A wonderful late literary review from Leon Trotsky of ‘The Javanese,’ Jean Malaquais’ first novel.
‘Jean Malaquais: A Great New Writer’ (1939) by Leon Trotsky from Fourth International. Vol. 2 No. 1. January, 1941.
(Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Trotsky in August, 1939, after reading The Javanese, a first novel by Jean Malaquais. Trotsky reviews the book and calls attention to Malaquais as a great new writer. The article, submitted to various bourgeois publications, was rejected at the time. When the Goncourt Prize was awarded to Malaquais for his novel, bringing him fame and obviating the need to call the new writer to public attention, Trotsky asked his literary agent to return the article. It appears here for the first time.)
It is well that there is art in the world as well as politics. It is well that the potentialities of art are as inexhaustible as life itself. In a certain sense art is richer than life, for it can both overstate and understate, lay on the bright colors thickly or resort to the opposite extreme and content itself with the gray crayon, can present the same object in all its varied facets and shed a variety of light upon it. There was only one Napoleon his reproductions in art are legion.
The Peter and Paul Fortress and other Czarist prisons drew me so close to the French classics that for more than three decades thereafter I became a fairly regular reader of the more outstanding recent French fiction. Even during the years of the civil war I had a current French novel in the car of my military train. After banishment to Constantinople I accumulated there a modest library of recent French fiction. It was burned with all my other books in March, 1931. However, during the last few years my interest in novels has waned almost to the point of extinction. Far too overwhelming were the events that rolled over our earth and incidentally over my own head as well. The conceits of art began to seem vapid, almost trite. I read with interest the first few volumes of Jules Romains’ epic. But his later books, especially those that portray the war, struck me as insipid reporting. Apparently, no art can quite encompass war. Battle painting is for the most part downright fatuous. But that is not all there is to it. Just as over-spicy cooking dulls the taste, so the piling up of historical catastrophes dulls the appeal of literature. Yet the other day I again had occasion to repeat: It is well that there is art in the world.
Jean Malaquais, a French writer unknown to me, sent me his book, enigmatically entitled The Javanese. The novel is dedicated to Andre Gide. This put me somewhat on guard. Gide has removed himself too far from us, along with the epoch he reflected in his deliberate and leisurely disquisitions. Even his latest books, interesting though they are, read rather like human records of the irrevocable past. But the very first few pages clearly convinced me that Malaquais was in no way indebted to Gide. Indeed, he is quite independent. And therein lies his strength, especially nowadays, when all manner of dependence has become the rule. The name Malaquais suggested nothing to me, unless perhaps a certain street in Paris. The Javanese is his first novel; his other writings are announced as books still “in preparation.” Nonetheless, this first book forthwith prompts the thought: Malaquais’ name is bound to be remembered.
The author is young and passionately fond of life. But he already knows how to maintain the indispensable artistic distance between himself and life, a distance sufficient to keep him from succumbing to his own subjectiveness. To love life with the superficial affection of the dilettantes, and there are dilettantes of life as well as of art, is no great merit. To love life with open eyes, with unabating criticism, without illusions, without embellishments, such as it is, whatever it may offer, and even more, for what it can come to be, that is a feat of a kind. To invest this love of life with artistic expression, especially when this is concerned with the very lowest social stratum that is a great artistic achievement.
A Story About Pariahs
In the South of France two hundred men extract tin and silver from a virtually exhausted mine, owned by an Englishman, who does not wish to spend any money on new equipment. The country is full of persecuted foreigners without visas, without documents, in bad with the police. They are not in the least particular about where they live or about safety provisions on the job, and are ready to work for any wage at all. The mine and its population of pariahs form a world apart, sort of an island, which came to be called “Java,” most likely because the French are wont to describe anything incomprehensible and exotic as “Javanese.”
Almost all the nationalities of Europe, and not of Europe alone, are represented in this Java. White Russians, Poles of unknown kidney, Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Austrians, Arabs, an Armenian, a Chinese, a Negro, a Ukrainian Jew, a Finn…In all this mongrel crew there is but one Frenchman, a pathetic failure, who holds aloft the banner of the Third Republic. In the barracks that lean against the wall of a factory long ago gutted by fire, live thirty celibates, of whom nearly all swear in different languages. The wives of the others, brought from all parts of the world, merely enhance the confusion of this Babel.
