Hoodwinked

In 1975 in France, an unusual novel about an orphaned Arab boy, brought up by an elderly, overweight survivor of the Holocaust was a runaway success. Young Momo’s narrative voice was a delight, funny, bittersweet, streetwise, full of words and phrases that he had misunderstood (although in a way that showed he understood their real meaning only too well), it was a tender and touching representation of the bonds that could be formed between unlikely people who were doing their best for one another. It won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize and went on to be the bestselling novel of the twentieth century. But here’s a question: would the critics have been so generous in their praise if they had known that it was in fact written by a novelist who had fallen out of favour?

Celebrity couple: Romain Gary with actress wife, Jean Seberg

Romain Gary had already had one successful career as a novelist. In fact, he had already won the Prix Goncourt. But the critics were increasingly not on his side, complaining that his French was not correct enough, which was perhaps an alternative way of saying he was a foreigner and a Jew. He was also a war hero, having been a much-decorated fighter pilot as part of de Gaulle’s Free French, one of only five men to survive the war out of a company of two hundred. But de Gaulle was also out of favour in 1975, and Gary found himself sidelined and rejected for no better reason than he was old and familiar and out of fashion.

And so he reinvented himself. He took on the name Émile Ajar, which had a hint of exoticness about it, and wrote under that pseudonym The Life Before Us (La vie devant soi), which was such a phenomenal success. The only problem was that no author is permitted to win the Goncourt twice. Confronted with this challenge to his deception, Gary persuaded a relative to play the role of Ajar in interviews, only he slipped up here by sending a publicity photograph around. ‘Ajar’ was quickly recognised as his cousin’s son, Paul Pavlowitch. Romain Gary was determined not to be unmasked and so he went so far as to write another Ajar novel, in which ‘Ajar’ confessed to being Paul Pavlowitch and declared that he was mad. The critics loved this and were perfectly satisfied, even going so far as to pity Romain Gary for having been outshone by his more talented, if less mentally stable, relative.

There is no need to imagine that Gary was upset by this reaction. ‘Romain Gary’ was in fact pretty much a fiction, too. He had been born in Lithuania under a different name and brought to France by his ambitious mother at the age of 14. When he became an author, he was careful to present a prepared and sanitised façade to the press. He courted journalists strategically in the early days, presenting a revamped biography that played down his Jewish and Russian heritage. But it was more than just a keen sense for his public image that motivated him. Gary was a naturally fictitious person, his acts of self-creation a kind of logical development of the novels he wrote. Gary was one of his own characters – or indeed several of his own characters as he ended up with about six different pseudonyms by the time of his death. Literature pervaded reality for him, and false selves were something of a signature theme.

Gary committed suicide, shooting himself in the head only a year after his estranged wife, Jean Seberg, killed herself. He left an account of his deception in his safe headed ‘For The Press’, in which he said ‘I had fun; au revoir and merci.’ Typical of the critical disfavour that hung around his work, the press were not amused. Instead they reacted resentfully and angrily, claiming that his moonlighting as Ajar was an attack on the sanctity of French literature and a publicity stunt that did him discredit.

But with the clarity that comes with time and hindsight we have to see the reaction of the press as a defence against humiliation and the stranglehold the media exerts over the popularity of public figures. Gary knew that the kind of reception he got for The Life Before Us would have been impossible had it been published under his well-known name. The critical demand for fresh blood, the empty insistence of hype and buzz and the unfair dismissal of older writers (particularly Jewish immigrants) reflected very badly indeed on the French literary establishment. We really do have to challenge all set responses to literary works and ask ourselves how much of a role fashion plays in any official critical assessment. Writers can all too easily be judged on misleading criteria.

I confess that I love Romain Gary’s writing, no matter what name it comes under. It’s a shame that nowadays he is quite hard to get hold of in translation (although less so in America where he was always popular). I’ve been reading The Life Before Us this week and it is a novel that thoroughly deserves its critical accolades. It manages to be at once so funny and so sad, a vivid portrait of the slums of Belleville, Paris’s immigrant quarter, and a brilliant character study of both Momo, a tough street kid with a tender heart and Madame Rosa, the elderly Jewish woman who has made a living bringing up the children of prostitutes and who keeps a picture of Hitler under her bed to look at in times of trouble, ‘because after all, that was one big worry off her mind.’ I wish his work could be made more available again, because I can’t help but think that Gary would get a kick out of one more life.

