‘The idea of more contact with those interfering cops and stinking detectives; of having to provide work papers going back twenty-five years and rent bills from every shelter I ever slept in . . . Oh, with that thought I’d rather end my days gloriously stateless.’ So Jean Malaquais wrote to André Gide in 1949, as he faced the prospect of putting in another application for the French passport that had always eluded him. The Polish-born writer had spent over two decades in the country at this point, had served in its army and built a literary reputation, but he would never be welcome there, nor would the keepers of the canon ever find a place for his three novels, Les Javanais (1939), Planète sans visa (1947) and Le Gaffeur (1953). Malaquais remained the original javanais of his first novel, a man who went wherever the work was, carrying the richest fictions in his mind and expressing them in a unique prose. His slender but attractively strange and special oeuvre has finally become more accessible indirectly, in the very clearly written, well-documented and engaging Malaquais rebelle, the first biography of the author, by French scholar Geneviève Nakach. She paints the portrait of a man whose first thirty years were so tumultuous it is not surprising his last sixty were spent slowing down.

Malaquais was born Vladimir Malacki in Warsaw in 1908, into a secular Jewish family. His schoolteacher father communicated a passion for French culture and literature that inspired the teenage boy to write his first poems in that language, and never switch to another. At the age of seventeen he left Poland with a visa for Palestine and began what Nakach describes as his ‘forward flight’. He spent time in Romania and Egypt, then came to France via Marseille and arrived in Paris at the end of June 1926. During his travels he picked up some fifty jobs, from dishwasher to mechanic to electrician on the Paris–Orléans line. In the French capital, Malaquais had what proved to be a decisive meeting with the young leftist militant Marc Chirik, who had come from Moldova and was working in an assortment of manual jobs. Chirik, who had been expelled from the French Communist Party and was now heavily engaged in revolutionary politics, had a profound influence on Malaquais’s political outlook, shaping his early critique of what he saw as the Soviet Union’s ‘state capitalism’.

In the late twenties, Malaquais began sending out short stories for publication in French journals, with mixed results. He also started a novel, using the cumulative experience of work and world-wandering as material. For money he had taken a mining job in the South of France, then washed dishes on a ship to Dakar, and gone on to Algiers and Casablanca. In the mid-thirties and back in Paris, he worked in the abattoirs at Les Halles, while pondering a move to Spain to join the revolutionary forces there. Extremely enthusiastic about their prospects, he made contact with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, and specifically with its Lenin International Column, an organization made up of foreign sympathizers, under the leadership of dissident Bordigists. But Malaquais was quickly disillusioned when the poum called for unity among all ‘republican’ forces in a military bloc against Franco—a move that he saw as the end of the Spanish Revolution.

During this time he also met André Gide, another decisive encounter. Gide had published an article in the Nouvelle Revue Française expressing what he perceived as the malaise arising from intellectual work; Malaquais, who was always exhausted after a day’s work and struggled to find time or energy to think, considered him very lucky indeed, and fired off a few angry letters rebuking what he saw as Gide’s romantic idealization of manual labour. Summoned to rue Vaneau, the young man quickly changed his tone—to ‘Mon cher Maître’, and then progressively ‘Mon cher vieux’. The original dispute was not insignificant, however, and there was always an undercurrent of this tension between the intellectual and the worker in their relationship. Malaquais said he could never entirely shake off his ‘psychology of the poor man’. In the realm of politics they soon found shared positions, especially after Gide returned from the ussr in 1936 and published his bleak account of what he had found there. Retour de l’urss announced a final break with Stalinism, provoking an angry response from Louis Aragon, who would remain a staunch ally of the ussr for decades to come. It was a very public dispute between two of France’s most respected literary figures over the left’s relationship with Stalinism, and Malaquais too intervened, publishing an article in defence of Gide and against ‘the professional patriot’.

