. He does not, however, mention any prejudice against his Jewish background. He brought all the way from England a cumbersome 90-volume edition of Voltaire, but never discusses the influence of that sceptical and ironic author. 

Yet he has to fit in and somehow manages to do so. He’s good at the daily ritual of tennis and bridge. He loves animals, keeps a menagerie of leopard, deer and monkey, and has a fierce English terrier who wins respect by killing a feral cat and a large snake. Woolf enjoys hot curries, can fall asleep anywhere and basks in the solitude of his remote outposts. In the wilderness, he contentedly recalls, “I never saw a European and I had no social life at all. I worked all day and after dinner I worked or read.” He willingly assumes the duties of his lazy but grateful superior officer, toiling up to sixteen hours a day in both jobs and going for three whole days with only a few hours of sleep.

He dislikes the omnipresent drunks, most of the white merchants and tea-planters, and the big-game hunters who invade his territory. An atheist, he criticises greedy Church authorities and fraudulent Buddhist priests. He examines the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth, enshrined in a temple and worshipped in Kandy, and definitively concludes that it never rested in Buddha’s mouth: “It is a canine tooth, about three inches long and curved.” He confesses that he lost his virginity at the age of 25 when a sexually experienced half-European girl had a sleepover with him. Though he is able to endure isolation, he sometimes gets relief. His letters, but not his autobiography, reveal that he also had sexual relations with a planter’s wife and spent nights of degraded debauchery with local prostitutes. Woolf is too severe on himself when describing the negative side of his character. He concedes that he is occasionally arrogant and offensive, a harsh yet just judge. But he is not a weak swimmer and rescues a man from drowning in rough seas. He is certainly not a poor shot nor a physical coward and twice comes very close to dangerous leopards. 

A lively writer, Woolf gives a fascinating description of elephants in heat during the rutting season, trying to topple each other with the force of their trunks: “We suddenly came upon two bull elephants fighting. When we first saw them they were standing forehead to forehead pushing violently and playing a sort of ju-jitsu with their trunks, each trying, I think, to get its trunk round the foreleg of the other. . . . When they were separated by about 50 yards, they charged at full speed and met with a violent crash forehead to forehead.” 

He also uses animal imagery to describe Dutton, a timid, introverted, conceited and pathetic housemate, who cranks out hundreds of pages of lamentable but therapeutic verse. In a striking comparison, Woolf writes, “In cutting up the animals killed by me, I saw the disgusting, semi-digested contents of their upper intestines, and was always reminded of the contents of Dutton’s mind.” 

Extremely cultured and well read, Woolf enhances Growing with many unidentified literary allusions that he silently absorbs into his own work. He quotes Matthew 4:8, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Cymbeline , Hobbes, Leviathan, Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner, Shelley, Ozymandias, Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, Dickens, Oliver Twist, Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious and Civilisation and Its Discontents. He also quotes Kipling’s Recessional and, using Kipling to define colonial society, emphasises his major theme, the unreality of colonial life: “The white people were also in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story.”

Like Kipling, Woolf praises the benefits of a benevolent and incorruptible imperial rule: the creation of hospitals, schools, roads, trains, factories and laws; the introduction of the English language and Christianity; the abolition of slavery, cannibalism and genital mutilation. Woolf earns the admiration of the Colonial Secretary Sir Hugh Clifford, a close friend of Joseph Conrad, who entrusts Woolf with lavishly entertaining the Empress Eugénie, widow of Napoleon III, and arranging a first-class show of Kandyan dancing for other distinguished guests. The efficient performance of these minor but significant tasks lead to his unusually rapid promotion. 

Woolf’s second recurrent theme is his crucial transition from colonial ruler to anti-imperialist. He enjoys his prestigious role, playing the great man and father of his people. But he is also “uneasily ambivalent, exaggerating . . . [his] imperialist, stern Sahib attitude to compensate for or soothe a kind of social conscience which began to condemn and dislike the whole system.” Gradually, he becomes aware that he does not want “to rule other people, to be an imperialist and proconsul.” He finally concludes, despite all the benefits that he himself helped to implement, that the whole structure was evil and that it was absurd for “people of one civilisation and mode of life trying to impose its rule upon an entirely different civilisation and mode of life.” Though he convincingly declares that he would have become “a Colonial Secretary or a Governor, His Excellency Sir Leonard Woolf, K.C.M.G.”—Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George—he shocks his superiors by abandoning his promising career.

Woolf’s autobiography illuminates the career and writing of Orwell, who joined the Burmese Police in 1921, ten years after Woolf left Ceylon. Like Woolf, Orwell had a logical mind, a lucid style, a rare honesty and an eye for cant. He too was multi-lingual in Asian languages. In Burma, Orwell felt intellectually isolated and remained an outsider. Both men disliked the masculine, public-school atmosphere of the monotonous and melancholy whites-only Club, symbol and centre of British imperialism. Growing and Orwell’s novel Burmese Days both portray a spurned mistress who publicly denounces and humiliates her English lover. 

