Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Books: Anti-Memoirs, by André Malraux

In my previous incarnation as a real estate broker, I had ample time to poke around other people's apartments during dull open houses. Some people had collected interesting art, some people had collected interesting liquor, and some people had collected interesting dust. One man, a journalist who specialized in the Middle East, had collected interesting books (and art, and dust), and had an entire wall of tightly-packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the long living/dining room. I poked around at those quite a bit, and ended up adding a number of titles from his collection to my reading list. One was Malraux's Anti-Memoirs.

I don't know what appeared interesting about it at the time (since I was even less interested in geography and foreign affairs then than I am now, when, even though I now listen to to NPR all morning at home and read Slate all day at work, I probably couldn't tell you who's who between Mubarak and Musharraf, never mind Maliki and Muqtada (it's not my fault; they're all Ms!)) , but, having finally read it (two years after I put it on the list), I can tell you that there isn't much interesting in it now. Malraux writes in an episodic, non-linear way (he seems to have organized the book in some way according to which real-life incidents inspired which novels, but since I've never read any of his novels, this made little sense to me).

I will be the first to admit that my lack of joy in reading this text probably derives from more user error than lack of skill on Malraux's part. Indeed, he seems to have been quite the adventurer (fighting in the French Resistance, being captured, escaping torture), quite the statesman (discussing politics and religion, and whether the two ought to meet, with Nehru (unarguably the best parts of the book)), and quite the philosopher (pointing out to an ambassador, who said something about donkeys being "activated" by carrots they never eat, that "Man eats the carrot, but it makes him hungry" (perhaps the most insightful comment in all his pages). And so, even if I had to slog, hour after hour, through this dense volume (it's one of those ones where you read two whole paragraphs and then realize that you have no idea what you just read because you were thinking about what you were going to eat for dinner, and now you have to go back and read it all over again), on the few occasions that I actually engaged in what he was saying, I was fairly impressed.

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