The Made-Up Man
The writer Romain Gary was an inveterate fabulist. But his work is sustained by an authentic moral vision.
By Adam Gopnik
January 1, 2018
Romain Gary was a great big liar. The French novelist, war hero, and diplomat made up stories the way other people make up beds: daily and conscientiously and without much premeditation. He lied all the time, and about many things. He lied about his background: born Roman Kacew in Lithuania, in 1914, right at the beginning of the European catastrophe, as a poor Jew among poor Jews. He lied about his mother, his father, his education, his literary history, his loves. His fine and patient and entirely admiring biographer, David Bellos, not only called his study of Gary “A Tall Story” but throughout uses words like “bullshit” and “eyewash” to characterize the tales his subject told.
But Gary was a big liar. This desperately poor Eastern European Jew reinvented himself as a French patriot and literary figure, titles he earned by fighting for France and by writing very good novels in French, one of which won the Goncourt Prize, France’s highest literary award. And then, when he was famous under one made-up name and persona, he invented another name and persona, and wrote well enough in this very different voice to win a second Goncourt Prize. (The rules say it can be awarded to someone only once, so he remains the sole writer with this distinction.) No lie Romain Gary told was bigger than that he was Romain Gary.
Through it all, he was, puzzlingly but certainly, great: a great man of a special mid-century kind—great in form, in fable, in the entire fiction he made of his life, dedicated to an extravagantly complicated ideal of humanity. Here was a man of steadfast personal courage who spoke up in his writing for those called cowards, for the schlemiels and wise guys and pranksters who, faced with the unimaginable evils of human existence, feigned and dodged and, sometimes, survived. He allowed the contradictions in his own life to become identical to the absurdities of modern existence.
Gary has gone in and out of favor in America. Back in the nineteen-fifties and into the sixties, when he was often resident here—in the fifties, he was a French consul general in Los Angeles—he was a star, both as an exotic public figure at the center of the Higher Hollywood (he lunched with J.F.K.) and as a best-selling author. He married the actress Jean Seberg at the height of her fame, and despite the tragic end to their marriage—both died by their own hands, though in a way each died by the other’s—it was a genuine love story of the day, a nouvelle vague alternative to the epic of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He was a storyteller rather than a “literary” writer, a sort of street-dog Nabokov; fluent in six languages, he passed punningly from one to the other in a dazzling display of instinctive interlineation. The novel that won the first Goncourt, “The Roots of Heaven,” a green manifesto against elephant hunting, became a bad John Huston movie starring Errol Flynn. He even co-wrote the screenplay for the D-Day movie “The Longest Day” (1962), though how much of his handiwork made it into the finished product is uncertain. Two more sixties novels—“The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” about a Holocaust victim who becomes the dybbuk of a Nazi commandant, and “White Dog,” a supposedly nonfiction account of a dog trained to attack black people—were events and best-sellers, too.
Yet his sloppiness as a stylist and the hopelessly rushed quality of his structures—he took pains with his beginnings but raced to the end of his books, as though late for dinner—has damaged his reputation since, at least in English. In France, he is remembered mostly as a fantastic personage, who strolled the streets of the Saint-Germain quarter, drolly holding court at Brasserie Lipp. (He once told a young writer never to worry about subjects but always to retain possible poetic titles, because the titles suggested more subjects than searching for the subjects ever could.) Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote a long, loving homage to him, as a sort of clown prince-saint of French literary life. Yet one has the sense that he is honored less for his prose than for his extraordinary élan vital, which somehow persisted even to the day of his suicide, in 1980, when he lunched complacently with his publisher and only then went back to his apartment on the Rue du Bac to shoot himself, having first composed, quickly, a mordantly witty suicide note.
