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The Kingdom of Farfelu with Paper Moons
by André Malraux
Translation by W.B. Keckler
$14.00 100 pp. ISBN 1-879193-13-2
The first English translations of André Malraux's two most extreme works of fiction: the voluptuous surrealist novella The Kingdom of Farfelu (1928), and Paper Moons, a funny, ferociously absurdist novella from 1921. Translation by National Poetry Series winner W.B. Keckler.
Anglophone readers now have a better view of the inner landscapes of a very young André Malraux, thanks to Fugue State Press. A translation by National Poetry Series winner W.B. Keckler of two early works, The Kingdom of Farfelu and Paper Moons, has just been published. Those who thought they knew Malraux as the heroic adventurer, fierce moralist, and author of Man's Fate, should be prepared to have their minds blown.
Paper Moons, written when the author was only 20 years old, is a novelette, in three parts with prologue, enhanced with drawings, or more aptly, doodlings by the author. With a dedication to Max Jacob, this is the work of Malraux the precocious surrealist, eager to break through into the world of dreams while preserving a strain of narrative integrity that is often neglected or artificially imposed by his colleagues in the movement. Far from the so-called automatic writing of André Breton, which tends to induce a state of fatigue markedly contrasted with the sort of delirium-spawning the author apparently intended, Malraux's novellas are a pleasure to finish and contribute much to an understanding of the development of avant-garde writing in the last century.
Departing from the provocative anti-Symbolist proclamation--"There are no symbols in this book"--the novella begins with the moon above changing colors, as it frequently does on nocturnal acid trips. Paper Moons actually has the colorful intensity of a hallucination, conjuring flashes of Lewis Carroll in its pursuit of a group of balloons and their strange morphings--into flowers and fruits--until one of the fruits bursts open to reveal a bevy of sins, which will be our protagonists for the remainder of the novella. The last section, "Victory," takes place in the town of Farfelu, and ends with the murder of the town's Queen, whose name is Death. Why did they kill Death? By the time the question has arrived, the sins have forgotten, and it all comes to an abrupt, yet apt halt.
The Kingdom of Farfelu, written seven years later, is a more difficult work, yet still readable. It details the ruthless siege of a city, and the subsequent destruction of the attacking army by a school of scorpions. It is essentially a war story. Thematically, it is typical Malraux, yet stylistically it's anything but, combining the hallucinatory surrealism of Paper Moons with the apocalyptic vision of Lautréamont. In the words of Keckler, think "Full Metal Jacket transposed historically to the more distant past, slightly to the west."
Detractors may claim that these are merely two works of juvenilia, yet both books, while brash and childlike, are deceptive in their complexities. They also furnish something of a foundation for Malraux's later preoccupation with death and his fiercely moral stance on war. This book will make an excellent companion to Oliver Todd's recently published biography, Malraux: A Life (Knopf).
--Travis Jeppesen, New York Press
The Kingdom of Farfelu, which has never been translated into English, is one of Malraux's most satisfying works. The mood is that of The Tempest: all is magic, luxury, quietness. Strange and wonderful things are always happening, but they have the appearance of inevitability and we do not question them any more than we question Prospero's cell or Ariel's flights around the earth....a work of the imagination comparable with Coleridge's Kubla Khan....In Malraux's work, The Kingdom of Farfelu holds a special place. In the past he played with death, though it was serious play. Henceforth there will be no question of playing with death. He will wrestle with it with all his strength....Henceforth he will be haunted by "that perfect liberty which is the gift of irremediable ruin."
Paper Moons is a strange story. The young Malraux has poured into it all the accumulated passions of his soul, his nihilism, his distrust of the world, his belief in the essential absurdity of existence, and his delight in the play of the imagination. There is corrosive bitterness as well as gaiety, ferocity as well as gentleness, sickness as well as health. He is giving all of himself, holding nothing back.
--Robert Payne, A Portrait of André Malraux
André Malraux's Paper Moons was his first book, and came into material existence as a livre d'artiste (of the sort Ambrose Vollard introduced to the world) with woodcuts by Fernand Léger. Although Malraux was quite young, this work was recognized as a substantial achievement by a broad community of established writers, chiefly the surrealists, many of whose works he was actively patronizing in the capacity of precocious editor and publisher. André Breton, in particular, recognized the arrival of a new master and saluted him as such. Paper Moons is dedicated to Max Jacob, and one can intuit a mentoring influence of spirit as well as style there. But this is only one of the many voices Malraux synthesizes in a practically Rimbaudian, astonishingly forgetive idiom, a trance-state of glossolalia.
What is Paper Moons, exactly? It is a deadly-serious capriccio, extremely funny often, but funny in the way that Goya could be; that is, never frivolously. It's a genre-bender of a tale, sending up the traditional allegory, the pilgrims' tale, children's fables, and other conventional literary genres and literary conventions, even as it makes extremely prescient inroads into new novelistic forms which would appear or develop more fully in the 20th century, such as the Rousselian novel as linguistic hallucination, the self-referential novel and the more accomplished forms of science fiction.