Woolf also describes the dreary and disillusioning work of the police. His account of the hangings he witnesses are even more horrific than those in Orwell’s essay A Hanging. In one case, Woolf recalls, “the body went on twitching violently and the executioner went and pulled on the legs.” In another, the drop was too big and the victim’s “head was practically torn from his body and a great jet of blood spurted up three or four feet, covering the gallows and the priest praying on the steps.” Woolf does not shoot a beautiful leopard when he has the chance to get that prized trophy; Orwell was forced to shoot a harmless elephant to maintain British prestige. Most important, Woolf and Orwell began as keen imperialists, became passionate anti-imperialists and resigned from the colonial service.

Woolf returned to England in 1911, married Virginia Stephen the following year, and replaced his career with devotion to his talented and mentally fragile wife. After Virginia’s suicide in 1941, Woolf was finally free to live his own life and surpassed her novels with one of the greatest autobiographies of the twentieth century, in which Growing is the second of five volumes. A witty and self-reflective passage in Growing foreshadows Woolf’s life with Virginia. In some spiders, he notes, “a very small male is attached to a very large female—fitting ignominiously and neatly into her gigantic body—I sometimes think that this must be the ideal life for a male—and, after performing his male functions, is killed and eaten by her or just dies.” Though Virginia didn’t kill Leonard, he acquiesced for thirty years as she devoured his life.

Arthur Koestler, 1960 by Fred Stein (PA)

Arthur Koestler (1905-83), born in Budapest and educated in Vienna, was central European, Jewish and deracinated; cosmopolitan, hedonistic and unscrupulous with women; a demonic worker, heavy drinker and restless traveler; eager for experience and politically committed; courageous but racked by self-doubts and torn by despair. He worked as a journalist in Palestine, Germany and France; and in 1931, during his spectacularly successful career, flew over the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin. The Invisible Writing (1954) describes his life from 1931 to 1940, including travels in Soviet Russia, dedication to the anti-fascist movement in Paris, dangerous adventures in the Spanish Civil War and experience of prisons in Spain, France and England. Koestler’s book has two purposes: to place himself within the historical context and with the help of Freudian psychology to explore his own personality.

Koestler is haunted by an overwhelming question. Writing 25 years after he became a committed communist, he wonders why he was so willing to swallow that destructive ideology and tries to explain why an intelligent man could have been such a fool. Koestler announces the theme of disillusionment and loss of political innocence in the opening sentence: “I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river.” He observes that when the western democracies failed to oppose Italian, German and Spanish fascism in the decade before World War Two, he saw communism as the only political alternative. As a true believer in the possibility of a utopian society, he surrendered his political insight and suffered a spiritual death. 

During his progress to inner freedom Koestler finally rejects the blind rationalisation that the horrors of “the Purges, the Slave-camps, the disfranchisement of the people, were merely surface phenomena and temporary expedients in Russia’s road to Socialism.” In the end he realises that all revolutions are doomed to failure. After leaving the Party he becomes an outcast, a political refugee and a destitute exile. One of his most depressing themes concerns the number of communist friends who believed in the Party. They were recalled to Moscow, loyally obeyed orders — and were immediately executed. Following Stalin’s demands at the Yalta conference in 1945, the Russian prisoners of war in Germany were forcibly repatriated and shot as soon as they disembarked in Odessa.

In 1932-33 Koestler went to Russia to write propaganda and glorify the Five-Year Plan. Though given the privileges of a foreign guest, he suffered extreme hardships, including stinking beds in rooms with crushed bugs on the stained walls. He witnessed the Ukraine famine, which deliberately killed millions, and saw desperate people driven to cannibalism, begging him to take their emaciated babies. Yet Koestler, still blinded by ideology, wrote lying words that “had no relation whatever to the visible facts before [his eyes].”

Koestler thought the sincerity of an autobiography can be measured “by its outspokenness in matters of sex.” Sex, the only pursuit exempt from guilt, “creates an oasis of innocence round both lovers, leaving regret but no resentment when the illusion dissolves.” He has a striking chapter about sharing a sleeping compartment on a train from Moscow to the Caucasus, and confesses that he “never spent a more chaste eighty hours alone with a woman.” Though she nobly refuses his bountiful food when others are starving, “it was so pathetic to watch her watch me eating that I, too, ate very little by day and stuffed myself secretly by night under my blanket; but I feared that she might hear me chewing.” The image of two people confined for days in a railway compartment, one with food, the other without, vividly emphasises the horror of hunger.

