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