Now he is at least a little bit back among American readers. New Directions is publishing the first translation of his last novel, “The Kites,” which appeared in French almost four decades ago, along with a new edition of his once famous memoir, “Promise at Dawn.” Reading him in the twenty-first century reminds us why, despite his irritating imperfections—no good writer ever wrote less well—he is worth revisiting. More than a humorist, more than a storyteller, he’s a moralist, an independent and significant student of the struggle to tell right from wrong, good conduct from bad. This struggle took place within a life that was, as people like to say, itself as good a story as any novel that he wrote, though it was, in truth, the novel he was always writing.
“The Kites,” which is among Gary’s most accomplished works, is a fine place to begin. Sensitively and even wittily translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot, it begins in a detached, lightly ironic tone that recalls French film comedies of the thirties and forties. The story takes place in a small village in Normandy mostly under the German occupation. It has two heroic characters: young Ludo, the narrator, and Ludo’s uncle Ambrose Fleury, a famous kite-maker who creates wildly improbable ones in homage to the great figures of the French Enlightenment. Alongside this improbable uncle is his near neighbor and counterweight Marcellin Duprat, who (improbably in such a small town) runs a legendary three-star restaurant. Ludo falls in love with a visiting Polish aristocratic girl named Lila—also, improbably, spending the summer in this small town with her aristocratic brothers and her German cousin. Ludo then discovers that he has (improbably) a gift for total recall, becomes a sort of mathematical genius and financial adviser to Lila’s family, and travels to visit them in Poland. Many more semi-fantastical creatures fill the action, including Julie Espinoza, a madam whose bordello in Paris is a headquarters of the Resistance. (“A woman in whom there was a total absence of illusion, born no doubt of the long exercise of her profession. Sometimes I imagined her receiving a visit from dishonor, whom she knew so well, and hearing its confidence: it must have murmured in her ear, ‘My hour is coming soon, my good Julie. Get ready.’ ”)
Still, the sum of all these improbabilities is a remarkably persuasive picture of moral possibility: when the war arrives, Ludo and Ambrose both become resisters. Ludo just barely survives, amid much death and many executions, and Ambrose is taken off to Buchenwald, though he returns, improbably, intact. Duprat, on the other hand, keeps his auberge, the Clos Joli, open and serving the Germans throughout the war, with the argument—which is given weight and dignity—that only by persisting in the practice of French civilization can France endure:
“We will ensure that all of France becomes a big Clos Joli!” And then he added, “You know what the German army did when it got to the Maginot Line? It drove right past! And do you know what it did when it got to the Clos Joli? It stopped!”
The tone of the book is oddly eighteenth-century in its piling on of coincidences; at one point, Lila, lost chapters ago in Poland, suddenly reappears in Normandy as the lover of a German officer, for which Ludo instantly forgives her:
Her eyes, when she lifted them to me, were intense.“There were so many times I wanted to get in touch with you; I wanted to come here, but I felt so . . . I felt . . .”“Like a tramp?”She said nothing.“Listen to me, Lila. In this time and place, being a tramp is no kind of sin. In any time and place, really. Where your ass has been is the least of our worries. Tramphood is pretty much sainthood, compared to all the rest.”
What is remarkable about “The Kites” is this combination of moral clarity and moral compassion: there is no doubt that Ludo and his uncle are doing the only right thing by putting their lives on the line every day as resisters—the book even ends with an abrupt tribute to the pastor of a French village who saved Jewish children. But the action of the collaborators is seen as part of an inevitable human comedy in which honor and dishonor, cowardice and courage—even erotic against empathetic love—are terms to be interrogated every day rather than to be blindly treated as totems. For Gary, despite the lechery that inflects his books, or perhaps because of it, the real values are entirely “feminine”: “Our Father who art in heaven, make the world feminine!” Lila preaches at a crucial moment. “Make ideas feminine, make countries feminine, make heads of state feminine! . . . Jesus was the first man to demand that the world be made feminine, and I demand it, too. I’m the second person after Christ to insist upon it.”