In another sleeping compartment leaving from Tiflis, Georgia, he meets a more attractive and complaisant Ukrainian with a “broad peasant face, her blonde hair tucked away under a coloured handkerchief, with round arms meant to pitch hay with effortless ease.” She expects to repay his hospitality with sex but, overcome by his guilty role as a bourgeois exploiter, he is disastrously impotent. Later, in a bitter counterpoint to his real life, he’s destitute and reduced to writing books on Sexual Anomalies and Perversions, including sodomy with fish. The publisher makes a fortune, Koestler gets no royalties and his books are humiliatingly “displayed between douches and rubber appliances in windows of chemist shops in Charing Cross Road,” like the one owned by Verloc in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

The best part of this book describes Koestler’s life-threatening trips during the civil war in Spain. He first goes there in the guise of a fascist sympathiser to prove that Germany and Italy are actively supplying and fighting for Franco. Entering the lion’s den, he even interviews the bloodthirsty general Queipo de Llano. On his last trip he discovers that Russia has used the Spanish war “as a convenient killers’ lane to get rid of Anarchists, Trotskyists and other political undesirables.” He recklessly remains in besieged Málaga after the city falls to the fascists. Arrested and threatened with imminent execution, he spends ninety days of solitary confinement in a Seville prison. Strangely enough, he sleeps soundly, has pleasant dreams, and explains that prison satisfies his need for punishment and relieves his guilt. Finally, he is exchanged for a beautiful hostage: the wife of Franco’s favourite fighter pilot. 

Koestler is especially good on his meetings with remarkable men: George Orwell, André Malraux and Thomas Mann. A close friend of Orwell, he uses Freudian terms to confess that he shared Orwell’s “chronic inferiority complex” and “permanent awareness of guilt and impending punishment.” Koestler notes that Orwell was wounded on the Aragon front while serving with POUM, the United Marxist Workers’ Party, and was almost captured and executed when Stalin’s agents tried to liquidate his Trotskyist party. He makes several references to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), published five years before Koestler’s autobiography. In connection with Communist ideology he mentions Orwell’s Big Brother; doublethink: the addiction to myth and semantic perversion; and “denunciation as an elementary duty of every Party member, and a test of his loyalty. During the Purges, women denounced their husbands, and boys were made to sign public statements demanding that their fathers be hanged.” He quotes Orwell’s England Your England on the homely, pacifistic virtues of the English people, “with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, this nation of flower-lovers and stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon snippers, darts-players and crossword-puzzle fans.” He even agrees with Orwell’s “damning (yet correct) verdict: ‘The chink in Koestler’s armour is his hedonism.’ ” 

Koestler hero-worshipped Malraux, four years older and an adventurer like himself, who was already famous in the early 1930s. He quotes Malraux’s concept of the langage du destin and a paradoxical phrase from his novel The Conquerors: “A life is worth nothing, but nothing is worth a life.” He hears Malraux speak at a 1933 writers’ conference in Moscow and puncture the communist promise of universal happiness by asking, “what about the child run over by a tram car?” In an encomiastic passage he describes “Malraux, who organised a flying squadron of volunteers in the Republican Air Force, then wrote his masterpiece L’Espoir, and finally directed its transformation into one of the greatest films ever made—thus performing a kind of hat-trick by uniting in his person the normally incompatible gifts for action, art and propaganda.” Koestler also had these extraordinary gifts. When he finally meets Malraux at Gallimard publishers, he’s nervously overwhelmed by the occasion as Malraux listens in silence and exhibits his notorious nervous tic, acquired during combat in Spain. Dismissing everything Koestler has said about the value of propaganda, Malraux shifts to loftier matters and exclaims, “Yes, yes, my dear fellow, but what do you think of the [impending] apocalypse?”

Koestler, also a great admirer of Thomas Mann, had sent him a fan letter when he was sixteen. He quotes Mann’s anti-propaganda statement, which undermines all the work Koestler has done for the communists, “in the long run, a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.” Koestler compares the humane climate of England to the Swiss setting of The Magic Mountain, “a kind of Davos for internally bruised veterans of the totalitarian age.” Noting his own conflicting beliefs, he feels like Hans Castorp in Mann’s novel, “with his sympathies split between the discursive Settembrini and the pathos of Naphta.” Koestler hears Mann lecture in Budapest, but his meeting with the distinguished author in 1937 is a cruel disappointment. Mann, who’d been interviewed hundreds of times, is characteristically formal and unresponsive to the foreign journalist. In retaliation, Koestler unjustly criticises Mann’s politics, claims that his work lacks human kindness and—ignoring the genius of Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) — asserts that “most of his later work I find mannered to the point where it becomes unreadable.” 

Koestler — always without the proper papers — is arrested in France, escapes from a concentration camp, and finds a sort of refuge in England. Once there he’s arrested again and spends six weeks in Pentonville Prison, which the connoisseur of confinement calls “the most decent gaol I have been in, though the plumbing leaves much to be desired.” Koestler, who also speaks French, Hebrew and Russian, notes the psychological effects of his third change of language. Thinking of Conrad and Isak Dinesen, he notes that a “number of writers whose native language was not English have risen to prominence in English and American letters; but I cannot think of a single analogous example of a writer whose native language was not French.” It’s strange that he was not aware of Samuel Beckett, Julien Green and David Gascoyne.

