Posts Tagged ‘the life before us’

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.