Gary’s style bears a certain resemblance to that of Bruno Schulz or even Jerzy Kosinski, in the sense that only a wildly hyper-real style can grasp the hyper-realities of the time. But it’s more benign, rooted in mordant French irony rather than in black comedy; in Gary’s literary universe, Kafka might never have written at all. Perhaps that’s because the French experience of the war, for all its horrors, was comprehensible. Occupation, betrayal, resistance, and the ambiguities that lay within them: this had happened before and would happen again, in a way that what happened in the East had not. Gary had an understandable reluctance to fully imagine the Shoah as it really was; it is significant that Ambrose, in “The Kites,” returns from Buchenwald unharmed. Writing about his real father’s death, Gary says, in his memoir, that a “correspondent . . . acting as a doorman or receptionist” at the gas chambers had seen his father fall down dead of a heart attack as he approached them. As Bellos points out, Gary’s actual father was probably shot on the outskirts of Vilno, and the whole passage was designed to erase the man’s existence. It is also typical that Gary, in fabricating a scene from the death camps, would have added in doormen and receptionists.
To figure out who Gary was and how he arrived at his intricate marriage of absurdist comedy and humane instruction, you have to turn to that memoir, “Promise at Dawn,” a matchlessly entertaining and psychologically persuasive book. But you have to read it alongside Bellos’s biography, which explains why basically nothing Gary said about his childhood was true, though he was still, in his way, essentially honest.
The story Gary tells is of how his mother, a Russian-raised actress named Nina, kept them both alive by various increasingly absurd scams in the much fought-over Lithuanian and then Polish town of Vilna, or Vilno, while spending her life dreaming of making her small Jewish son into, of all impossible things, a literary figure and a man of the world in the France where she had never been. “In the whole course of my life,” Gary writes, “I have heard only two people speak of France in the same tone: my mother and General de Gaulle.” He explains that he never knew his “supposed” father, Leiba Kacew: “My father had left us almost immediately after I was born,” throwing the ambitious, madly Francophile mother and the gifted, sensitive son into a relationship that recalls Charlie Chaplin’s with his wounded, fey mother. At last, in 1928, Roman and Nina risked all and fled to France so that, settled in Nice, his mother’s dream of making her son into a French man of the world could be realized in full.
Little of this, Bellos reveals, actually happened. Kacew lived with and helped raise Romain until 1925; but Gary wanted to advertise his mother’s myth that his real father was a famous Russian actor, Ivan Mosjoukine, who supposedly had an affair in Moscow with Nina when she was in her twenties—although his mother had never been a success as an actress and may never have appeared on the Moscow stage. Her name wasn’t even Nina; it was the much more Jewish Mina. Nor was he “half-Tartar,” as he liked to say; he was wholly Jewish, but within a world where Jewishness was almost always dyed with Russian and Polish and Lithuanian and, indeed, French colors. Far from being a charming idiosyncrasy of his mother’s, the tropism of Eastern Jews toward France was one of the magnetic pulls of the period: Paris was the great light of emancipated Jewish life, and it was not as eccentric as Gary needed to pretend for his mother to dream of his making a life there. There was scarcely an educated, nonreligious Eastern European Jew who didn’t. And the eventual emigration, far from being a sweeping, all-in gamble, took place through a series of well-financed feints and small measures: his mother was nowhere near as poverty-stricken as he makes her seem, nor was France as distant a goal as he wants it to sound.
Yet Gary’s stories are rarely fraudulent: they are dramatically keyed-up versions of the truth. Obsessed, as Bellos points out, with the moment when, at fourteen, he lost his virginity—many of his novels, like “The Kites,” begin with fourteen-year-old boys as the narrator, “born” at that erotic moment—Gary offers in his memoir a single episode that captures the essence of the thing. He explains that he had an affair with a shopgirl named Adèle, whom he had seduced with books. “He made me read all of Proust, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” she complains to his mother. “What is going to happen to me now? Who will want to marry me?” Gary is chagrined: “It was true that I had made Adèle swallow all of Proust, volume by volume, in rapid succession, and that was as good as telling her she could order her wedding dress.”