He concludes with a grateful but backhanded tribute to Britain: “The fall of each of the great Empires of the past was an ugly and catastrophic event. For the first time in history we see an Empire gradually dissolving with dignity and grace.” But he surprisingly ignores the massacres when Pakistan broke away from India in 1947, and the bitter colonial wars when Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus fought for independence. 

Yet Koestler had an ineradicable need to believe in something. He mentions that his rational and materialistic training in science, mathematics and engineering conflicted with his “temptation to surrender and creep back into the warm protective womb of faith.” After abandoning the delusions of communism and asserting his intellectual freedom, he ruined his reputation by surrendering to the delusions of parapsychology and extra-sensory perception. Throughout his illustrious life, from early Zionism to late mysticism, Koestler always saw what he wanted to see. 

Andre Malraux in 1934. Portrait by Fred Stein (PA)

Like Koestler, his kindred spirit André Malraux (1901-76), was a Left-wing anti-communist. Both men, struggling for social justice, had to carry false documents, were imprisoned by Fascists in wartime Spain and in France, and narrowly escaped execution. Malraux recalled that in 1936, “I met Arthur Koestler, freed from the Francoist prison cell where he had spent months under sentence of death.” Malraux expected a kind of revelation but Koestler, suppressing the ghastly experience, talked as if nothing had happened to him.

Malraux wrote Anti-Memoirs (1967), while recovering from illness, on a long sea voyage from France to Asia in 1965. He stopped in the French Antilles, French Guiana, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, and revisited certain places that had inspired his fiction. He defines his elusive and extraordinary book in the opening pages, emphasising the subjects of art and death that influenced him, and the “surviving memories that commune with one another.” Malraux, who believes “a man is what he hides,” deliberately reveals and conceals the truth. Narrating his real life of action, he describes his attempts to transcend danger and death. In a stunning process, he first transforms his life into novels and now—portraying his legendary and irrational character—incorporates parts of his novels into an anti-memoir.

Malraux does not give a chronological account of the major events of his life in this rambling, loosely structured book but makes sudden shifts in time, place and subject. He offers glimpses of his personal history, describes his travels, analyses the ancient art he saw in the fabled cities of the East and identifies the people who inspired characters in his novels. Many pages from The Royal Way and The Walnut Trees of Altenburg are silently absorbed into the text. Instead of a logical progression of episodes, he creates a brilliant series of privileged moments.

Malraux exalts his own notorious mythomania. Like the adventurer David de Mayrena, the model for Perken in The Royal Way, Malraux “tells lies. But not all the time, or at least not always undiluted lies.” He is not obliged to relate the truth, feels free to blur the distinction between appearance and reality, and transforms his experiences into myth. To justify his unconventional approach, he maintains, “what is true is whatever amuses, suits or benefits me.” To him, hoaxes are creative, possibilities become certainties, lies make personal events more interesting. He also alludes to many tragic episodes—his father’s suicide, his wife Josette crushed (like Anna Karenina) by a train, his two half-brothers captured and executed by the Germans, his two young sons killed in a car crash — but leaves them mysterious and unexplained. 

In one notable example of mythomania Malraux, mixing fact and fiction, describes how he set out to discover buried treasure beneath the ancient capital of the biblical Queen of Sheba. In L’Intransigeant newspaper of 1934, he claimed to have flown over Saba in the Arabian peninsula, where it was impossible to land, and seen 20 towers and walls 40 meters high. In Anti-Memoirs he tries to confirm these sensational articles. He now claims to have seen massive ramparts, horseshoe walls and cuboid buildings. Since he had only enough fuel to fly 500 miles each way without refueling, and there was no place to get fuel, he could not reach those fabled sites from his takeoff in Djibouti, French Somaliland, and across the Gulf of Aden, to South Yemen and back. In 1936 St. John Philby had visited this site on foot and proved that no ruins existed.

Malraux’s style swerves from abstract rhetoric and hot air to vivid accounts of military combat and close encounters with death. He declares in vast but confusing cultural comparisons:

“I was also thinking of Egypt, which, viewed from Ellora, seemed like an austere and geometric India. . . . 

For a Chinese Sparta cannot comfortably be maintained beside a Rome which in any case it identifies with Capua.”

Many of his pseudo-profound pronouncements are almost unintelligible:

“What became of the mysterious metamorphosis of the sacred into love

that I had felt so profoundly in the cave, compared to the metamorphosis of the sacred into nothingness?”

His concrete style, by contrast, enlivens the page:

“The churches of New York have to be searched out among the skyscrapers like crabs between rocks. . . . 

