The Arty Semite

Clara Malraux: A Feisty Writer to Remember

By Benjamin Ivry

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The French Jewish writer Clara Malraux (1897-1982) deserves to be remembered for her two ardent, sadly untranslated, books on Israel, “Kibbutz Civilization” (“Civilisation du kibboutz,” 1964), and “From the Four Corners of the Earth: Twelve Israeli Encounters” (“Venus des quatre coins de la terre: douze rencontres en Israël,” 1971).

Instead, as a stylish new biography by Dominique Bona, “Clara Malraux,” informs us, in posterity’s eyes Clara Malraux is merely seen as the first, ultimately rejected, wife of the author and French Culture Minister André Malraux. Bona, who has also published an elegant biography of the French Jewish novelist Romain Gary, underlines how Clara, born Goldschmidt, faced antisemitism in childhood, and became a Resistance heroine during the German Occupation. This in contrast to her pretentious liar of a husband, whose belated, yet much-praised, entry into the French Resistance is an example of the feet of clay which hamper a certain faded form of Gallic machismo.

André Malraux’s writings are mostly unreadable now, so it is good that Grasset is reprinting some of Clara’s, including the autobiographical volumes “And Yet I Was Free” (“… Et pourtant j’étais libre”) and “When We Were 20” (“Nos vingt ans”). These reveal a feisty, fearlessly bumptious writer whose verve clearly captivated other authors noted for their wit, from Emmanuel Berl to Vladimir Jankélévitch.

A 2008 memoir from Arléa Publishers, “Clara Malraux: Adventuress” (“Clara Malraux, L’aventureuse”), by a journalist friend, Claude Kiejman, confirms that Clara was a salty, forthright person who cheerfully admitted to lifelong recreational use of opium, ever since she and André had traveled to Southeast Asia in the 1920s. In addition to writing her own works, she was also a gifted translator into French of such key texts as Gustav Janouch’s “Conversations with Kafka”; “The Minor Passion: a Child’s Tale” (“Die kleine Passion. Geschichte eines Kindes,” 1929) by the anti-Nazi Buchenwald survivor Ernst Wiechert; and Virginia Woolf’s feminist text “A Room of One’s Own.”

Unlike her ex-husband André, who became a lifelong slave to Charles De Gaulle, Clara was infuriated with the General’s positions toward Israel, writing in volume four of her memoirs, “I will never forgive [De Gaulle].” Thanks are due to Dominique Bona and Grasset Publishers for shining a long-overdue spotlight on this remarkable Frenchwoman.

Watch Clara Malraux discuss her memoir “And Yet I Was Free” on a 1979 broadcast of the French book chat program “Apostrophes,” here.


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