The work begins with a vignette that reads like sexualized Lewis Carroll (wait, some might argue Carroll is already sexualized!) that links to the start of the "tale proper" in the manner of a Japanese folding screen. This picaresque narrative follows the adventures of the Seven Sins, who would undertake the grand project of governing existence. They soon intuit that this ambitious enterprise unfortunately entails annihilating Death (they quickly discount God as the Supreme Being who stands most in their way). From this premise flows a story of amazing linguistic intricacy, as much a textual Rube Goldberg device as a mechanical oracle, one of those putative talking heads of the ancient world. The enterprise and the tale are Pythian and Pyrrhic and Malraux's burgeoning moral sensibility (what gave the world La Condition Humaine) is already present here. This is a genuinely funny work about the abdication of moral consequence which speaks to our age of internecine obliviousness and giddy usurpation.
The Kingdom of Farfelu is a work that will be more recognizably "Malrauxian," since it is a war story, and a supernally realized one at that. While Farfelu traverses much of the Middle East and Orient in its imaginative peregrinations, it felicitously steers completely clear of any degree of that most common and pernicious stylistic pose in early 20th century literature: orientalism. Instead, Farfelu wants to tell a soldier's tale, perhaps every soldier's tale, if he or she has really seen the horrors of war firsthand. That this requires spiritual transformation goes without saying, and the language of this tale is taut and hallucinatory--Full Metal Jacket transposed historically to the more distant past, slightly to the west. This work is deeply philosophical in a reificative way: can the world be real, the author seems to impel us to ask, in which such things happen? Can it remain real? This surreal truth-narrative plays beautifully off Paper Moons thematically and spiritually, and shows that this great author was one of those rarities like Rimbaud who was writing with astonishing concinnity right out of the gate.
--Translator W.B. Keckler
We tend to remember André Malraux's life in four stages: as the engaged novelist of the 1930's, the 1940's resistance fighter, the multicultural art historian of the 1950's, and as Charles de Gaulle's innovative Minister of Culture in the 1960's. And it is not always easy to reconcile these masks, nor to assimilate into those roles Malraux's continuing theme, his obsession with the meaning of death.
With the first-ever translation of these two novellas, however, written at the outset of Malraux's extraordinary career, the English-speaking world can for the first time see this body of work in perspective. These seminal pieces are the one place among all Malraux's writing where his major conflicting concerns: war and aestheticism, action and contemplation, politics and fraternity, art and death, are joined behind an unexpected and little-known mask, the one guise that could contain them: Malraux as surrealist.
Paper Moons, the earlier work, is a fable of mysterious beings that come to earth and hatch a scheme to "kill death" itself. It is told in a lush, luminous comic style, sensuous and dreaming. In its manner of narration it embodies Malraux's reference to museum art as "the presence, in life, of what ought to belong to death." Here the author can indirectly speak to his audience over the head of his mortality, in a story-as-painting that struggles directly against a character called Death. With its static gaze and byways of attention, it is the most purely aesthetic object Malraux ever created.
The Kingdom of Farfelu, an even more lush, more surreal work (yet written at the same time as his spare, exciting novel The Conquerors), delineates the concept of the "farfelu" that occupied much of Malraux's fancy throughout his life--the Absurd, blossoming into a kind of gorgeous fatality. The story itself depicts the meaningless siege of a city, where the attacking army is finally routed by its own futility and by its fear of death, in the form however not of a politically motivated enemy but of waves of mindless scorpions. As antiwar statement the story is transcendent, unlike anything even in surrealism, and is imbued with Malraux's effortless multiculturalism--for example in its capsule evocation of the atmosphere of literally dozens of Asian cities on a single page, always avoiding mere exoticism: here it is the Frenchman who is exotic, who is a fog of contradictions, while Asia sits still in the depth of its millennial cultures.
Malraux's later explication of the Imaginary Museum, his opening up of the arts of Asia and Africa as a kind of simultaneous human brush stroke, was for many Western artists and intellectuals the first moment they heard the Third World speaking in its true voice. As he once said, the Renaissance was but a small prelude to this greater Western awakening. These two stories are foundational texts in the adventure of that awakening.
They also provide a surprise. To readers of Man's Fate or The Voices of Silence, this will be their first encounter with a funny Malraux, his hair down, irresponsible, sidetracking and subverting the reader's expectations again and again, and yet beneath the humor keeping that intensely serious gaze, a gaze that is one of the treasures of the twentieth century.
About the Author:
French writer and politician André Malraux (1901-1976) was one of the most distinguished novelists of the 20th century. France's first minister of culture, his adventures and wartime activities are legendary and well-documented. He is the author of The Royal Way, Man's Fate, The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, Saturn: An Essay on Goya, and Lazarus, to list only our favorites among his many titles.
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