[The walls of the temple of Nara] were white as a blind man’s eyes. . . . 

[An SS man has] the shaved skull, thick neck and watchful Great Dane’s face of Erich von Stroheim.”

Alluding to Malraux’s novels, myths and style, the political philosopher Raymond Aron called Malraux’s character “one third genius, one third false, one third incomprehensible.” One fascinating aspect of Anti-Memoirs is that, unlike his unfortunate family, he narrowly escapes from death, which he calls “dissociation from life” and “coming back to earth.” The first great danger occurs in 1934 when his pilot flies into a bombardment of hail on their way back from Yemen. Their primitive plane has no radio, no compass, no intercom. Malraux superbly describes the fear and thrill of an almost fatal crash:

“We were at least seventy miles off course, plunging into an immense cloud, not calmer or stiller at this height, but poised like an animal ready to pounce, compact, alive and murderous. . . . In the immense, slow deliberation of its movement it seemed to be girding itself not for an animal combat but for some inexorable cataclysm. . . . The metal plane was ringing like a tambourine above the crackle of the hailstones on the cockpit windows: they were beginning to find their way through the chinks in the cowling, riddling our faces and eyes.”

 The plane loses altitude, and he continues,

 “I felt my eyes bursting out of my head, in their frantic fear of suddenly seeing the mountain—and yet at the height of exaltation. . . . [Finally,] the battered aircraft crawled through the storm, 150 feet above the peaks.”

After escaping from a German prison camp in 1940 and joining the Resistance, Malraux is wounded and recaptured in 1944. Like Dostoyevsky, he is placed in front of a firing squad but reprieved at the last moment. As the soldiers saunter off with disappointed smiles, Malraux defines military courage as “the feeling of invulnerability.” He evades brutal interrogation and torture when the Germans mix up his brother’s dossier with his own and think they have the wrong man. He finally escapes when the enemy retreats at the end of the war.

He also has a narrow escape from a tank trap (described in Walnut Trees), and from a hostile crowd when he’s giving a political talk in French Guiana: “A glittering object whistled past my left ear, crashed into the back of the booth and fell at my feet. I picked it up and raised it above my head while I went on with my speech. It was a weapon I had never seen before: a piece of wood about fifteen inches long, with an enormous nail sticking out of it. More of them arrived. If the throwers came nearer, it would be easy for them to take aim and hit me.” With his usual sang-froid and grace under pressure he holds his ground and is finally rescued by armed marines.

Malraux structures Anti-Memoirs not only by the recollections of his novels, used as chapter titles, but also by his rather ponderous talks with de Gaulle, Nehru, Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung. Thrilled to be in the corridors of power, he idealises these political leaders, and heightens their pronouncements and his role in their dialogues to make them more significant. His biographer Olivier Todd examined the official record and concluded that the passage about his “meeting with Mao is pure fantasy”—not what happened but what Malraux wanted to have happened.

He worshipped de Gaulle, who substituted pomposity for power during World War Two, was loathed by both Roosevelt and Churchill, and later appointed Malraux his minister of culture. Euphemistically alluding to the Nazi Occupation of France, Malraux solemnly intones, “during our country’s terrible sleep, he kept its honour alive, like an imperishable dream” and now represents “the destiny of France.” Malraux has de Gaulle, who actually proclaimed “La France, cest moi,” symbolise the military glory of France. But both men ignore its humiliating defeats in 1815, 1871, 1914, 1940, 1954 in Vietnam and 1962 in Algeria.

Malraux makes some shrewd comments during his interview with Nehru, the leader of India after independence. He observes that “for me, the history of the last forty years had meant the rise of communism and the supersession of Europe by the United States.” He adds that America is “the only nation ever to have become the most powerful in the world without seeking to; whereas the power of Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon” was based on military conquest. But Malraux mistakenly attributes Roosevelt’s phrase “we have a rendezvous with destiny” to Nehru, along with a few hollow pronouncements. Though India is notoriously corrupt, Nehru wants it to be the conscience of the world. He praises the “Brahman ideal of service”, though the priestly caste does little to help the impoverished masses. And Nehru meaninglessly maintains, “our people have remained, in their way, fundamentally artistic, without knowing it”—and without anyone else knowing it.

In 1965 the onetime thief of Khmer art and current Right-wing French minister meets Mao, who was about to obliterate the ancient civilisation of China during the Cultural Revolution. Malraux portrays Mao — a monster who killed millions of people, even more than Hitler or Stalin — as a noble and idealistic statesman. Without a hint of scepticism, he quotes the “bronze emperor,” who has so powerfully “shaken history,” asserting that “the civilisation of China had made every Chinese a naturally disciplined individual.” In fact, Mao deliberately destroyed the old civilisation and ruthlessly extinguished individuality. Malraux, married three times, has a surprising passage on Mao’s wives (excluding concubines). The first was ugly and soon abandoned. The second was captured and beheaded by the Kuomintang. The third, a heroine of the Long March, was divorced. The fourth, a Shanghai movie star, remained happily married to him.