The Javanese pass before us, every one of them a reflection of his lost homeland, each convincing as a personality, and each (at least, apparently, without any aid from the author) standing on his own feet. The Austrian, Karl Mueller, yearning for Vienna while cramming up on English conjugations; the son of Rear Admiral Ulrich von Taupfen, Hans, himself a former naval officer and participant of the sailors’ insurrection at Kiel; the Armenian Albudizian, who for the first time in his life had his fill of food, and even got drunk, in Java; the Russian agronomist Byelsky, with his half-mad wife and insane daughter; the old miner, Ponzoni, who lost his sons in a mine of his native Italy and who is just as glad to talk to the wall or to a rock on the road as to the fellow working next to him; “Doctor Magnus,” who left his university in the Ukraine just before graduating, so as not to live like others; the American Negro, Hilary Hodge, who every Sunday polishes his patent leather shoes, a memento of the past, but never puts them on; the former Russian shopkeeper Blutov, who says he is a former general, so as to attract customers for his future restaurant, although Blutov really dies before the action of the novel begins, leaving behind his widow, a fortune teller.
Members of broken up families, adventurers, accidental participants of revolutions and counterrevolutions, chips of national movements and national catastrophes, refugees of all kinds, dreamers and thieves, cowards and almost-heroes, people without roots, the prodigal sons of our epoch such is the population of Java, a “floating island tied to the Devil’s tail.” As Hans von Taupen put it, “there is not one square inch on the entire surface of the globe where you might place your little foot; except for that, you are free, but only outside the border, outside all borders.” The gendarme corporal Carboni, connoisseur of good cigars and fine wines, shuts his eyes to the inhabitants of the island. For the time being they find themselves “outside all borders.” But that does not deter them from living after their own fashion. They sleep on pallets of straw, often without undressing; they smoke heavily; drink heavily; live on bread and cheese, in order to save most of their money for wine; they seldom wash; they smell rankly of sweat, tobacco and alcohol.
The novel has no central figure and no trace of a plot. In a certain sense the author himself is the hero; but he does not appear on the scene. The story covers a period of several months; and, like life itself, consists of episodes. Notwithstanding the exoticism of the milieu, the book is far from folklore, ethnography or sociology. It is in the authentic sense a novel, a bit of life transformed into art. One might think that the author deliberately chose an isolated “island” in order all the more clearly to portray the human characters and passions. They are no less significant here than in any strata of society. These people love, hate, weep, remember, grind their teeth. Here you will find the birth and solemn baptism of a child in the family of the Pole Warski; you will find death, the despair of women, funerals; and finally, the love of a prostitute for Doctor Magnus, who, until then had not known women. So touchy an episode suggests melodrama; but the author goes through the self imposed ordeal with honor.
Through the book runs the story of two Arabs, the cousins Allahassid Ben Khalif and Daoud Khaim. Breaking the law of Mohammed once a week, they drink wine on Sundays, but modestly, only three liters, in order to save five thousand francs for themselves and return to their families in the country of Constantine. They are not real Javanese, but only temporary ones. And then Allahassid is killed in a mine landslide. The story of Daoud’s attempts to get his money from the savings bank is unforgettable. The Arab waits for hours, implores, hopes, and again waits patiently. Finally his savings book is confiscated because it is made out in the name of Allahassid, the only one of the two who could sign his name. This little tragedy is told superbly!
Madame Michel, the owner of a barroom, gets rich off these people, yet wastes no love on them and despises them not only because she does not understand their noisy chatter but also because they are too prodigal with tips, come and go with too great ease and no one knows where: frivolous people undeserving of trust. Along with the barroom, an important place in the life of Java is, of course, occupied by the nearest brothel. Malaquais describes it in detail, mercilessly, but, at the same time, in a remarkably human way.
A Miner, Now a Great Artist
The Javanese look at the world from below, since they themselves have been spilled on their backs to the very bottom of society; besides, at the bottom of the mine, too, the better to hew or drill the rock above them, they must lie down on their backs. That is a singular perspective. Malaquais well knows its laws and knows how to apply them. The work inside the mine is described sparingly, without tiring details but with remarkable force. No mere artist-observer could write like that, even if he had gone down the shaft ten times over in quest of technical details, which writers like Jules Romain, for example, like to flaunt. Only a former miner who has since become a great artist can write like that.
Although social in its implications, this novel is in no way tendentious in character. He does not try to prove anything, he does not propagandize, as do many productions of our time, when far too many submit to orders even in the sphere of art. The Malaquais novel is “only” a work of art. At the same time we sense at every step the convulsions of our epoch, the most grandiose and the most monstrous, the most significant and the most despotic ever known to human history. The combination of the rebellious lyricism of the personality with the ferocious epic of the era creates, perhaps, the chief fascination of this work.
