Posts Tagged ‘Romain Gary’

Lady L

September 2, 2022

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.

The Life Before Us

June 6, 2022

The Life Before Us is, of course, the novel with which Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt for the second time (strictly against the rules) having published it under another name – Emile Ajar.  He chose to publish under a pseudonym as, by the 1970s, he felt pigeon-holed by critics and readers, but also because, as he stated in The Life and Death of Emile Ajar (published in 1981, a year after his suicide):

“I have always been someone else.”

This feeling of estrangement from his own life no doubt has is roots in his origins, born Roman Kacew in Vilnius, spending parts of his childhood in Moscow and Warsaw, and only arriving 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 Mohammed), is also confused about his origins, and even his age.

Despite this, Momo is certainly a child as he tells the story of his life so far and it is his character which carries the novel, a combination of curiosity, innocence and resignation which is captured perfectly by Gary and his translator, Ralph Manheim. Gary cleverly has the young Momo looking back on his younger self (“I stopped being ignorant when I was three of four, and sometimes I miss it”) with the hard-earned wisdom of the slightly older child. We meet a boy who has no mother but is instead looked after by Madame Rosa, an ex-prostitute who now cares for the children of prostitutes. Other children come and go, and are granted visits from their mothers, but not Momo. Eventually Madame Rosa tells him:

“You kids are lucky you don’t know your mothers, because children your age still have sensibilities, and it’s hard to believe what dyed-in-the-wool whores they are, sometimes I think I’m dreaming.”

Lacking a mother, Momo steals a dog – a poodle – but later sells it for five hundred francs, and then throws the money away. Looking back, the older Momo thinks he understands this (“There was no security at Madame Rosa’s, we were all hanging by a thread… That was no life for a dog.”) but it is clear to the reader he cannot fully explain his behaviour. In this way the novel is built up in layers – the child Momo, the narrator Momo, the adults around him (who, after this incident, worry he “isn’t normal”), and the reader.

At the novel’s centre is the relationship between Momo and Madame Rosa (the novel was first translated as Momo and filmed in 1977 as Madame Rosa). Momo’s sympathy for Madame Rosa can be seen immediately when he comments on her daily struggle to reach the sixth floor: “if ever a woman deserved an elevator it was Madame Rosa.” He later describes her as “so sad you didn’t even notice she was ugly.” She is a survivor of Auschwitz, and when she feels afraid she retreats to the basement of the building where she sweeps the floor – another example of Momo observing but not understanding. Yet, despite her age, and her often less than tender manner, Momo not only stays with her when she falls ill but protects her, even from the knowledge she is ill. “Her brain isn’t getting the blood and oxygen it needs,” the doctor tells him:

“Pretty soon she won’t be able to think, she’ll be like a vegetable.”

When Madame Rosa, having overheard word ‘vegetable’, questions Momo about this, he tells her: “You’ll have to eat your vegetable for your health.” And so he stays with Madame Rosa as her condition deteriorates, for example finding her dressed one day to go back on the streets:

“Madame Rosa, mother naked in leather boots, with black lace panties around her neck, because she’d gotten her arms and legs mixed up, and tits that defy the imagination lying flat on her belly, is something you won’t see anywhere else even if it exists.”

This also gives a flavour of the novel’s humour, even in the bleakest circumstances. (Lighter moments include Momo turning an umbrella into an imaginary friend but removing its face when he learns that this offends Moslems).

Ultimately, The Life Before Us is a novel about love. “Can somebody live without love?” Momo asks at the beginning. Yes, he is told, but, in a sense, he refuses to accept this, choosing to love Madame Rosa until she dies, and finally solving the mystery of whether she loves him. Winning a prize you can only win once for a second time is not the only paradox Gary has created with this novel about death that is the radiantly life-affirming.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.

Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.

Promise at Dawn

September 23, 2018

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.