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A Literary Jack-Of-All-Trades

ISSUE:  Winter 1987

The Worlds of André Maurois. By Jack Kolbert. Susquehanna University Press and Associated University Presses. $34.50.

The year 1985 was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of André Maurois, and appropriately, near the end of that year, Professor Jack Kolbert published the most thorough book so far on that author on whom he had been working since 1963. If a relatively literate Anglo-Saxon were asked to name some French authors, he would probably answer: Balzac, Hugo, Maupassant, Anatole France, and he might even add Maurois and Proust. In France, Maurois’ birthday was celebrated with proper respect and particularly by the sedate Revue des Deux Mondes which produced a special number, but a glance at any history of contemporary French literature will disclose the fact that Maurois is no longer highly regarded as a literary figure, if, indeed, he is mentioned at all. Maurois wrote novels, histories, literary criticism, even a play, and he would have liked to be known today as a great novelist. Yet he spent the largest part of his unbounded energy on biography and, as Kolbert says, “few would refuse André Maurois the title of the greatest biographer of our time.” Unfortunately for Maurois’ literary fame, biography is seldom recognized as a literary genre.

Kolbert’s study is more than a biography; he has very consciously written a vie et æeuvres in the French tradition. The biographical section fills only one third of the book. The precocious son of a Jewish industrialist named Herzog, who had emigrated to Normandy from Alsace with all his personnel after the Franco-Prussian war, the future André Maurois grew up in Elbeuf and received his education in Rouen and Caen. He had literary ambitions, but he heeded the advice of his professor and mentor, the philosopher known to literature as Alain, and remained in the management of the family textile mill so as to experience life before writing. He was still there at 29 when the First World War suddenly emancipated him. Because he knew a word or two of English, the army made him a liaison officer with the British, and that inspired him to write his first work of fiction, Les Silences du colonel Bramble, a humorous but moving account of the British military in battle. It was an instant success and thrust into the limelight a new author named André Maurois, for the French military authorities would not allow him to use his real name. Although Maurois returned to the factory for another five years, he established residence also in Paris and gradually moved into the literary world. His interest in things English caused him to write Ariel, ou La Vie de Shelley, perhaps the best known but also the least scientific of all his biographical achievements. Presently his interest in the Anglo-Saxon world extended to the United States: he taught at Princeton, he was consulted by Roosevelt about world affairs, and then, because he was an outspoken anti-Hitler Jew, he took refuge in the United States during the Second World War. Eventually he served in the Free French Army in North Africa, after which he returned to a most honored position in France and wrote his major biographies, ending with his Prométhée, ou La Vie de Balzac, his greatest achievement finished when he turned 80.

Maurois once called Kolbert his “biographer.” For this reason one might have expected more from Kolbert as an official biographer; but although Maurois and his heirs did put many documents at his disposal, there are no “revelations,” and Kolbert does not quote unpublished texts as Maurois was accustomed to do in his major biographies. Kolbert is at his best in describing Maurois’ later years when he himself knew the great biographer. His account of most of Maurois’ life is based on Maurois’ own autobiographies, the first published in New York when he was in exile, the second published after his death. Kolbert asserts that “the greater biographer is he who can reincarnate some of the stirring dramatic scenes from the lives of his subjects.” Kolbert’s life of Maurois is admirably clear and exact, but it is totally undramatic, whereas it might have been. Maurois himself refers to amorous adventures in his twenties; to marital troubles when he married the beautiful but restless (and perhaps unfaithful) Janine de Szymkiewicz, who begot him three children before dying of an illness; to his unfair treatment of his second wife, Simone de Caillavet; and finally to the somewhat mysterious adventure in South America with the woman who was to become the heroine of his last novel, Les Roses de Septembre. Kolbert obscures these more succulent morsels in the details of what might be termed Maurois’ official life, his connections in the literary and political worlds, his rise to worldwide fame, his election to the French Academy, and his lectures both at home and abroad. No doubt Kolbert was inhibited in all this by an obligation to Maurois’ heirs, or maybe he was disinclined to speculate for lack of conclusive evidence. Maurois, incidentally, did not have the same inhibitions when writing about his contemporary Marcel Proust.

