In the winter of 1974, following a highly secretive annual meeting at Paris’ lavish Restaurant Drouant, a group of judges announced that a relatively unknown writer named Émile Ajar had won that year’s Prix Goncourt—the most prestigious literary prize in France—for his novel La vie devant soi. Little was known about Ajar, who was supposedly living abroad in Brazil to escape legal problems back home and who had published his first book, Gros-Câlin, the year before. Some in the media, though, were suspicious of his sudden success, suggesting that Ajar could only be a pseudonym of an established writer, perhaps Louis Aragon or Raymond Queneau, the author of the cult classic Zazie in the Metro.
Few suspected, and—until his suicide six years later—fewer still knew for sure that the true author of these and other Ajar novels was the Lithuanian-born Free French aviator, onetime French consul general in Los Angeles, and award-winning novelist Romain Gary. Gary would refuse to let the joke end, even though he had already won a Goncourt, which cannot be awarded to any author more than once, for Les Racines du Ciel [Roots of Heaven] 16 years earlier. He hired his distant cousin Paul Pawlowitch to play the part of Émile Ajar and penned a rambling first-person account titled Pseudo in which he, as Pawlowitch, pretended to be an insane man named Émile Ajar.
Many have noted that Gary’s life reads like a novel. This is something we tend to say about fantastic-sounding lives, lives that could only have been made up, but also lives that seem to unfold ineluctably, following a natural and necessary arc. Gary would have appreciated such an assumption. He would have been delighted to have his life considered as a readable, immersive story. But novels, of course, are carefully constructed. As Roland Barthes bemoaned in The Reality Effect, their very realism is an illusion, a dollhouse in which each room is impeccably decorated according to the consciousness of the creator. And few have ever so carefully constructed their lives as Romain Gary.
Gary’s novels are autobiographical, and much of what he claims to be memoir is made up, complicating any attempt at unraveling the true from the false. He was born Roman Kacew in Vilnius, at the time part of Poland, to a former actress and a businessman, both Jewish. His father left the family when Gary was small, and after struggling to make ends meet, his mother moved the small family to Nice. There Gary would attend a French lycée, enroll in the Air Force, and eventually escape to England to join de Gaulle’s Free French army.
Gary’s mother, who possessed a radical conviction of her son’s greatness, would figure prominently in his acclaimed and highly fictionalized memoir, Promesse de l’aube, or Promise at Dawn (her name slightly tweaked from Mina to the less Eastern European Nina). To his father, who left the family when Gary was small, he would ascribe various characteristics, traits, and life stories. “My mother was a Russian Jew and my father a Tatar,” he once told an interviewer while discussing his novel La Danse de Genghis Cohn, in which a Jewish dybbuk named Cohn inhabits the body of his Nazi executioner. “In other words, I’m born of a man whose race had a bothersome specialization. In the end, I am Genghis and Cohn. Genghis Khan and Moïsche Cohn merged.” About his father, this excerpt is entirely false. But it helps indicate the machinery behind the madness of Gary’s inventions—the pleasing parallelism of familial contradiction standing in for his own search for identification.
Other anecdotes range from the dubious to the patently false and from the slapstick to the macabre. In an almost certainly made-up segment of Promesse de l’Aube, for instance, Gary recounts a severe illness in North Africa to the point of receiving extreme unction and having a coffin placed in his room. At the last moment, refusing to accept defeat, he leaps out of a hospital bed clothed only in an officer’s helmet.
Elsewhere, he recalls learning that his father died not in the gas chambers of a concentration camp, but of fright as he stood waiting in line. As David Bellos notes in his excellent 2010 biography of Gary, this couldn’t have been true, as gas chambers were not yet in use at the time of Gary’s father’s death in 1941. The story seems to be one of a loss of idealism, a sudden encounter with brute reality bereft of the balm of parental heroism—though it is a striking one to have been made up from scratch. Similarly, one of the most moving scenes of Promesse de l’aube takes place when Gary returns triumphantly to his mother in Nice, after having corresponded with her only by post for four years. He has just been awarded the Prix de la Critique for his first novel, Éducation Européenne, which caught the attention of Sartre and Camus, as well as a medal of honor for his aviation feats during the war—he has, in short, begun to fulfill his mother’s expectations for him. Upon returning, however, he learns that Nina, or Mina, had died in 1943. She had given a bundle of notes to a friend in Switzerland to be dispatched to her son at regular intervals before returning home from the war. This story, too, is patently false; Gary’s mother died in 1941, and he was perfectly aware of her death.
