On Some Short Stories by Romain Gary

L'Orage

Romain Gary was a Jewish-French novelist, film director, World War II aviator and diplomat. He also wrote under the pen name Émile Ajar. He’s the only author who won the Prix Goncourt twice. Once as Romain Gary for The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) and the second time as Emile Ajar for Life Before Us aka Madame Rosa (La Vie Devant Soi). 

Romain Gary would have been 100 years old on May 8. That’s why Emma has organized a Romain Gary Month on her blog Book Around the Corner. She’d announced it a while back and I knew I wanted to participate, only I wasn’t sure whether I would have enough time. The books that really interested me were a bit too long. So I did something you should not do when it comes to reading – I settled for a compromise. In this case it meant reading a collection of short stories, knowing well that they would never equal his novels.

It was still an interesting experience as the stories and fragments have been written between 1935 and 1970. Mostly they were written in French but two longer pieces were originally written in English. Gary wrote in both languages and also translated his own work. Or, as Emma wrote in one of her posts, he rewrote them in the other language. The collection shows not only the development of an author but also his wide range. Unfortunately most of the stories and fragments collected here are less than stellar. Notably the two early stories, written at the age of 20, whiff of epigonism.  Both L’Orage (1935) and Une petite femme ( 935) are set in the tropics and I found them to be examples of exoticism. I don’t think that Gary had been in any of the places described at that time. It seems both stories are influenced by Malraux. I was also reminded of Conrad. While I found that exoticism dubious, I liked the way they were told. At this early age, Gary was already well aware how to tell a story. And while both endings are predictable, there’s still very good pacing and build-up.

The other stories written in French are far more original and poignant. Two of them are quite chilling. Géographie humaine (1943) and Sergent Gnama (1946) are inspired by Gary’s own experience as a pilot during WWII and his experience of colonial France. The first – Human Geography – tells the story of a few men reminiscing. Each place they mention equals someone being shot down, wounded or killed. Sergeant Gnama tells the story of an African boy who sings a French song although he can’t speak French. It’s seems he’s learned it from a man called Sergeant Gnama – a ghost in other words.

The Jaded (1970) and The Greek (1970) were the two pieces originally written in English. While The Greek is a fragment and a bit hard to get into, The Jaded is a great, pessimistic and sarcastic story. A man spends his final hours in a place eating burgers. Later he will be shot. He knows this because he’s ordered his own assassination. He thinks he has lost his interest in life but during these hours it seems to be reawakened. If you want to know whether or not he’ll die in the end, you’ll have to read the story.

While this collection wasn’t all that great, I’d like to recommend Gary because he’s a great novelist and for those who love biography, it’s worth reading about this chameleon of a man. David Bellos has written a Gary biography  Gary: A Tall Man that looks interesting. Here’s the blurb

Airman, war hero, immigrant, law student, diplomat, novelist and celebrity spouse, Romain Gary had several lives thrust upon him by the history of the twentieth century, but he also aspired to lead many more. He wrote more than two dozen books and a score of short stories under several different names in two languages, English and French, neither of which was his mother tongue. Gary had a gift for narrative that endeared him to ordinary readers, but won him little respect among critics far more intellectual than he could ever be. His varied and entertaining writing career tells a different story about the making of modern literary culture from the one we are accustomed to hearing. Born Roman Kacew in Vilna (now Lithuania) in 1914 and raised by only his mother after his father left them, Gary rose to become French Consul General in Los Angeles and the only man ever to win the Goncourt Prize twice.

 This biography follows the many threads that lead from Gary’s wartime adventures and early literary career to his years in Hollywood and his marriage to the actress Jean Seberg. It illuminates his works in all their incarnations, and culminates in the tale of his most brilliant deception: the fabrication of a complex identity for his most successful nom de plume, Émile Ajar.

In his new portrait of Gary, David Bellos brings biographical research together with literary and cultural analysis to make sense of the many lives of Romain Gary – a hero fit for our times, as well as his own.

I know that quite a few readers of this blog love memoir as much as I do. Gary’s memoir Promise at DawnLa promesse de l’aube is highly acclaimed. Vishy just reviewed it here.

If you’d like some more recommendations – Emma has posted many suggestions on her blog.

28 thoughts on “On Some Short Stories by Romain Gary

  1. I’m working on my choice for the month, so my post will be up soon. I spent some time picking the title but once I read the synopsis of the book I ultimately selected, I knew I had to read it.

  2. Thanks for participating, Caroline.
    His novels aren’t that long, for most of them, at least not War&Peace long.
    I agree with you about his early work: you can see he’ll be a great writer.

    I highly recommend Promise at Dawn, White Dog, Life Before Us, The Roots of Heaven.
    For readers who can read in French: Adieu Gary Cooper, Gros Calin and Lady L.

    • You’re welcome, I would have liked to read something else but it wasn0t the moment. No, not that long but anything over 300 wasn’t feasible and the two I really wanted to read were 400 and 500 pages.
      This doesn’t mean I cannot read him another time. 🙂

  3. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise to go back and read a writer’s early work and see how much their abilities have developed since they first tried their writing wings. I’ve never read Gary. He sounds like an interesting man so I’ve put the bio of him on my list.

    • I’d be very curious to hear about the biography. I’m quite temoted to read it myself.
      The stories as such were not that good but it was great to see how he developped.
      I hope to get more time to read a novel soon.

  4. I have never read Gary but your posts as well as Emma’s make him sounds worth reading.

    I looked up Promise at Dawn. It looks very good. Even the origin of the title is interesting.

  5. Like many others, I think I would find the biography fascinating. What an amazing life. And I have to be honest, I hadn’t heard of him before.

  6. Nice review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the short story collection as much as you had hoped to. ‘The Jaded’ looks like a fascinating story. I would love to read that. That David Bellos biography of Gary looks quite interesting. I will add it to my wishlist. I learnt one new word today, thanks to you – epigonism 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. It was a bit disappointing. Or rather I was disappointed with myself for not starting earlier and picking a novel.
      I’m very keen on finding out if the biography is good. It should be.
      The Jaded was the best story of the whole collection. Of course, when you know how he died, it gets a special poignancy.
      I’m fond of the word epigonism. 🙂

  7. You did much better than me. I do feel bad as I really wanted to read a Romain Gary for Emma’s month. But I still have 10 books to read before mid-June for the magazine, several of them large, and I just haven’t been able to fit a book in. I must go to her site and read all the reviews, though, as I’d like to read more critiques of his novels, which aren’t read and commented on enough.

    • I know how it goes. At least for once I didn’t post a long list and not stick to it. I knew it would be difficult.
      I’m very bad with planned reading this year. Even my own readalong is challenging. 🙂
      I’m looking foward to your discoveries.

  8. Sometimes I find that short stories are a good introduction to a (new-to-me) author’s work. Of course if you are already familiar with the writer and know they won’t be the best work, it might be a let down. I had not come across his work before–may have to look for his short stories as I go. Which were the longer works you had wanted to read?

    • I can recommend Madame Rosa. It’s a wonderful book. I wanted to read The Roots of Heaven or his memoir, which should be very good.
      I wouldn’t try his short stories. There not that good and don’t even show you what kind of a writer he is, with the exception of The Jaded.

  9. Pingback: Romain Gary Literature Month: wrap-up | Book Around The Corner

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