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Coming Clean

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
December 02, 2011
(Joanna Neborsky)
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

Before the French writer Romain Gary took his own life on December 2, 1980, he prepared detailed writings which, among other things, confirmed that the popular young writer Émile Ajar was actually just a pen name the well-known 66-year-old had covertly adopted. “This was more than suicide,” Emma Garman wrote in 2007. “It was the final act of mythmaking from a man preoccupied, above all, with manipulating the people and events in his life almost as deftly as those in his books.”

Born Roman Kacew in Vilna in 1914, Gary’s books—he published 22 by the time he turned 59—dealt with issues of Jewish identity in ways that were at once subtle and unavoidable. When his later work fell out of favor with critics, Gary began publishing under the name Émile Ajar and found nearly instant success with his adopted literary identity. Yet, Garman explained, Ajar’s success only confirmed Gary’s suspicions: “The breathless delight with which Ajar’s novels were received suggests that Gary had been right—reviewers were weary of him.”

Read Great Pretenders, by Emma Garman

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.