The Ajar saga, though certainly also a symptom of Gary’s incorrigible thirst for satisfying narrative, stemmed more from a desire to hoodwink the literary establishment. Suspicious of his extraordinary popular success, French critics—then, as now, clustered within the clubby world of Paris even more than their American equivalents in New York—increasingly dismissed Gary as sentimental, ineloquent, and middle-brow. After Racines du ciel won the Goncourt, there was an increasing consensus that Gary’s long-rising star was beginning to fall. In The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, the confession published the year after his death, Gary refers in a near-gleeful dénouement to the Parisian dinners where guests “pitied that poor Romain Gary, who must feel a bit sad, a bit jealous of the meteoric rise to literary fame of his cousin Emile Ajar …”
In France, which celebrated the centennial of Gary’s birth last year with conferences, exhibits, and the publication of his last interview, Le sens de ma vie, none of his 30-plus novels, memoirs, and essays have ever gone out of print. In the United States, few of them still are. Ironically, it was in America that Gary first achieved major success; it was here that he set many of his novels, some of which he wrote originally in English before translating them back into his native French. He was fascinated by the contradictions of this country, especially regarding civil rights. “It is impossible for me to stay away from America for long,” he once told an interviewer, “because I am not yet old enough to be disinterested about the future, about what will happen to me. America is now living us intensely, violently, sometimes abjectly, but compared to the great corpse-like rigidity of the East, it’s a continent in a keen state […] something over there is, painfully, seeking to be born.”
W.H. Auden once said that while some poets are undeservedly forgotten, none are undeservedly remembered. There’s a case to be made that Romain Gary belongs to the former group, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Despite or perhaps because the vast collection of his stories available, both of his life and of others, Gary eludes categorization and clear-cut identification. He was a fierce admirer of de Gaulle, and some of his inventions intimate a budding friendship with the general—leading to accusations of reactionary conservatism as, by the late 1960s, de Gaulle had fallen out of favor among the young and the literary.
But Gary’s loyalty stemmed less from political attachment than from the years he spent in the Free French: the first time he consciously felt a sense of community and an identity other than that of an exiled Jew. He was a fierce humanist in despair of the human condition; his novel White Dogtells of a dog trained to kill only black people that, by the end, developed to killing only whites.
Racism was to be combated, for Gary, not because of the innate goodness of minorities, but because all humans, black, white, and other, are equally despicable creatures. “A European education,” muses the protagonist Janek of Gary’s first novel. “That’s something you receive when they shoot your father, or when you kill somebody, or when you die of hunger. It’s a good school; you really become educated.”
Such language sets Gary clearly apart from his French contemporaries like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Perec, from the experimentation of the nouveau roman or the Oulipo school. Rather than recurring to stylistic innovation in the yawning gap of communicability left by the war, Gary was more interested in continuing to tell stories, in at least continuing to try. He was far more successful as a storyteller than as a stylist. But his propensities make it difficult to find a place for him in French literary history, where he does not fit into that story that others have told.
Gary himself was always acutely aware of the lot he had been dealt by history, and he rebelled against it through his stories: “A true artist does not allow himself to be conquered by his material,” he writes in Promesse de l’aube; “he seeks to impose his inspiration brutally.” This helps to explain his most final, dramatic, transformation into Émile Ajar, as he writes, “I was tired of being nothing but myself […]. All my official lives—indexed, in a way—were doubled, tripled by many others, more hidden, but the old adventurer that I am was never satisfied by any of them.”
Ultimately, Gary succeeded in writing his own history and leaving behind, if not a guarantee of how he was to be remembered, an evident desire to be remembered in a certain way. Already in Promesse de l’aube, he begins with the words, “It is over.” And he ends with, “I should end my story here. It is done now, […] I have lived.”
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Victoria Baena is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University.