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?
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.