The Enchanters

The French author, Romain Gary was one of life's extraordinary people. The son of a French mother and a Russian father (who deserted them), Gary moved to France when he was 14, but was forced to flee again to England when the Nazis invaded. He joined the Free French Forces as a fighter pilot and received the Legion d'Honneur medal after the war. Then followed a 20 year diplomatic career. From 1945 onwards he also began a career as a prolific and highly successful author. He is the only author to have won the prestigious Prix Goncourt twice, the second time under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar (Gary's identity as Ajar was only revealed posthumously). Quite late in life he married the actress Jean Seberg with whom he had a son. Seberg's political activities lead her to be persecuted by the FBI and she committed suicide in 1979. Depressed and alone, Gary shot himself less than a year later.

All this week I have been reading one of Gary's lesser known novels, The Enchanters, and it's turned out to be the most playful, inventive and emotionally powerful novels I've read in a while. Our narrator, Fosco Zaga is a very old man – over 200 years old – and is the last member of a rich and renouned family of magicians. Some people call them enchanters, some charlatans, but the family 'trade' has been remarkably diverse, ranging from jugglers and tight-rope walkers to fortune tellers, alternative medicine practitioners, scientists and eventually psychoanalysts. But its essential feature is to bring much needed illusion into the ugly and intolerable realities of life.

The narrative returns in time to Fosco's adolescence in Russia in the 1770s, and the definitive moment of his life when his father brings a new, very young stepmother home. Fosco falls in love with Teresina on sight and will love her as passionately and intensely as any man has ever loved a woman. Teresina will ultimately escape both father and son, however. The marriage has rescued her from life in an Italian gutter, but she cannot bring herself to love her new husband. For Fosco, she has other plans. The force of his adolescent adoration is literally transformative – she needs to be invented, to be dreamt, she tells him, and therefore he must always be kept at arms length, for to live love is to ruin the illusion.

The story traces the twists and turns of the family fortunes as times around them change. The Zaga family have always served the rich and powerful, this being the age of artistic patrons, but a new wind of revolution is blowing over from France. Can the Zagas still manage to please all the crowds? the proletariat as well as the elite? Fosco's father has ambitious dreams for the family, believing the way forward lies in espousing the new philosophical and scientific ideas that are springing up; however when they get caught up in the Cossack revolution they find themselves co-opted into entertaining the troops with their commedia del'arte performances. But the Zaga's submit to whatever fate has to offer with a sense of humour, always ready to adapt their magic to the circumstances.

Eventually their situation in Russia becomes so perilous that they are forced to leave. As the carriages cross into Prague so it becomes apparent that Teresina is ailing. She is literally fading away before their eyes. Fosco's father turns to every trickster and charlatan they meet in the hope of curing his wife, but Teresina knows the source of her malaise. Fosco has grown up – the power of his childish love for her has kept her vibrant and vital, but now that he is crossing the threshold into adulthood he no longer has the strength of imagination needed to perform this particular magic trick. But Fosco, unable to countenance the loss of his beloved, finally comes into his family inheritance and as Teresina slips away from them, he reaches for pen and paper and start to create her all over again in narrative. Whilst he tells her in words, she lives; and so, as Durer's horseman of death circles the carriage, Fosco invents an alternative reality in which violinists play, Teresina throws herself, laughing, into his arms, and a dark and gloomy forest is transformed into a Venetian fete. Art is the greatest illusion of them all. Fosco has made his promise not to let her die, and the price he pays is his own immortality, for death, the most intransigent of all realities, requires the most spectacular and inventive of magical tricks.

I try not to give in to my romantic heart (it causes nothing but trouble) but I did have to read the last few pages through a tearful haze. This was such a big-hearted book, witty and rumbustious in its following of the family's adventures, and then suddenly unbearably poignant at its close. It seemed to me to be saying something very true about the sparkling beauty of childhood, the intense power of its imagination that is lost forever in adult life. Above all it was tragically wise on the subject of love; is it not so that the people we love are made a little bit shinier, a little bit more vibrant, by the force of our attraction to them? That they live in our minds with a brilliance that can defy mortality? And doesn't that ability to love so enhancingly make magicians out of us all?

2 thoughts on “The Enchanters

  1. I’ve read this when I was a teenager and I loved it although it’s not my favourite Gary. My response to it would probably different now that I’m older.

    Reading your review, I can’t help wondering about Romain and his mother. He gave her immortality in Promise at Dawn. Isn’t there something about this in here?

  2. I still have to read Promise at Dawn (and I will soon). I didn’t think at all about Gary and his mother at the time I was reading this, but the idea of the novel, that you could keep a loved one alive after death by narrating her over and over, that there was nothing stronger than art, was very powerful. The ending to this novel just blew me away. I’m sure that bond with his mother, particularly if he’d placed her centre stage in a fiction, informed the way he wrote this one. I remember also that it was the last novel he wrote before becoming Emile Ajar, and I felt the desire to evade capture and imprisonment that drives Fosco’s family to amazing magic tricks must also have got him thinking about the way he could create a new self with a wave of his own magic wand.

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