32 thoughts on “Hoodwinked

    • Lilian – yes, I am confident that the book you’ve found is one of the possible translations. I think there must be several, as it also goes under the title of ‘Madame Rosa’. The voice in French is just a treat, but it must be a nightmare to translate because there’s a fair amount of slang, and nothing dates a book like slang. I daresay there have been several translations over the years to try to keep it fresh. I would love to know what you think of it. I found it an immensely touching novel, not least because it is so lacking in sentimentality.

  1. You did it!! I can’t believe you actually wrote a piece about Romain Gary after that cheeky comment I left on your Perec entry. If you were in front of me, I’d give you a big hug, not python-like but big anyway.

    It’s a nice and accurate article and you know how much I love him. He deserves to be read and it’s a pity his books are hard to find in the UK. When you think he was in the RAF, married to an Englishwoman and that his first book was published in England shortly after it was publised in France!

    His most famous novels are available on Amazon US and in various other European languages.
    I highly recommend:
    – Life Before Us,
    – The Roots of Heaven
    – Promise at Dawn
    – White Dog
    – Lady L

    He had such an incredible life that his bio can be read as a novel.

    I’ve read his son Alexandre’s novel and if I read correctly under the lines, Romain Gary wouldn’t kill himself as long as Jean Seberg was alive not to leave Alexandre alone with her. She was a bit unbalanced and it would have been too hard for him. So yes, her death led to his but probably not because he was heartbroken.
    The more I read him, the more I can feel the influence of his origins in his style. There’s definitely a Jewish sense of humour there. It’s that combination of humour, poetry, lucidity and sharp mind that make his prose unique.

    I’m linking your entry to some of my Gary posts.

    Thanks for this, I hope some of your readers will trust you and try one of his books.

    • Emma – I said I would! And it was a pleasure to do – I hold him in high esteem as an amazing writer. Funnily enough, one of the first reviews I ever wrote for this blog was of his novel, Les enchateurs (https://litlove.wordpress.com/2006/05/06/the-enchanters-2/) which I’d recommend if you haven’t read it. I’ve also recently acquired Les cerfs-volants which I’ve heard really good things about. Oh and on that note, I saw that David Bellos, who coincidentally wrote the biography I read on Perec, has just published a new biography of Romain Gary which looks excellent – here’s a review I found: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/15/romain-gary-david-bellos-review Oh and thank you for the information about his marriage. I’ve been trying to find out more about why he committed suicide but have drawn a blank. I’m sure the biography explains it all.

      Hopefully, more people will be intrigued to try his novels one way or another – they are really worth it.

      • I’ve read Les Enchanteurs and also Les Cerfs-volants. Actually, I’ve read most of his books. I love Adieu Gary Cooper and I read the English translation, the Ski Bum. It’s very different, quite unsettling.
        I also loved Clair de Femme and Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable.

        I’m going to read your review. (btw, my first post was about him but it had few readers, of course)

        I know about the bio written by David Bellos. I haven’t read it. For me, Perec’s translator is the best one to translate Gary’s most innovative books such as La Vie devant soi or Gros Câlin. You need someone who’s used to playwords and French tricks to translate them properly.

        I see Lilian is on her way to discover him. I knew you could convince reader to give him a try.

  2. Emma – I wondered whether you had read them all! And thank you for the recommendations; I would really like to read a lot more of his novels. Really interesting what you say about David Bellos – I was thinking how hard La vie devant soi would be to translate because it’s so cleverly written, not in a show-off way, just so clever in the way he creates the child’s language out of a mish-mash of street slang and the sorts of things adults say to children euphemistically. It would be wonderful if David Bellos could bring out some new translations. And yes, back in May 2006 my very new blog had hardly any readers! You’ll probably be one of the first people ever to read that review!

    • I haven’t read Les Têtes de Stéphanie, Pour Sganarelle, Charge d’âme and L’homme à la colombe. I have them at home, I’ll read them but it’s as if I want to keep unread ones for the future.

      Oh! Lady L is exquisite. Full of British humour, a tribute to the English DNA.

      Yes it would be wonderful. I don’t understand why they published a new bio without re-publishing at least Promise at Dawn, Life Before Us and The Roots of Heaven.

      • I have Lady L – perhaps I should read that next? Or no, La promesse de l’aube should really be next, shouldn’t it? As for the publishing world, well, it’s madness over here at the moment and editors hesitate at the cost involved of arranging new translations. Sigh.

      • La promesse de l’aube should be next. It’s better and it’s even in the 1001-books-you-must-read list.
        They could republish the existing translation. He was famous in the USA when he was alive.

  3. I’ve always meant to read something by Romain Gary as I am a fan of Lesley Blanch’s (she was his first wife) but I wasn’t really sure where to start. Momo looks good!

    It’s a pity that our love of the new and exciting in literature often obscures older writers even now.