The most intriguing sleight-of-hand aspect of Anti-Memoirs is Malraux’s resurrection of his own fictional character, the smuggler and gambler Baron Clappique who appeared in Man’s Fate. Clappique, described as a real person, is making a film about Mayrena, who became king of a remote jungle tribe in The Royal Way. Malraux now reinvents that novel in cinematic terms: “It all starts with a bell. . . . Not a word. Close-up of an oil lamp hanging from a dingy ceiling. Around it, a bunch of tiny lizards scuttling off in all directions. The camera pans through the garden, the house, and enters. . . . On either side of a table, as fly-blown as the ceiling, with glasses of Pernod and everything else to match, Mayrena and his friend Mercurol, stripped to the waist, sit listening to the bell.” With acute visual perception, Malraux gives Clappique more directional insights: “God knows I’ve seen some forests in the cinema! The camera always seems to be taking a stroll there. One must convey the impression of penetration. It’s nothing but endless leaves among endless treetrunks. . . . We must be careful to see that the scenes of magic are shot in a perfectly casual way. He is off to have a few words with the dead in the same way we go to a funeral.”

Malraux ends the chaotic but dazzling Anti-Memoirs with a poignant tribute to the Resistance hero Jean Moulin, who died under torture, and with survivors’ horrific memories of the Nazi extermination camps, the setting of Hell that bought Satan back to earth. Acknowledging the evil in the world he has witnessed, Malraux questions the existence of God by quoting Ivan Karamazov’s unanswerable assertion: “If the divine will implies the torture of an innocent child by a brute, I’m handing back my ticket.” 

Vladimir Nabokov 1958 by Fred Stein (PA)

In his foreword to Speak, Memory (1966) Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) rather awkwardly describes his autobiography: “The present work is a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections ranging geographically from St Petersburg to St. Nazaire [on the Atlantic coast of France], and covering thirty-seven years, from August 1903 to May 1940.” He adds that his life up to 1960 falls into three twenty-year spirals: childhood in Russia, exile in western Europe and teaching in America. He doesn’t sketch his exile in Berlin in the 1920s and Paris in the 1930s until the last thirty pages of the book, and never wrote the projected volume about his American years. He believes the true purpose of autobiography is to uncover the hidden patterns and follow the thematic designs of a life. Through intense observation of biographical details, he brings obscure memories into sharp focus. 

Nabokov’s great theme is how the power of memory can recover people, places and a vanished existence. His luxurious life in czarist Russia has not only disappeared, but has also been destroyed forever. By telling his stories of the past he also aims to preserve what has been lost. He never owned a house during his exile from Russia in England, Germany, France, America and Switzerland, and explains that “nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me. I would never manage to match my memories correctly—so why trouble with hopeless approximations?” He also fears that, as in the past, he might lose everything he owns. (It’s worth noting that the two best postwar American novelists, Nabokov and Saul Bellow, both had Russian origins and were born outside America.)

The title Speak, Memory recalls the invocation to the muse at the beginning of an epic poem. Nabokov’s elaborate and ornate style — which includes words in Latin, Russian, French and German — ranges from the pedantic and precious to the witty and brilliant. This idiosyncratic prose, influenced by his scientific training, can be obfuscating when he writes, “I vaguely remember the mention of ‘memory’s sting’ — vospominan’ya zhalo (which I had really visualised as the ovipositor of an ichneumon fly).” It can also be illuminating, as when he explains the origin of eye floaters: “shadows cast upon the retinal rods by motes in the vitreous humor, which are seen as transparent threads drifting across the visual field.”

Nabokov follows Joseph Conrad’s credo in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: “My task, which I am trying to achieve, is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Though Nabokov could read and write English before he knew Russian and was educated at an English university, he regrets that he was never “able to bring my English prose anywhere close to the level of my Russian.” Most critics, however, believe that his English novels are better than those in Russian. Nabokov’s English, like Conrad’s, gave him a new and original way of perceiving reality. 

At his best, Nabokov’s English is amusing and imaginative. He describes the “teat cleats” of his soccer boots, his “retiary activities” when netting butterflies, their coloured wings that (in a rare art analogy) “resemble those of Fra Angelico’s Gabriel,” the anthropomorphic ocean that “seemed to rise and grope in the darkness and then heavily fall on its face,” his Great Dane “fussily adjusting himself to a nearby snowdrift, while deciding which hindleg to lift,” and his companionable dachshund Trainy, who an extended railroad car, dreaming “about chewable slippers and a few last smells.”