The illegal regime lasted for years. The one-eyed and one-armed British manager, who was always drunk, would overcome difficulties with the law by treating the gendarme officer in charge to wine and cigars. The Javanese, without documents, continued to work in the dangerous galleries of the mine, to get drunk at Madame Michel’s, and, whenever they met the gendarmes, to hide behind trees just to play safe. But everything comes to an end.
The mechanic, Karl, son of a Viennese baker, leaves his job in the shed of his own free will, spends his time walking under the sun on the sand of the beach, listening to the waves of the sea and talking with the trees along the way. Frenchmen work in the factory of a neighboring settlement. They have their little houses with water and electricity, their chickens, rabbits and lettuce patches. Karl, like the majority of the Javanese, regards this settled world without envy and with a shade of contempt. They “have lost the sense of space but have won the sense of property.” Karl breaks off a switch and slashes the air with it. He feels like singing. But he has no voice; so, he whistles. Meantime, there is a cave-in underground, and two are killed, the Russian, Malinov, who had presumably wrested Nizhni Novgorod from the Bolsheviks, and the Arab, Allahassid Ben Khalif. Gentleman Yakovlev, a former best pupil of the Moscow Conservatory, robs the old Russian woman, Sophia Fedorovna, widow of the would-be general and sorceress, who had accumulated several thousand francs. By chance Karl looks in through her open window and Yakovlev hits him on the head with a club. Thus, catastrophe, a number of catastrophes, invade the life of Java. The desperation of the old woman is boundless and revolting. She turns her back on the world, answers the questions of the gendarmes with oaths, sits on the floor without food, without sleep, one day, two, three days, swaying from side to side in her excrement, surrounded by a swarm of flies.
The theft calls forth a newspaper notice: where are the consuls? Why don’t they do something? Gendarme Carboni receives a circular of instruction on the necessity of the strictest checking of foreigners. The liquor and cigars of John Kerrigan are no longer effective. “We are in France, Mr. Manager, and must comply with French law.” The manager is compelled to telegraph London. The reply orders that the mine be closed. Java ceases to exist. The Javanese disperse, to hide in other crevices.
Malaquais’ Love of Man
Literary primness is foreign to Malaquais; he avoids neither forceful expressions nor vexatious scenes. Contemporary literature, especially the French, is as a rule more free in this respect than the old naturalists of Zola’s times, condemned by the rigorists. It would be ridiculous pedantry to pass judgment as to whether this is good or bad. Life has become more naked and merciless, especially since the World War, which destroyed not only many cathedrals but also many conventions; there is nothing else for literature to do than to adjust itself to life. But what a difference between Malaquais and a certain other French writer, who made himself famous a few years ago with a book of exceptional frankness! I am referring to Celine. No one before him had written about the needs and functions of the poor human body with such physiological persistence. But Celine’s hand is guided by embittered hurt, which descends to calumny of man. The artist, a physician by profession, seems to have the desire to convince us that the human being, obliged to discharge such low functions, is in no way distinguishable from a dog or a donkey, except perhaps by greater slyness and vengefulness. This hateful attitude toward life has clipped the wings o Celine’s art: he has not gone beyond his first book. Almost simultaneously with Celine, another sceptic became famous. Malraux, who sought justification of his pessimism, not below, in physiology, but above, in the manifestations of human heroism. Malraux wrote one or two significant books. But he lacks backbone. He is organically seeking some outside force to lean on, some established authority. The lack of creative independence has envenomed his latest books with the poison of falsehood and has rendered them unfit for consumption.
Malaquais does not fear the base and the vulgar in our nature, for, despite all, man is capable of creativeness, of passion, of heroism, and they are far from fruitless. Like all true optimists, Malaquais loves man for his potentialities. Gorky once said, “Man, that sounds proud!” Perhaps Malaquais would not repeat a phrase so didactic. Yet this is precisely the attitude toward man that runs through his novel. Malaquais’ talent has two dependable allies: optimism and independence.
I have just mentioned Maxim Gorky, another poet of the tramps. The parallel suggests itself. I vividly remember how the reading world was astounded by Gorky’s first great short story “Chelkash” in 1895. The young vagabond emerged at once from the cellar of society into the arena of literature as a master. In his later writings Gorky essentially never rose above the level of his first short story. No less does Malaquais astound one with the sure touch of his first venture. It cannot be said of him that he is a promising writer. He is a finished artist. In the old schools beginners were put through cruel paces, kicks, intimidation, taunts, so that they might receive the necessary tempering in the shortest possible time. But Malaquais, like Gorky before him, received this tempering from life itself. It tossed them about, beat them against the earth, chest and back, and after such a workout cast them out into the literary arena as finished masters.
