Lady L

Lady L was the novel Romain Gary wrote after his Prix Goncourt winning The Roots of Heaven, taking the unusual step of writing it in English and then translating it into French five years later. This decision was perhaps influenced by his central character, a French woman who, at the age of eighty, finds herself at the centre of English society:

“Your son is the present Duke of Glendale. Your eldest grandson, James, is a director of the Bank of England, and if this is not conventional enough for you, then there is Roland, who is a cabinet minister, and Anthony, soon to be a bishop, and Richard, although less successful, is a lieutenant colonel in the Brigade of Guards.”

She is in many the ways the very caricature of an English aristocrat, complaining at one point that her children and grandchildren not only accept the company of politicians but “wouldn’t even hesitate to bring some Americans to dinner.” Her equanimity, however, is noticeably shaken when she discovers that there is to be road built through her land which will necessitate her summer pavilion being demolished. In fact, her response to the news seems excessively dramatic:

“She felt suddenly utterly lost and lonely and old… If the pavilion had to go, well, then she would soon have to go herself, for she was not willing to live alone.”

Her family dismiss her reaction as eccentricity. Only her loyal admirer, the Poet Laureate, Percy (“She knew that her smiles were big moments in his life…”) follows in an attempt to console her, and so, over the course of the novel, she reveals to him the story of her life, telling him, “You will have to brace yourself for a shock.” And so, Percy, and the reader, discover that Lady L was born Annette Boudin in Paris in the 1870s. Her father is a drunken printer’s hand who tells her that “there were only three things worth living and dying for: Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.” Here Gary introduces his theme: politics versus love. While her father dreams of a better world, her mother works sixteen hours a day as a laundress. It is through helping her mother that Annette acquires a “violent dislike for physical labour” – her approach to life is practical rather than ideological:

“It seemed to her… it was not so much the soul but the body that mattered: it suffered, toiled, sweated and died.”

She applies the same common sense to her prospects when her parents die, deciding to become a prostitute as “if she began young and pretty enough, perhaps she could escape from it more quickly.” And so she meets the “most famous pimp in Paris,” Alphonse Lecoeur, and, through him, the anarchist, Armand Denis. Armand wants to take Annette to Switzerland and use her to gain information which will allow him to:

“…organise a series of well-planned burglaries and then use the money to stage a few spectacular coups against the crowned Heads of Europe who gathered cosily in fashionable resorts and picturesque spas.”

Annette immediately falls in love with him:

“I stared and stared at him, not listening to what he was saying and just smiling and feeling that I knew suddenly why I was born.”

Annette and Armand become lovers, but for Armand the cause always comes first. Annette befriends the Duke of Glendale whom Armand intends to rob, condemning him for being “completely amoral” – “his only purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure.” “If only Armand were a little amoral,” Annette thinks to herself, “how happy they could have been together!” Armand does not deny his love for her, but cannot put her before his political ambitions:

“Millions of slaves lift towards us their shackled hands… We cannot belong to each other, we belong to them. Our happiness would be an insult to our hearts and their suffering.”

Although Annette is torn, she believes she cannot live without Armand. When a robbery goes wrong, however, and he is close to being caught she goes to the Duke of Glendale (Dicky) for help. This he provides, but he also offers her an alternative future by suggesting they marry: “You cannot remain a slave to love the rest of your life.” How Lady L has reconciled these competing feelings – her love for Armand, her desire for a life of pleasure – is only revealed in the novel’s final pages.

Lady L is a novel of verve and passion, much like the character herself. Its elements of picaresque and ‘rags to riches’ are overlaid with a knowing irony. At no point does it take itself entirely seriously, poking fun at both Lady L’s obsessive love, and Armand’s obsessive ideology. One suspects Gary would approve of her practical solution.


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7 Responses to “Lady L”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Someone needs to bring the English translation back into print as I for one would like to read it! (That’s assuming you didn’t read it in French due to the lack of a translation?) It sounds ideal for Pushkin P or NYRB Classics, a lost gem rescued from the archives for the English-speaking world to enjoy.

    • 1streading Says:

      There is definitely a case for more of Gary’s work being back in print in English – he’s not even a difficult writer – what I’ve read so far has been very entertaining!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, how fascinating Grant – it sounds marvellous, and that cover!!!

  3. Emma Says:

    I really like Lady L, I’ve read the French version, of course. I also have the English one (same cover as yours) but I haven’t read it yet.
    I wonder how different it is from the French version. Gary is known for not translating his novels literally.

    I suspect there’s more about the arnarchist / politics-is-my-only-mistress stuff in the French version, playing on the French political culture.

    And yes, he’s got a wonderful sense of humour.

    I’ve added your review on my Reading Romain Gary page.

  4. Books of the Year 2022 Part 1 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] French writer now sadly neglected in English, Romain Gary, reading both The Life Before Us and Lady L. The former is the more affecting novel, though there is much to admire in the darkly amusing Lady […]

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