Obviously, this never happened: to read through Proust, volume by volume, is a year’s work for a good reader with all the time in the world. But Gary was conveying an essential truth: that he had seduced a woman with literature, and that the knowledge of it had left him feeling both giddy and guilty. A mere recitation of the facts would be anti-dramatic, less faithful to the emotional event even while being more precise to the actuality.
Gary was obsessed with sex and, it must be said, he was obsessed above all with female behinds, almost to the exclusion of any other feature. Marriette, the maid, who was his first sexual encounter, is characterized only as having “such a firm, round, lively and truly impressive behind that the haunting vision of this interesting aspect of her personality frequently obscured the face of my math teacher at school.” Freudian metaphors are out of style now, but the odd thing is that, while we all know what an anal-retentive personality is and use the bizarre idiom unthinkingly, the companion Freudian category of the “anal expulsive” personality is far less familiar. The description, as it happens, matches Gary’s character perfectly, as someone who is emotional, disorganized, self-confident, artistic, generous, and careless. A bad narrator of the facts, he was a good narrator of his own erotic pedigree.
When the Nazis invaded, Gary fled for England and de Gaulle. He had tried out for the French Air Force as an aviator and been rejected, perhaps for caste reasons, but the Free French Air Force was understandably less discriminating. The poor Russian-Polish Jew soon became an aviator. He flew bombing missions, experiencing the brushes with death that were bound to take place in a field where the casualties among crews often climbed toward totality. He ended the war a French hero, decorated and prepared to enter, as his mother would have dreamed, the diplomatic corps. She died in Nice during the war; in the memoir, he insists that she had, on her deathbed, arranged to have letters sent regularly to him after her passing, so as not to worry him in battle with thoughts of her health—another beautiful and filial fiction.
His fabrications hold a particular fascination because of the moral authority asserted by his novels, and by his actions. Gary’s example defines a fundamental distinction between the fabulist and the fraud. The higher forms of fiction and the lower form of fibs were, no doubt, born within minutes of each other. Anyone who is an inspired storyteller, as Gary was, knows that the essence of good storytelling is not assembling a heap of facts but having the imagination to leap through an arc of bright truths to create a great curve of invention. A story is a constellation of stars, with a recognizable shape made from shining bits of fact that may exist, empirically, at different levels and different spatial depths.
Yet even if the will toward art and the will to deceive others can be closely aligned, we readily distinguish between the liar and the littérateur. The fabulist wants to convey the dramatic experience of events, while the fraud wants to convey a false evaluation of them. The fabulist wants to dramatize himself; the fraud, to deceive others. With fable-makers like Gary, the artificiality of the material is almost always self-evident, and so is the dramatic point being sought by the story. I once knew a great fabulist who, never entirely inventing, always intensified for dramatic effect. If he said that he’d once been sold at a charity auction for ten thousand dollars and only after having removed all of his clothes, you would soon find out that he had been sold for two thousand, and had taken off his shirt. The formula was to divide by five and add pants.
With Gary, the formula is to divide by seven and add literature. The hyperbole involves raising reality—one volume of Zola becomes every volume of Proust—and his tales almost always have a literary origin. At one point in his memoir, he tells a story about promising a little Jewish neighbor of his to repeat his name in the presence of anyone famous he ever meets, and then insists that he did, even to the Queen of England. As Bellos tells us, Gary is adapting a well-known story by Gogol for his purposes. Did an old man say something like that, and did Gary then say something to the Queen? It almost doesn’t matter; the moral point of the adapted anecdote is apparent: there are no little lives, or little people. For Gary, this truth cuts both ways. If there are no little lives, there is no one too small to remember, and also no one too small to take responsibility for what is happening. In one of Gary’s most forceful images, he says that just as offensive as Dachau is the picture of the little town going on harvesting and planting and eating alongside it.
