In Which André Malraux Kills Death




An engraving by Fernand Léger.

André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.

As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:

Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.

As for the novel itself:

Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.

There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying.

“Dear friend, I’ve had enough. The world (it’s useless to stand there gaping—I’ll soon be dead) the world is only tolerable to us because of our habit of tolerating it. They inflict this tolerance on us when we’re still too young to resist, and then … do you see what I mean? If we can suppress the habit of—”

“I don’t understand … ”

“Well, it’s not hard to figure out! Let’s say your friends are eggcups, for example. Can’t you see them handing out, at random, the title of God of the Eggcups, and confiding to him their eggcup desires? Can’t you imagine the female eggcups saying with a smirk ‘The balance and harmony of the female eggcup is clearly superior to that of the male eggcup’? My god, just look at them all! I’ve had enough of the whole game, I tell you, enough! I’m ill and you’re trying to pick a fight with me—well I’m taking my umbrella and leaving. My departure will be a great practical joke. They call me Death but you know perfectly well that I’m only Chance. Slow decay is just one of my disguises. But, now, where’s she gone? Rifloire! Rilfoire! She took off! The slut! Whore! Well … finally! I’ve been a torment to her, and now that I’m going to die she won’t be able to even take revenge upon me. Oh, let’s get it over with!”

And she lit a cigarette. A sinuosity of smoke rose like a delicate, wispy girl floating on the air, and Death tried to imagine all sorts of pornographic shapes, tried to will them into movements that would correspond to the swaying of the thread of smoke.

And not a single cushion stirred.