I’m doing a lot of reading in French this summer for an article I’m writing. (One of the great perks of my job is that I have to read literature, history, and biographies. Oh, the suffering!) Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenburg) is the first novel I’ve read by André Malraux, one of the great French writers, thinkers, art critics, and statesmen of the twentieth century. He wrote it during the Second World War, as the first part of a longer novel which was destroyed by the Gestapo (La Lutte avec l’Ange/ The Struggle With the Angel). Malraux was active in the French Resistance, captured twice by the Germans, led a battalion in Alsace, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the British Distinguished Service Order. His interests before and after the war lay primarily with France’s colonies in Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.), but during the war, his focus was on France.
The Walnut Trees of Altenburg has a strongly autobiographical flavor. It begins with a first-person narrator describing his experience in a prisoner-of-war camp at Chartres Cathedral. (Such a camp existed, and Malraux was actually kept at a POW camp at the cathedral of Sens.) He describes the universal human condition: the relations between the men, the terrible conditions, the efforts at survival, all taking place under the pure lines of Gothic stone.
The next part of the novel describes the narrator’s father, Vincent Berger, who was a diplomat for Germany in Constantinople. (The family is Alsatian, a part of the world that has been traded between France and Germany in each successive war.) It describes his understanding of the politics in the Middle East, and finally his journey home to his family in Altenburg, in Alsace. He arrives to the suicide of his own father, the narrator’s grandfather, and a long philosophical discussion with his father’s friends about the nature of man. Is man what he hides, or what he achieves? If man is what he thinks about, then is the man of ancient Egypt the same as the man of today? (I say “man” on purpose, by the way; “l’homme” in French is generally meant to say mankind, but we are not really talking about women here.) They discuss Nietzsche, Freud, Jung — all under the sheltering walnut trees.
The third portion of the book was, to me, by far the most striking. Vincent Berger, having returned home in 1914, is just in time to go into battle in the first World War. He observes the men in the trenches, Germans and Alsatians, with Russians across the battlefield, and he is there to witness the total horror of the first use of gas as a weapon in war. Malraux’s description of this was eerie and terrifying: the shattered men and devastated plant life in the wake of the gas, and just across the hill, life going on as usual. The book ends with another episode in Chartres Cathedral, and another battle scene, this time in another war.
There were times that I felt this book was more of a philosophical treatise than a novel. It talks about some very serious matters: the nature of man, the temporal questions of art and philosophy, the psychology of war. I wonder, too, how it would have fit into the scheme of the longer novel Malraux had planned. But there are also some unforgettable images and characters. It almost felt to me like the kind of book someone would make you read (say, in school), and then you’d be glad you’d read it. I am very glad I did.