Yet we wish, somehow, to sort this kind of untruth from the other, darker kind of falsehood that blemishes our public life. The answer, Gary’s work instructs us, has to do with the way we discern the motive and the intentions of speakers. No one reading “Promise at Dawn” ever imagined that it happened quite like that. We know bad lies from good fables because the world they propose is not the mixed one we know and narrate but another, made-up world where only domination counts and the teller alone asserts himself. A healthy literary lie often makes the speaker look more ridiculous than his fellows; an evil political lie makes its teller seem like a master of men. The lies of tyrants and would-be tyrants are bad literature, and we know they are lies almost before they are fact-checked; we know them as lies by the world they conjure, one in which only supplicants and masters can live.
Gary’s career after the war was both deliriously successful and, in a way, never quite fully achieved. Although the war hero was soon a much admired writer, Gary was never taken entirely seriously by the self-important French literary establishment. Indeed, he parodied this self-importance in his showmanship, his performance, parading around the streets of the Left Bank and holding court in bistros. A comparison might be made between Gary and his good friend and admirer Albert Camus: both were outsiders, the Eastern European Jew and the Algerian; both were resisters (though Camus’s war was nowhere near as heroic as Gary’s); and both spoke up for the particular and against the abstract, following the hope, embedded in the French vocabulary, that the word humain could stand for both the human and the humane.
But Camus wrote exclusively in the philosophical and high-minded tradition of Racine: though he insists on humanity, there are only scraps of actual human-animal behavior in his books. Meursault’s decision to murder the Arab on the beach, in “The Stranger,” reads bloodless, nor is there a single truly comic passage in Camus’s work. There is, in effect, a schematic divide in French literature between the lineage of Racine and that of Rabelais, between the stern, high-poetic voice of moral instruction and the low, gross voice of human experience. Gary has the human animal everywhere—feasting, farting, fucking—and this made him seem charming, and minor. (In English, we are blessed to have in Shakespeare both at once: the noblest versifier of human pain, and a man who wrote page after page of piss jokes and fart jokes and funny-Welshman jokes.)
The classic Gary note involves an ironic acceptance of human frailty married to an equally strong sense of right and wrong; Gary saw what he called “mediocrity,” vindictive self-righteousness, as the root of all evil. “The Germans helped me a lot,” Ludo insists, in “The Kites.” “The inhumanity of it is what makes Nazism so horrible—that’s what people always say. Sure. But there’s no denying the obvious: part of being human is the inhumanity of it. As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling ourselves pious lies.”
When Gary moved to America as the French consul general in Los Angeles, in 1956, it seemed the perfect theatre for so theatrical a Frenchman, and his greatest fame, and success, was achieved there. He played the part to perfection, and became a Southern California icon—until, in 1959, he fell in love with the actress Jean Seberg, leaving his British wife for her. Seberg had become a star as Otto Preminger’s “St. Joan,” in the late fifties, but became an icon when she was taken up as the pin-up girl of the nouvelle vaguein France, most memorably in Godard’s “Breathless.”
The trouble was that Seberg, though later the victim of a heinous campaign of blackmail and harassment by the F.B.I. (it was convinced that her stillborn child had actually been fathered by a Black Panther activist), was also a genuinely troubled woman, whose descent into drug addiction and madness seems only peripherally political. Gary’s book “White Dog” is, in some measure, an attempt to make sense of the mad California world of civil-rights politics and drug dealing in which the marriage plunged him.
