Literary odd man out

13 Apr 2011


THE Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris recently paid a somewhat belated homage to one of the most popular but also enigmatic and controversial literary figures of our times. Details surrounding the life of Romain Gary are shrouded in mystery right from the day of his birth — and nobody could have contributed more to these myths than the author himself in many a wildly contradictory account of his origins, his parents and the influences in his life.

Facts gleaned from various sources add up, more or less, to his being born as Roman Kacew on May 8, 1914 in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to a Tartar-Mongol father and a Russian mother. Apparently, the father left the family when the boy was only 11, leaving mother and son to make their way to France where they soon adopted local citizenships.

The young Kacew proved to be a brilliant student at the Aix-en-Provence high school and eventually successfully earned a degree from the Paris law college. He never became a lawyer as fate beckoned him to a life much more exciting and adventurous in comparison; by this time the Second World War had begun and part of France was under occupation by the Nazi forces.

Now called Romain Gary, the future author underwent training instead as a fighting aircraft pilot, afterwards joining Gen Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Records show him taking part in dozens of successful sorties against German targets and being hugely decorated for bravery, including with medals as Compagnon de la Libération and Commandant de la Légion d’Honneur. The end of the war marked the beginning of Gary’s literary career with the publication, in 1945, of his first novel in French Education Européenne that was an immediate success and was translated into many languages. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at that time qualified the work as “the best novel ever written about the Resistance”.

Once again, instead of concentrating on this new opportunity, his natural restlessness led Romain Gary to a diplomatic career that would take him, in various positions, to a number of European capitals as well as to London, New York, and fatefully as it were, to Los Angeles at the French consulate. Romain Gary who had a penchant for learning languages had by this time mastered his English, a gift that would allow him later to write a number of books in English and then translate them himself into French. His Los Angeles posting also brought him in contact with Hollywood that resulted in writing part of the scenario of the 1962 Darryl F. Zanuck war classic The Longest Day.

The 1950s were the beginning of Gary’s full-time involvement in literature, a passion that resulted through the next three decades in some 30 novels, memoirs and essays both in English and French. But once again, the maverick trait in Gary’s nature would restrain him from taking a normal course and he would throw himself head on, and with childish delight, into the biggest literary scam France had ever known.

Gary was awarded in 1956 the Goncourt, France’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his book Les Racines du Ciel, later turned into a Hollywood film, The Roots of Heaven, directed by John Huston with Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Errol Flynn and many other stars in the cast. According to the strict rules of the Goncourt committee which has existed for well nigh two centuries, no writer is eligible for a second prize no matter how great his achievement. Gary, forever the odd man out, was obsessed with the idea of getting hold of a second award, by hook or by crook.

This was not for monetary gain as, unlike in the case of the Nobel Prize, a Goncourt prize winner gets no financial benefits save for a token reward of 10 euros, or 10 francs at that time. Gary decided to shatter the rule by writing a book, La Vie Devant Soi (‘The Life Before Us’) under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. The work was published in 1975 and, as its author had planned, was awarded the Goncourt prize — handed out to Emile Ajar of course! Following the success of his stunt, Gary appeared gleefully on a number of TV shows, in the company of his nephew Paul Pavlowitch who of course had fooled the publishers and the Goncourt jury as the fictitious Emile Ajar.

Contrary to these characteristic quirks that can be taken as signs of a fun-loving nature, the personal life of this extraneous genius was a mess. During the war he had wed the British writer and journalist Lesley Blanche, to divorce her in 1961. From 1962 to 1970, his second wife was the beautiful American actress Jean Seberg whom the legendary Hollywood director Otto Preminger had introduced a few years earlier as Joan of Arc and then as the charming central character in Bonjour Tristesse.

Late one night, some years after her divorce, Jean Seberg took a lethal dose of alcohol and sleeping pills, drove her car around the streets of Paris, parked it in a corner when she could drive no more and just plunged into eternal sleep at the wheel. On December 2, 1980, Romain Gary placed the nozzle of his revolver to his temple and shot himself. He was at that time at the height of his literary glory and his material fortune.

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.