    • Helen, I had never heard of Lesley Blanch before reading about Romain Gary – I never gave her a thought as an author in her own right. I will have to look her up! Thank you. And would love to know what you make of any of Gary’s novels.

  4. Odd , my comment from yesterday was eaten by the comment monster…
    Yes, I think he deserves to get a wider audience or let’s rather say – again.
    I read La vie devant soi at school and can still remember it which is more than I can say about other authors. From what Emma writes about him on her blog, he seems to be more versatile than I would have thought at first.
    I’ll get to him again sooner or later.

    • What is happening with comments? I left a long one on Rohan’s site that just disappeared, and I checked the spam filter (where so many go) but nothing there from you. I’m very sorry you had to write it out twice! I’d love to hear what you think of Gary, who was indeed a very versatile author and wrote significantly different books. Do try him!

  5. Fascinating! I’ve just been wondering about whether novels that seem a bit more episodic (like some Dawn Powell stuff and William Maxwell’s ‘The Folded Leaf’) would sell now, as that kind of style seems out of fashion in fiction. So it was very interesting to hear about how personalities could actually fall out of favour and fashion, because of the political climate of the country.

    • I once planned a lit crit book on reputations – about the way that authors who were famous in their lifetimes were pretty much guaranteed to suffer a dreadful backlash once they were dead. Just about any important author you care to name has been dismissed at some point or other, either because they were in advance of taste, or had fallen out of it. Literary folk are terribly fickle! But no, not really, it’s just that culture is altering all the time, and what appeals to one generation often seems jaded and wrong to the next. Then it takes a while for their work to be picked up again. But it often is if it’s good. I adored both Dawn Powell and William Maxwell but it’s true that they are not well known. A hame, because they are soooooo worth reading.

  6. I’ve heard this story before, but not quite as succinctly as you’ve written it out here. I love that he “hoodwinked” the critical establishment and I’ve been meaning to read La Vie Devant Soi for some time now. My book group read his memoir last year – La Promesse de l’Aube. It was really beautiful. It’s funny because I’m reading Charles Dantzig’s book “Pourquoi Lire” right now and he writes about writers who are “écrivains à mère” like Albert Cohen, and “écrivains à grandmère” like Proust. Without a doubt, I would describe Romain Gary as an “écrivain à mère”.

    • Oh I love this! The Danzig book must be pretty good, because that is such a clever concept and so true. I fully intend to read Albert Cohen next year (maybe your book group would be interested in him, too?). I should look up the Danzig as well – thank you for mentioning him!

      • I need to reread Albert Cohen – he was one of the very first books (in a long line of excellent books) that my mother-in-law has given me. She sent me that book on CD when I was still living in Boston and had a horrific commute. So I listened to it. But like many audio books, I have simply forgotten it. I must be a completely visual learner. But your suggestion is a good one – I will mention it to the book group. And when I’ve finished the Dantzig, I will just pop it in the mail for you. It may take me a while, am reading it slowly.

      • Michelle – you are such a sweetheart and so generous! I think I must be a visual learner too, as I can happily listen over and over to audio books but find it quite hard to reread (the words just trigger off memories of the story and I remember too much to carry on comfortably). What a nice mother-in-law you have, too!

  7. What an interesting person Gary sounds! I was going to ask if there is a biography but I see from your comment there is a new one out. I found it interesting that his constant reinvention of himself fed into his fiction. I’ve been reading a bio of Margaret Fuller and she was constantly working on reinventing herself too but she was horrible at fiction, unable to break from a more scholarly frame of mind. People like them though make for good characters in their own life stories though!

  8. I am quite happy to discover (thanks to Emma by the way) that Romain Gary is still read and talked about in litterature blogs. I’m a big admirer of the man and the writer, and I defitinely think that his books are so modern and must be read again and again. And I feel lucky as I still have many of his books to discover. I have written differents posts on my blog, and I even have launched a challenge, and now, I’ve decided to open a blog which is dedicated to him (crazy as I am…). My blogs are only in French, but here are their adresses anyway, http://romaingaryetmoi.wordpress.com, and my general blog : http://delphinesbooksandmore.fr/

  9. What a sad story and I’m glad to hear that he got the accolades he deserved even if he did have to hoodwink the establishment. I’ve never understood how some really great writers can fall so far out of favor like that–such a pity. All the more reason to look for these forgotten gems.

  10. Pingback: Momo by Emile Ajar « A Novelist's Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

  11. Pingback: Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part Nine | Book Around The Corner

  12. Pingback: Momo by Emile Ajar | A Writer's Mind: Lilian Nattel Live

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