His return to France in 1961 was in large part motivated by his desire to follow Seberg back there, where she was a much bigger star than she was in America. It was only then, after his return—and as their marriage was breaking up—that he made the improvised decision to take up the literary identity of “Émile Ajar.” Although he tried, in a posthumously published confession, to give this deception some of the flavor of a jeu d’esprit, it was a desperate move meant to recover a literary heft that had been coarsened by too much rapid writing and repetition. It succeeded: the first novel written under Ajar’s name, “Gros-Câlin,” the tale of a lonely Parisian statistician in love with a Guyanese woman, was a tighter, more minimalist performance than Gary had managed in his American-oriented best-sellers. It was, though, a sort of misfortune that his second Ajar book, “The Life Before Us,” became as celebrated as it did, winning the Goncourt again. It made what was intended as a small feint into a big serial deception—he enlisted one of his nephews, unwisely, to impersonate this other author—and the cost of the deception, flowing out over so many people, was the beginning of his decline.
Seberg committed suicide in 1979, overdosing in a parked car on a street in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, her body untended for many days. Though the couple had long been separated, and Gary had had countless one-night stands since, she had been the love of his life, and her death brought on a depression that never quite lifted. On December 2, 1980, after that reasonably cheerful lunch with his publisher, he returned to his apartment and wrote a note that began, “D-Day. No connection with Jean Seberg. Aficionados of broken hearts should apply elsewhere. . . . So why? . . . I have at last said all I have to say.”
The climax of “The Kites”—the novel appeared shortly before Gary’s death—may be one of the most strangely moving sequences in all French fiction about the war. Lila, who has prostituted herself—not in itself a bad thing, in Gary’s reckoning—has her head shaved by a sanctimonious local barber as punishment for sleeping with a German officer. (This was a routine humiliation of the period.) Instead of accepting her shaming, Ludo insists on parading her through town in her “mutilated” state, and then, on their wedding day, her hair grown in, he takes her back to the bemused barber, and makes him cut it short again. It’s a gesture of defiance and shamelessness, and of a new kind of compassionate chic:
Chinot got to work. In a few minutes, Lila’s head was shaved as closely as it had been in those first days. She leaned forward and admired herself in the mirror.“It really suits me.”She stood. I turned to Chinot.“How much do I owe you?”He was silent, his mouth hanging open.“How much? I don’t like being in anyone’s debt.”“Three francs fifty.”“Here’s four, for tip.”
This very “Christian” turn, created by a Jew mocking a Catholic community, with the embrace of humiliation as a form of sanctity in a world long since fallen, would have pleased Camus; but Gary does it with gaiety rather than with piety. It would make a fine scene in a movie, or a musical comedy. (The passage also suggests Gary’s penchant for subtle literary in-jokes. Lila, the beautiful girl whom the provincial kid stumbles upon in the woods as a boy and can’t ever forget, is a reference back to the princess in Alain-Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes,” while her trimmed hair is a reference forward to the signature coiffure of Jean Seberg herself. She was famous for the style when she and Gary were married, but it was first adopted—one more Gary-esque irony—for her movie role as Jeanne d’Arc.)
Gary is in favor of significant moral action and against sanctimonious moral fervor. He is for hiding more Jews and shaming fewer sinners. He took the essential Rabelaisian position that by asserting the humanness of humanity, the sheer animal absurdity of eating and shitting and fucking and lying, we can stop pretending and accept that we are all the same ruined creature. Compassion for the fallible is his chief lesson, one he can teach with authority, since, in the historical pinch, he didn’t fail. A fabulist in many small ways, he was in possession of one big compound truth: to believe that the human and the humane are naturally the same is one of the worst lies we tell ourselves; to think that they might yet become so is one of the better stories we share. ♦
An earlier version of this article misspelled Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s name.
DE OTROS MUNDOS
Romain Gary / El otro hombre
Así comienza / La vida ante sí
Diego Gary / A veces tengo miedo de llevar una bomba y que estalle
La gran tomadura de pelo literaria de Romain Gary
Así comienza / La vida ante sí
Diego Gary / A veces tengo miedo de llevar una bomba y que estalle
La gran tomadura de pelo literaria de Romain Gary