Promise at Dawn

For a novelist who has won the Prix Goncourt twice (once under his own name and once using a pseudonym), Romain Gary has been rather shoddily treated in the English-speaking world, something that is made all the more shameful by the fact that he wrote a number of his novels in English and then translated them into French. Hopefully, this is changing, with a new translation of The Kites appearing from Penguin Classics this year, followed by a reprint of his autobiography, Promise at Dawn, in its 1961 translation by John Markham Beach. This neglect might suggest that Gary is a challenging or difficult writer, but on the evidence of these two books, he is quite the opposite: readable, entertaining and moreish.

Promise at Dawn is the story of his formation as writer, a story that is as much his mother’s as his own. Gary was born in 1914 in Vilnius which, at that time, was part of Russia. His mother was a Russian actress who, his father having left them, is presented throughout the book as a single parent whose only care is for her son (Gary also suggests that his father is not, in fact, the Jewish businessman whose surname he bears, but the actor and film star Ivan Mosjoukine). From Vilnius they move to Warsaw and later, when Gary is fourteen, to Nice in France, a country which has always been his mother’s desired destination, everywhere else regarded as:

“…’a temporary halt’, as my mother never failed to point out, on our way to France, a country where we were to make our permanent home, which was eagerly awaiting me, and where I would ‘grow up, study and become somebody.’”

Gary becoming ‘somebody’ is his mother’s obsession, an obsession he realises originates in the fact that his “mother’s own artistic ambitions had never been fulfilled, and she was dreaming for me of a career she had never know herself.”

“Yes, my mother had talent – and I have never recovered from it.”

His mother’s attempts to identify his talent do not begin with writing, which might even be described as something of a last resort. He tells of early efforts with a violin:

“All I remember today of the ‘Maestro’ is the expression of profound astonishment on his face each time I dutifully applied my bow to the strings; and I can still hear the cry ‘Ai, ai, ail’ he would utter, covering his ears with both hands as I was giving my best.”

Gary also fails to make the grade as a dancer, and painting is rejected as, in his mother’s eyes, “all painters were condemned to poverty, despair, disease and drunkenness.”

“And so, with music, dance and painting out of the way, we resigned ourselves to literature.”

This self-deprecating humour runs through the book, aimed at both Gary and his mother, though, it has to be said, without resentment. His mother’s self-sacrifice and devotion overrides any sense that she is pushing him too hard. Momentarily prosperous, his mother’s business collapses when she devotes herself instead to caring for Gary when he falls seriously ill, and, finding herself bankrupt, they leave for Warsaw, still aiming for France. There they live hand to mouth (“She turned her hand to a hundred and one things to keep us afloat.”) but Gary remains the priority:

“…every morning at ten, she turned up punctually with her Thermos flask of hot chocolate and her bread and butter.”

Eventually they reach Nice where their precarious existence continues, supported at times by mysterious money orders which we assume come from Gary’s father. Gary develops his own survival instincts, at one point pawning their furniture, and on another occasion making the most of a wealthy lodger who is taken with his mother.

Beyond his relationship with his mother, the book is probably more interesting as a historical document than as the diary of a developing writer as a result of Gary’s participation in the Second World War. Though denied an officer’s rank in the French Air Force (a result, he feels, of his status as a foreigner and a Jew), he determines to get to England to continue fighting after France’s surrender. It is during his stay in England that he writes his first novel, A European Education, but he reveals little about his writing process beyond his determination to succeed for his mother’s sake.

Promise at Dawn is a captivating autobiography, and I would challenge any reader to leave its pages without falling at least a little in love with Gary. It’s the smaller stories which make it such a delight, like that of the neighbour, Mr Piekielny, who believed his mother’s claim that Gary would one day be French Ambassador, and asked only that he be mentioned when Gary met the rich and famous:

“Then something happened in me. I could almost see the little man jumping up and down, stamping his feet and tearing at his goatee in a desperate attempt to attract my attention and remind me of my promise… I heard myself announce to the Queen in a loud and perfectly audible voice:
‘At number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in the town of Vilna, there lived a certain Mr Piekielny…’”

Hopefully Gary’s works continue to return to print as I, for one, would like to read them all.


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15 Responses to “Promise at Dawn”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds wonderful, Grant, and as I have a copy on my shelves it’s likely to be my first Gary.

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Wonderful indeed, I like the sound of this too.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’d like to read Gary at some point, and this sounds like a great place to start. The little details and small stories you’ve described really appeal to me. Apparently there’s a film adaptation with Pierre Niney and Charlotte Gainsbourg too:

  4. winstonsdad Says:

    Ive this on my shelves the old edition and of the roots of heaven by him a reissue of white dog be interesting saw film a few years ago based on a true story of his own wife getting a white dog that she didn’t know was

  5. Emma Says:

    I’m so happy to read this review. He’s my favourite writer and I’ve been raving about it on my blog.

    There’s a page “Reading Romain Gary”, if you want to find other reviews of his work.

    I also wrote a billet about Un certain Monsieur Piekielny by François Henri Désérable. The author goes to Vilnius to investigate Mr Piekielny and discover what happened to him.

    I love Gary for his sense of humour, his vision of mankind, his unusual characters.

    I also hope that other of his books will be rediscovered by English readers. He was famous in the English speaking world when he was alive and most of his books have been translated into English. Theyre just out of print.

    I read The Kites recently (billets on my blog) alternating between the French version and the English one. I thought that the translation was very good but Lisa (ANZ Litlovers) hated it because it was American English.

    How was this translation of Promise at Dawn?

    • 1streading Says:

      Difficult for me to judge the translation without any French – it was the original translation from around the time the book was written and I certainly didn’t find any problems with it. I’ve been reading your Gary posts for a while and have always been intrigued – it was strange to see your post on Un certain Monsieur Piekielny just after I’d chosen to finish my review with that story!

      • Emma Says:

        Gary has probably overseen this translation. He spoke English very well.
        I was more asking about the English used: American English or British English?

        I’ve seen in another of your comments that they will reissue The Roots of Heaven in November. That’s great news as well.

        I wonder why these books are reissued all of a sudden. It’s as if some legal hurdle has now disappeared.
        Who’s the publisher?

      • 1streading Says:

        My impression was it was more UK English than US (like The Kites). Roots of Heaven is being published by Verba Mundi, the translator is Jonathan Griffin, with an introduction by David Bellos.

  6. Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma […]

  7. Blog anniversary: 10 years of book blogging | Book Around the Corner Says:

    […] from Tony’s Book World read White Dog and found it excellent. Another review for Promise at Dawn, this time by Grant at 1streading’s Blog. Jacqui also thoroughly enjoyed Promise at Dawn and […]

  8. The Life Before Us | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in France at the age of fourteen. (A version of his life can be found in his autobiography, Promise at Dawn). It is perhaps only to be expected that the narrator of The Life Before Us, Momo (short for […]

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