At the time of Gide’s death in 1951, Malaquais said he would never have been the writer he was had he not met him. This vital, formative influence comes through most clearly and touchingly in their published Correspondance (2000), also edited very well and informatively by Nakach. In their letters we read Gide’s elegant but ruthless verdict on Malaquais’s first manuscript, La Rage au ventre, which he encouraged the young man to ditch, but only so as to concentrate on writing another immediately. In 1939 when Gide read the resulting Les Javanais, an account of workers in a lead and silver mine in the South of France, he declared himself ‘considerably astonished . . . at times you manage to attain an extraordinary lyricism of a very rare and special quality which delights me; it has an epic grandeur, at once comical and tragic . . . it is an absolute success.’ Gide was not alone in his admiration, and it is striking to see what a diverse group of supporters the novel attracted. Les Javanais made its first appearance in serial form in the daily newspaper of the Confédération Générale du Travail, Le Peuple. The young publisher Robert Denoël, gaining notoriety at the time with Louis-Ferdinand Céline on his list, bought the book after the more prestigious Gallimard had refused it, and also convinced Vladimir Malacki, as he still was, to change his name to coincide with publication. Trotsky, on reading Les Javanais, was inspired to write an article announcing ‘a new great writer’ whose name ‘we must remember’. He noted the story’s social dimension—the mine workers hold a strike when rumours circulate of an imminent closure—but praised its author for not trying to prove any particular idea or position in regard to his subject-matter. Les Javanais never lapsed into propaganda, Trotsky said; it confidently assumed the status of art. ‘And yet at the same time we feel at each moment the convulsions of our time, the most powerful and the most monstrous, the most important and most despotic . . . [The] combination of personal, defiant lyricism and violent epic poetry, which is that of its time, perhaps makes the charm of this novel.’ The literary establishment also found much to praise, and awarded Malaquais the Renaudot prize in 1939, ahead of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée.

While his book was receiving accolades, Malaquais was cut off and miserable in the trenches. He had been called up in September 1939, serving first in the 620th Pioneer Regiment, where he was engaged in exhausting manual labour. He was then moved to various other units and posted around small towns in the Alsace region, experiencing no fighting but much discomfort and depression. When he heard about his literary success he requested and was granted leave. He enjoyed the moment, but it was an isolated one, in what Nakach describes as ‘the worst’ period; a turning-point involving experiences that would mark him for life. In his nine months as a soldier Malaquais was deeply shocked by the intensity of his revulsion for his fellow-men: the crassness of their talk, the nauseating smell, their apparent delight in all things base. ‘I envy those with the ability not to think about tomorrow’, he wrote in his Journal de guerre (1943), ‘not to think about the cement and the dirt—about life. Not thinking. Whatever happens, those who can avoid thinking have already won the first round.’ His disgust was always tinged with shame. He hated the troop, hated himself for not even being able to try to be part of it, and yet was compelled to write because of his belief in human beings, because of his desire to grasp what moved them. He wanted to pay homage to their spirit, but his experience as a soldier had shown him a side of humanity he detested, leaving him unsure whether war reduced men to animals or whether it revealed their true nature. Whatever the truth, he hated to be so close to it each day and writing became a way of channelling his anger. ‘If I ever get out of this war alive, I would like my testimony to have the taste of blood that has been vomited on a newly grown leaf and given to the reader to chew on.’

The impulse to flee the group and seek distance, yet always have as his subject that same group, was a difficult contradiction for Malaquais to resolve. He knew he must not give in to the temptation, as he saw it, to use writing as a mere refuge, a reason to justify standing alone and isolated from a world he so often found depressing and enraging. He reminded himself of this frequently in his diaries: the Journal de guerre written from September 1939 to July 1940, and the Journal d’un métèque (1997), which he started immediately afterwards on 13 July 1940—the day he arrived back in Paris, having escaped from an improvised German prisoner-of-war camp where he had been confined a month earlier, in the Nancy region. The last entry in this second diary comes the day he set sail for Mexico from Marseille on 8 October 1942. In both journals Malaquais resolved never to become ‘a man of letters’, saying that he preferred to think of himself as a labourer who works his material (words) to give form to shapeless mass, and keeps a healthy distance from his subject. ‘Told in the first person, the life of a man is ineffable. We have neither the distance nor the detachment that is necessary. It is in fiction, in poetry, more rarely in the essay, that writing is at its best because it is being practised unknowingly. The writer only talks about himself when he talks about something else.’