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13 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:07pm

War hero, novelist, moralist and liar: the many lives and disguises of Romain Gary

For 15 years he was a French diplomat, for ten a jet-setting celebrity spouse – writing a significant French oeuvre along the way

By David Bellos

Born Roman Kacew in 1914 in Vilna, in the Russian Empire (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania), the precociously handsome boy who became Romain Gary was brought by his mother to Nice at the age of 14. On sight of the Mediterranean and the pretty girls on the Promenade des Anglais, he chose straight away to make French his mother tongue, in lieu of the fluent Russian, written Polish, street Yiddish, and school-learned German that he had already. At the lycée he shone at composition, then he went to Aix-en-Provence to study law and so to Paris, limbering up all the while to become the writer his mother wanted him to be. In Gary’s entertaining account of his early life, Promise at Dawn (1960), his fearsome mama was also quite sure he would become an ambassador as well. However, mere truth never was Gary’s specialty. He set more store by fibs so blatant as to approach the level of art.

Gary became a naturalised Frenchman in 1935 and began compulsory military service in 1938. He was, therefore, in uniform when the Second World War broke out and his service was automatically extended. On the defeat of France in 1940, he escaped to North Africa and made his way to Britain and to Charles de Gaulle. He swore allegiance to the leader of the tiny band of people who were the first to call themselves la France Libre. Gary never abandoned those comrades or their cause.

He served in the air force in West Africa and the Middle East and then, from 1943, in the Lorraine Squadron based near London, he flew sorties over France and Holland, dropping bombs on industrial and military targets. It was dangerous work. Of the French airmen who signed up in 1940 a mere handful were alive in 1945. Gary was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and the Military Cross, and was made a Compagnon de la Libération, a member of the small elite designated by de Gaulle as the real heroes of France’s war.

By then Gary was a celebrated novelist too. A European Education, a story of anti-Nazi partisans in Polish forests, came out first in English translation and then in France, where it won the first Prix des Critiques in 1945. This is the point at which Promise at Dawn comes to an end. It is also where The Kites (1980), Gary’s last-written novel, now finally translated into English, ends. But if the younger Gary ends his story of Poland’s liberation with a bleak view of the world as “a cruel, incomprehensible place where the only thing that counts is to carry a silly twig always further… by the sweat of your brow”, the older Gary ends the story of France’s liberation in The Kites with a striking, unprepared, apparently irrelevant invocation of Pastor André Trocmé, the Protestant cleric of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon who hid Jewish refugees from the Nazis, “because you can’t say better than that”.

Between these two different takes on the real meaning of the Liberation, Gary had led several fairly unbelievable lives in different places, in different guises, under different names. For 15 years he was a French diplomat (in Bulgaria, Switzerland, New York and, to cap it all, as consul-general in Los Angeles, fulfilling his mother’s prediction he would be an ambassador one day, if only “Ambassador to Hollywood”). Then for ten years he was a jet-setting celebrity spouse following the luminously beautiful and woefully unstable Jean Seberg from shoot to shoot around the world. Along the way, he wrote a significant œuvre in French, including what may be the world’s first ecological novel, The Roots of Heaven, which won the Goncourt Prize in 1956, and a somewhat smaller but just as successful set of novels in his sixth mother tongue, English (Lady L, The Ski Bum, The Dance of Genghis Cohn…).

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The film rights to many of these works were sold for princely sums and made Gary a wealthy man, with an apartment in Geneva for tax purposes, several floors at 108 Rue du Bac in Paris, and a seaside palace in Mallorca. But partly because of his worldly success and his wide and popular readership, he never gained the esteem of the critical establishment, and the intellectuals among his Left Bank neighbours never deigned to take any notice of his remarkable storytelling talent. He tried out disguising himself as “Fosco Sinibaldi” in the 1950s and then as “René Deville”, but these masks were quickly discarded.