Nabokov loved and idealised his parents. His mother was an attractive and cultured upper-class woman who adored her oldest son and praised his juvenile poetry. He notes that “she cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past . . . and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses.” The warm murmur of her goodnight kiss and his tutor’s magic-lantern show are indebted to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. She spent her last years in Prague, living on a pension from the Czech government.

His aristocratic father — who inspired and shared his lifelong interest in tennis, butterflies, chess and literature — is a more complex figure. He had fifty full-time servants in his St Petersburg mansion and his country estate fifty miles from the capital. His chief cook and head gardener steal outrageously from him, and though the kind-hearted master is aware of the thefts he forgives them when their sons supposedly fall ill. The most famous scene in this book recounts how the peasants, grateful for the master’s humane treatment, follow an old tradition by rocking him, tossing him up and catching him in their strong hands as he falls. Inside the house, Nabokov watches him “gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude [and altitude], his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky.” In a startling transition, Nabokov uses this festive moment to foreshadow his father’s death and sees his horizontal figure in an open coffin as the priest chants for his eternal repose.

When writing, his father vibrates his fountain pen “just above the paper while he pondered the next ripple of words.” He condemns the officially sponsored anti-Semitic Kishniev pogrom of 1903, and he defends Baylis, unjustly accused of murdering a Christian boy in Kiev in 1913 (the subject of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer). One of his father’s surprising articles, on “Carnal Crimes,” concerns “little girls à l’âge le plus tendre . . . from eight to twelve years, being sacrificed to lechers,” and prophetically anticipates Lolita.

Nabokov fears, once again, for his father’s life when his parent challenges a disreputable journalist who had insulted him to a duel. Recalling the deaths of Pushkin and Lermontov in duels, and the frequent portrayal of duels in Russian fiction, Nabokov is greatly relieved when the challenge is met by an apology and the duel is called off. As late as 1911 the code of honor demanded that his father could not tolerate an insult and would be willing to risk death by the man who had insulted him.

His father, a distinguished jurist, had an idealistic but ineffective and finally tragic career. It unfolds against the disastrous historical background: the Russian-Japanese War in 1904-05, when an admiral was summoned from their drawing room to take command of the Pacific fleet, and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In another paradox, Nabokov wonders how his father, who “thoroughly appreciated all the pleasures of great wealth, could jeopardise its enjoyment by becoming a Liberal, thus helping to bring on a revolution that would . . . leave him a pauper.” Always involved in high-level negotiations, his father severed his connection with the czarist government in January 1905 and “resolutely plunged into anti-despotic politics.” The following year he spent three months of solitary confinement in prison. He resigned from Alexander Kerensky’s cabinet in 1917. 

As early as page 49 in Speak, Memory there is an ominous telephone call that is not explained until page 193. On the night of March 28, 1922, at a public lecture in Berlin, his father shielded a friend from the bullets of two Right-wing Russian monarchists who were trying to avenge the murder of the czar. As he struggled with one of the assassins, he was killed by the other. The intended victim escaped uninjured.

Nabokov’s noble yet quirky character is strongly influenced by his father. Both are (like Leonard Woolf) good athletes. His father has a cannonball tennis serve; he excels as a soccer goalie. Both strongly opposed capital punishment. Though the young Nabokov sees the attractive and sexually available peasant girls bathing naked in his country estate, he refuses to insult them with “quasi-seignioral advances.” As a teenager, he wants poetic rather than carnal relations with girls. Tolstoy, by contrast, had several children with his house serfs.

Always reluctant to submit to sleep, Nabokov confesses, “I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.” Oddly, and paradoxically once again, he is not afraid of the big sleep, death itself. Like the philosopher David Hume, who told James Boswell, “he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist,” Nabokov thinks, “Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between.” He admits that his wife accuses him of unnecessary callousness in his obsessive, lifelong pursuit of butterflies, but ignores her humane objections. He refuses to let his prey flutter beautifully around flowers and prefers to have them etherised, pierced in the thorax, splayed in glass cases of collectors and displayed in museums.

Nabokov sadly recalls his childhood delusion that in his perfect and permanent world, “everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” In fact, the cataclysmic Revolution of 1917 completely obliterated the stable world he had known and forced his family into exile. At the end of 1916 his late uncle had left him a few million dollars and a 2000-acre estate. Yet Nabokov, potentially the richest modern writer, makes clear in an angry passage, “My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who ‘hates the Reds’ because they ‘stole’ his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.” Like the fabulous Russia of his youth, his family and his wealth are now extinct. When he sees anything in America resembling the St Petersburg countryside, his heart melts.