And yet how great is the difference between their epochs, between their heroes, between their artistic methods! Gorky’s tramps are not the dregs of an old urban culture but the peasants of yesterday who have not yet been assimilated by the new industrial city. The tramps of capitalism’s spring-tide, they are marked with the stamp of patriarchality and almost of naivete. Russia, still quite young politically, was in those days pregnant with her first revolution. Literature lived on breathless expectations and exaggerated raptures. Gorky’s tramps are embellished with pre-revolutionary romanticism. A half a century has not elapsed in vain. Russia and Europe have lived through a series of political earthquakes and the most terrible of wars. Great events brought with them great experiences, chiefly, the bitter experiences of defeats and disappointments. Malaquais’ tramps are the product of a mature civilization. They look upon the world with less surprised, more practiced eyes. They are not national but cosmopolitan. Gorky’s tramps wandered from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea or to Sakhalin. The Javanese know no state borders; they are equally at home or equally alien in the mines of Algiers, in the forests of Canada or on the coffee plantations of Brazil. Gorky’s lyricism is melodious, at times sentimental, often declamatory. Malaquais’ lyricism, essentially no less intense, is more restrained in form and disciplined by irony.
French literature, conservative and exclusive, like all French culture, is slow to assimilate the new words it itself creates for the whole world, and is rather resistant to the penetration of foreign influences. True, since the war a stream of cosmopolitanism has entered French life. The French began to travel more, to study geography and foreign languages.
Maurois brought to its literature the stylized Englishman, Paul Morandthe nightclubs of the world. But this cosmopolitanism bears the indelible stamp of tourism. It is quite different with Malaquais. He is no tourist. He travels from .country to country in a manner that meets neither with the approval of railroad companies nor the police. He has roamed in all the geographic latitudes, has worked wherever he could, was persecuted, suffered hunger and absorbed his impressions of our planet together with the atmosphere of mines, plantations and cheap barrooms, where the international pariahs generously spend their meager wages.
Malaquais is an authentic French writer; he is a master of the French technique of the novel, the highest in the world, not to mention his perfection of language. Yet he is not a Frenchman. I suspected as much while reading the novel. Not because in the tone of his narrative could be sensed a foreigner, an alien observer. Not at all. Where Frenchmen appear in the pages of his book, they are genuine Frenchmen. But in the author’s approach, not only to France but to life in general, you feel a “Javanese” who has risen above “Java.” This is not like the French. In spite of all the world-shattering events of the last quarter of a century, they remain too sedentary, too stable in their habits, in their traditions, to look up at the world with the eyes of a tramp. To my letter of inquiry the author replied that he is of Polish descent. I should have guessed it without asking. The beginning of the novel is concentrated on the sketch of a Polish youth, almost a boy, with flaxen hair, blue eyes, greedy for impressions, with a hunger-drawn stomach, and with the ill mannered habit of blowing his nose with his fingers. Such is Manek Brilya. He rides the rods of a dining car out of Warsaw with the dream of Timbuctoo. If this is not Malaquais himself, it is his brother in blood and spirit. Manek spent more than ten years wandering, learned a lot and matured, but he never dissipated his freshness of spirit; on the contrary, he accumulated an insatiable thirst for life, of which his first book is incontrovertible evidence. We await his next book. Malaquais’ passport is apparently still not in good order. But literature has already conferred upon him the full rights of citizenship.
Coyoacan, D. F.
August 7, 1939
Fourth International replaced New International. The New International began as the theoretical organ of the Communist League of America, formed in 1928 by supporters of The International Left Opposition in the Communist Party. The CLA merged with the American Workers Party led by AJ Muste to form the Workers Party of the U.S. in Dec 1935 before intervening in the Socialist Party, at which time this magazine was suspended. After leaving the SP, the main Trotskyist forces formed the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and resumed publication. In the split of 1940, the State Capitalist/ Bureaucratic Collectivist faction left the Party and held on to the magazine; the SWP then produced ‘The Fourth International’ as their organ of theory. Along with current debate, the New International regularly featured rare, or newly translated work from past figures of Marxism, as well as book reviews and official statements.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi/vol02/no01/v02n01-w08-jan-1941.pdf
Comrade Pavel writes: “Just a little correction: The Renaudot price was awarded to Malaquais, as one can see on the photo. The price was the second most important one in France back then.”