In the traditional life and works formula, the life is only the introduction to the works. Appropriately the other two-thirds of Kolbert’s study is devoted to the works. A gifted stylist and a careful writer, Maurois was also prolific, as anyone will discover who attempts to encompass his entire work. Although his major activity was in biography and fiction, Maurois, in attempting to interpret one culture to the other, wrote ten historical works, including major histories of England, the United States, and France. In the category of “Essays, criticism and nonfictional works,” Kolbert’s bibliography lists 40 book titles, and, in the category of “Autobiographical works,” 15 titles. These lesser works yield the ideas for Kolbert’s unusually fine synthesis with which he concludes, entitled “The world of Maurois’ criticism and literary philosophy.” Summing up Maurois’ attitude toward life and art, Kolbert says: “Art necessarily reflects the lived experiences of human existence; otherwise it becomes hollow and meaningless.” As anyone who ever heard or met Maurois knows, he was above all very human, and this humanity pervades his work.

Maurois wrote 15 biographies, a few of them minor accounts which were initially the text of lectures but most of them major works, each of which was several years in preparation. After the romantic flight of Ariel, in which he was reflecting his own maladjustment to life in his early period, he learned the value of erudition when he wrote Don Juan, ou La Vie de Byron (1930). He had come under the influence of his erudite second wife, Simone de Caillavet, the granddaughter of Anatole France’s famous mentor—mistress. Simone is now famous in literary history because Proust had her parents awaken her in the middle of the night because he wanted to put her into Le Temps retrouvé as Gilberte’s daughter. In spite of his erudition, Maurois always tried to make the heroes of his biographies live as vividly and as intimately as though they were fictional. He never wrote the biography of a person whom he did not admire and whose weaknesses he did not understand. Except for his Byron and his Disraeli, most of his great biographies were on French literary giants: (in their order of composition) Chateaubriand, Proust, Georges Sand, the three Dumas, and finally Balzac. In all of these cases he had predecessors in the field whom he momentarily outdistanced. In three cases, Proust, Fleming, and Adrienne de Lafayette, he was really in virgin territory, with a mass of original documents which he quoted at length. One wonders how Maurois’ major biographies will stand the test of time. When Proust’s Jean Santeuil and Contre Sainte-Beuve were discovered, Maurois never took time to update his biography, so that it is, in some respects, obsolete. Although Kolbert quotes the praises which critics heaped upon Maurois’ work during his lifetime and at his death, he has found no way to assess scholarly opinion in the anniversary year.

On the other hand, if it seems likely that the biographies will survive, at least the novels are definitely in an eclipse. Alain told Maurois to live life first and then write like Balzac. That was bad advice since the 20th century has largely rejected the traditional realistic novel. Not counting his plotless and once highly successful fiction, Les Silences du colonel Bramble and Les Discours du docteur O’Grady, Maurois wrote seven real novels. The first was a failure. The second one, Bernard Quesnay, transposing Maurois’ experience as an industrialist wanting to break away from that life, was relatively successful. Today Kolbert calls it “one of the most unjustly underestimated novels of our times,” which is an opinion that not everyone shares. The third novel Climats, is another matter. It does not try to be Balzacian but belongs to the tradition of the introspective novel like Constant’s Adolphe. It consists of two confessional letters; in the first, the hero, writing to his second wife, tells of his enduring love for his unfaithful first wife who committed suicide; in the second letter, the second wife tells of the difficulty of living with a husband who respects but does not love her. This subtle work, obviously autobiographical (as Kolbert says) but to what extent one may never exactly know, was a tremendous success in France and, surprisingly, in Russia, although the English translation, Atmosphere of Love, received little attention. Climats deserves to survive, but that is not the case for the next novel, Cercle de famille, although it too, being autobiographical, would be grist for a more fanciful biography of Maurois. Sandwiched in between more important writing, Maurois’ remaining novels did little to enhance his almost universally recognized reputation as an author. But his fiction was not limited to novels. In an enthusiastic chapter on “André Maurois as a writer of short stories,” Kolbert describes the ten volumes in this category, including science fiction taking place in Princeton and fanciful tales written for Maurois’ own children. For Kolbert they constitute “a diminutive human comedy,” deserving of more attention than it now receives. Perhaps French literary historians will one day think that Maurois’ total work deserves more attention too.


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