Nabokov’s home in Rozhdestveno,,Russia

The family first flees south to the Crimea on the Black Sea. They live comfortably on the grounds of the Livadia Palace, the former summer home of Czar Nicholas II (and future residence of Franklin Roosevelt during the Yalta Conference in 1945). They remain in the Crimea for sixteen months while it is captured in turn by the Germans, the White Russians and the Red Army, which finally drive them out in March 1919. In a great scene that shows the intellectual and courageous bond between father and son, they board the shoddy Greek ship Nadezhda (“Hope”), carrying a cargo of dried fruit and bound for Constantinople and Piraeus. As the ship zig-zags under wild machine-gun fire from the shore of Sebastopol, the two men concentrate on a chess game with partly broken pieces.

As Nabokov leaves his opulent past and makes the tremendous adjustment to the penurious present, his family survives on the gradually diminishing diamonds that his mother had smuggled out of Russia. His years in Berlin, when he lives in furnished rooms and gives English and tennis lessons, combine material indigence with intellectual luxury as the émigré writers struggle to keep Russian culture alive. In a passage that contrasts with his memory of vast wealth, he recalls how he managed to survive during his decades of destitution: “Now and then translations into other languages brought in an unexpected scoop; but, otherwise, grants from various émigré organisations, earnings from public readings and lavish private charity were responsible for prolonging authors’ lives.”

Nabokov enters Trinity College, Cambridge, in the fall of 1919. Ignoring the required papers for his dull tutor and the annual final exams, he proudly insists that he never visited the University Library (didn’t even know where it was), skipped lectures, sneaked away to London and, in his spare time, translated Alice in Wonderland into Russian. Vlad the Impaler conducted several simultaneous love affairs and spent most of his time punting. A E Housman — a brilliant classical scholar, fine poet and fascinating character — was a Fellow of Trinity at the time. But Nabokov merely mentions that a waiter once spilled soup on the writer, and dismisses him as the author of “a little volume about young males and death”. (He means A Shropshire Lad.)

Though usually apolitical, Nabokov spends a lot of time at Cambridge trying in vain to enlighten his pro-communist fellow students about the realities of Soviet Russia. That regime, he tells them, is determined to retain power by bestial terror, torture houses and blood-splattered walls. Exile under the czars, “was a restful vacation in comparison to the concentration camps that Lenin introduced” — and Stalin perfected in the Gulag. But Cambridge became even more rabidly communist in the 1930s, when it produced Kim Philby and other notorious English spies. Nabokov hates the Soviets as intensely as Conrad, whose great theme was also loss, hated the Russians. Conrad’s harsh childhood exile in northern Russia — where he lost his country, language and both parents — was much worse than Nabokov’s in the capitals of western Europe. 

Nabokov’s characteristically subtle allusions in Speak, Memory provide a striking contrast to his anti-Bolshevik blasts. He doesn’t explain why his governess was suddenly dismissed (presumably for sexual indiscretions) in Abbazia on the Adriatic coast. In the foreword and again on page 219 he calls attention to the “great cartoonist” who portrayed figures “with their puffed-up little chests and trim uniforms,” but doesn’t identify the now forgotten New Yorker artist Otto Soglow. Nabokov is most interested in the work of Sirin, and generously praises the unusual style, brilliant precision and functional imagery of that émigré writer. Very few American readers would have known in 1966 that Nabokov, who published his Russian works under the pseudonym of Sirin, was actually praising himself. (“Sirin,” ironically, is close to sarin, the poison gas.) Without mentioning the name of his youngest brother Sergey, he mysteriously says that he indiscreetly read a page from Sergey’s diary that “provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behaviour on his part.” Having aroused our interest, he does not reveal that Sergey was homosexual. He was left behind when Nabokov escaped to America and died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Though Nabokov dedicated Speak, Memory to his wife Vera and reproduces her Nansen passport photo, he does not mention that he married her in 1925. Their son Dmitri, born in Berlin in 1934, loves speed and is given a toy racing car. (This foreshadows Dmitri’s adult passion for racing cars and his horrific car accident in 1980, which burned forty per cent of his body and nearly killed him.) Instead of naming Vera directly, in the last thirty pages of the book he addresses her as “you” and even as “my dear.” Vera replaced Nabokov’s mother as his ideal reader, and devoted her life to helping him teach and write, and as dutiful chauffeuse to catch butterflies on their western hunts.

Since Vera was Jewish, she was in mortal danger as the triumphant German army invaded the Low Countries in May 1940 and would enter Paris in June. That May, Nabokov, Vera and Dmitri just managed to get the necessary documents and board the Champlain, sailing from St Nazaire to the safety of New York. Fulfilling yet another pattern, the narrow escape and sea voyage reprise his flight and voyage from the Crimea to Greece in 1919.

Woolf put imperialism behind him, but enjoyed reliving the past and portraying his colorful, younger self. Koestler, angry about his political self-delusions, overcame his troubling memories and, in a kind of Freudian therapy, wrote them out of his system. Malraux cultivated his myths, exulted in his triumphs and delighted in his proximity to powerful leaders. Nabokov, memorialising his mother and father, recreated his lost world so he could relive the past while writing about it.

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