In the 1970s, however, he hit upon the device of writing a kind of upside-down French that flaunted his polyglot origins in a way monolingual French speakers could not quite unscramble, and became the mysteriously absent but hugely popular Émile Ajar. It turned out to be the most successful literary hoax in history. Under his fake identity, Gary won the Goncourt a second time for The Life Before Us (1975) and then produced the mind-bogglingly counterfactual Hocus Bogus (1976), which proved he was not Émile Ajar, and that Ajar was quite mad. (He puts himself in the novel as the repulsive “Uncle Bogey”, while the real Romain Gary was asked to sign a release protecting the publishing house from being sued for defamation.) Henceforth he was free to write books as Émile Ajar and other books as Romain Gary, creating a two-track oeuvre whose unity only becomes visible in retrospect.

But the strain of the deception – which included controlling the unreliable avatar he had tasked with impersonating the non-existent Ajar – propelled Gary ever further towards a kind of jubilant depression. He wrote his last Ajar novel, King Solomon, in 1979 and brought his work as Gary to a conscious close in 1980 with The Kites. In December of that year, after penning a confession as to why he had pursued two identities and giving the typescript to publisher  Robert Gallimard to publish post mortem, he used his service revolver to shoot himself in the head. The revelation of the hoax in the spring of 1981 caused British and American publishers to drop Gary like a brick, and nearly all his work was allowed to go out of print. That is the main reason why his final novel remained untranslated for so long.

In The Kites, Ambroise Fleury is a postman in a Normandy seaside village whose hobby and passion is making kites that celebrate French history and culture. In the next village Marcellin Duprat runs a three-star restaurant that celebrates the same thing through gastronomy. Fleury’s nephew Ludo – like many other first-person narrators of Gary and Ajar novels – is a teenage boy of uncommon abilities on the verge of discovering what it means to be a man. He falls for Lila, a whimsical beauty from Poland who spends her summers in a fantastical manor house nearby, with her aristocratic family forever on the brink of ruin. War comes, the Poles disappear. Ludo endures the Occupation by running errands for the Resistance while his uncle flies kites that keep France’s honour in the air. Ambroise ends up at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small town in central France where the pastor, André Trocmé, runs a rescue service for Jewish children, smuggling hundreds of them to safety in Switzerland.

Ambroise is arrested and deported, but he survives and returns to the Normandy village, where, by a series of coincidences worthy of the best romantic comedies, all the main actors reassemble after the Liberation. Lila, who has cheated Ludo atrociously and worked as a prostitute in a brothel in Paris, has her head shaved as a collaborator. But the young man, who has now seen far worse forms of human behaviour, insists on marrying her – and on having her head shaved again for the ceremony.

The Kites is therefore a novel of reconciliation, mixing many historical details (André Trocmé, for instance, and the D-Day landings at Arromanches) with a far-fetched story-line that unites commitment to even the most worn-out clichés of French identity with nostalgia for Polish roots, and support for the Resistance with sympathy for people who got on with their lives under the Occupation. It is a less angry work than A European Education, which had tackled the same themes 35 years before, but the lightness of its tone in telling the horrific history of Gary’s own generation shows the novelist’s art at its most typical, and at its best.

It’s not easy to represent that half-joking, half-ominous atmosphere in English, but even if Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s translation does not quite re-enact the unique ironic warmth of Gary’s prose, it brings to us at long last what Gary really wanted to be his last word. For although the plight of France’s Jews is not the subject of the book, and although Gary never tried to write about the Holocaust directly except in the vein of satire taken to an irreverent extreme, he never forgot or denied that he was a Jew. For this curiously modest moralist who had led many barely moral lives, Pastor André Trocmé was undoubtedly a greater hero than any daredevil dropping incendiary bombs on France’s Channel coast at the same time. 

David Bellos is the author of “Romain Gary. A Tall Story” (Harvill Secker)

The Kites
Romain Gary, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot
Penguin Classics, 305pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran