Romain Gary Essay - Critical Essays

Gary, Romain


Romain Gary 1914–1980

(Pseudonym of Romain Kacew; also transliterated as Kassef and Kacewgary; also wrote under pseudonym of Emile Ajar) Russian-born French novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, and dramatist.

Although Gary never attained the status of a major writer, he produced several best-selling novels and managed, with his Emile Ajar pseudonym, a literary hoax of surprising ingenuity. Education européenne (A European Education), his first novel, was praised for its skillful evocation of the resistance movement in war-time France. Few of his later works were as highly acclaimed—notable exceptions being his symbolic novel, Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven), and his fictional autobiography, La promesse de l'aube (Promise at Dawn), a poignant portrayal of his unusual mother.

It was not until the planned publication in 1981 of Life and Death of Emile Ajar by Gary that the literary world learned the true identity of Ajar, a pseudonym Gary had used for several novels, including La vie devant soi (Momo) and Pseudo. La vie devant soi received notoriety when its author (Ajar) refused the Prix Goncourt, a prize Gary had previously won for The Roots of Heaven and a prize which an author may only win once. Adding to the confusion was a signed statement by Gary that he was not Ajar and a later acknowledgement in Pseudo that Ajar was Gary's distant cousin, Paul Pavlowitch.

Gary was a passionate spokesman against various social injustices but the humanitarianism evident in his writings was often marred by sentimentality. His unexplained suicide ended his enigmatic career.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102 [obituary] and Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

Jean Garrigue

[The Company of Men deals with the] wake of wild boys—"orphans of the state"—in France, during that postwar interim when living conditions had arrived at a kind of classic hopelessness. There have been other French novels on the same theme, but The Company of Men, taking off from the hardboiled American novel, arrives at a kind of brilliant freedom and boldness, combining realism with a delicacy of fantasy and imagination that makes for an exhilarating effect. Certain techniques, too—the way the short scene is focused upon, given a wring or twist, and then dropped, its barbed point still quivering—bring to mind the movie technique at its brightest—Chaplin here, Jean Vigo in France.

The first-person narration gives it another kind of leeway. Told by a young kid, twelve when his record begins, seventeen at the end when he is ready to join the company of men, the style is appropriately direct, slangy and bold. Getting around as he does, in stolen cars, acquainted with all the better people of the new underground, his "book" is a report on a society temporarily split down so many centers that a kind of totality of nihilism is about the most honest and realistic viewpoint that can be taken…. Everybody, at least, talks that way….

Their theme is: Well, what has become of us; what has become of the concept of man? And who are we? Escape artists? Has living betrayed us? Gary answers in part by...

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Earl W. Foell

It seems strange that the publicists escorting ["The Roots of Heaven"] to its American debut have not compared it to "Moby Dick." M. Gary is not an imitator of Melville, but this latest, deep-searching work of his has many points of similarity to the American classic.

Elephants, rather than whales, are the subject. But they are treated, a la Melville, on two levels—both as symbols and as straightforward noble mammals. M. Gary's hero, Morel, is, like Ahab, a man possessed. What's more, following Morel in his pachyderm-obsessed mission is as motley a collection of adventurers, misanthropes, idealists, and mixed nationalities as ever sailed on the Pequod. Morel's expedition, like Ahab's, is punitive in nature. And both books are a complex mixture of gripping physical action and rather prolix metaphysical search….

M. Gary manages to say a lot about the march of civilization in Africa, about man's extinction of the other species, about freedom, about idealism, about African nationalism, about race, about communism, about almost every crucial point of contemporary life. And, yes, about elephants….

As writing, "The Roots of Heaven" is inexplicably up and down. Its opening pages are almost opaque with prolixity. Dialogue between characters runs more to monologue lasting for pages. Sentences are peculiarly convoluted. The story is recounted by a narrator speaking to a Jesuit missionary friend—a device that leads to confusing subquotes and mistaken identity.

Once beyond this frame into the picture proper, M. Gary … [is] all succinctness. The style is graphic, sardonically brilliant, and clear.

As to content, the novel … is an intellectual challenge in many directions. Its blunt ironies probe many of the weaknesses of East and West, of colonial and nationalist. But in exploring the moral worth of man, and his spiritual growth, it appears to be content to grasp not the main "roots of heaven" but merely a handful of the nearer capillaries.

Earl W. Foell, "On Elephants and Other Matters," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1958 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 23, 1958, p. 11.

Henri Peyre

["The Roots of Heaven"] should delight those readers who have lately assailed the French novel as over-introspective, pessimistic, and morbid. Romain Gary is a believer in life, action, freedom, an idealistic lover of exotic nature and of beasts. His heroes are the elephants of Equatorial Africa.

Morel, a Frenchman who endured the horrors of German concentration camps, emerged from his nightmarish experience as a crusader for all that mechanically enslaves or crushes men, animals, and nature in the modern age. He undertook a campaign to preserve the roots of heaven, as they are called in the Islamic world, planted by God in the depths of the human soul. (p. 15)

The complex story is told through a series of monologues by half a dozen characters, the chief ones being a kindly skeptic, Saint-Denis, who sympathizes with Morel's idealism, and a priest, who stands clearly for the late anthropologist and philosopher, Father Teilhard de Chardin. (pp. 15-16)

Faulkner's technique must have been studied and has indeed been mastered by Romain Gary….

"The Roots of Heaven" is often involved in its sentence structure, unshapely in construction, only half credible in its characterization. Yet it achieves dramatic power. The hero imposes himself less vividly upon the reader than the secondary characters and the splendid descriptions of equatorial scenery. The message of the novel is obvious in its allegorical form. "Moby Dick" and other allegories such as Camus' "The Plague" are called to mind. Good and evil are not clearly differentiated as in a Sunday-school story. But the Russian-born, French diplomat Gary, whose "European Education" was one of the most moving books on the Resistance, asserts here his impassioned plea for the salvation of a world threatened by cruelty and injustice, of which man is a victim or an accomplice. (p. 16)

Henri Peyre, "Allegory of Cruelty," in The Saturday Review, New York (© 1958 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLI, No. 5, February 1, 1958, pp. 15-16.

The Times Literary Supplement

[M. Romain Gary's] The Colours of the Day was set in the highly civilized, sophisticated jungle of the South of France. Now looking for bigger game he has turned to elephants and made them the pretext for an unusual work [The Roots of Heaven] that is part adventure story, part fable and part the record of a philosophical search for an answer to the increasing materialism of the world….

From the start M. Gary treats Morel as a legendary figure and as a result he remains rather indistinct as a person while being fully appreciable as a force….

In his own attitude, which sets the tone of the book, M. Gary might possibly be described as a realistic romantic, since he has a journalistic eye for, and knowledge of, the sufferings and problems of the contemporary world, and yet remains an invincible optimist and believer in mankind. He has also a welcome sense of humour which several times rescues him when he is in danger of becoming pretentious. Sometimes he does in fact step over the border of absurdity, as when he imagines a conversation on the subject of the elephants in the shadow of the Kremlin; at others his piecemeal method of presenting his story makes it in places unnecessarily obscure, and he might well have condensed it without loss. But while one is not quite prepared to endorse his publisher's claim that he has written a "truly great book," M. Gary has undoubtedly written a highly original, stimulating and on the whole heartening novel.

"Elephants and Men," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2914, March 7, 1958, p. 125.∗

Frederic Morton

[Romain Gary's] themes, being huge, demand huge stories. In "Lady L," he indulged in melodramatic fluff lesser writers can do better. His "The Colors of the Day" suffered from its own overly glamorous background. But given a truly heroic setting, Gary proves himself one of the rare writers left who are capable of true heroes. This he demonstrated in "The Roots of Heaven" and in his undeservedly obscure "The Company of Men."…

"The Company of Men" described Luc Martin's emergence at 14 from the anti-Nazi underground into the post-war underworld. Luc knows that his father, a Resistance fighter, was killed for some great good cause; and as the book builds poignantly, as Luc cuts and jabs his way through the blackmarket jungle, he is haunted by that unknown goodness the way good men are haunted by evil.

In "A European Education" the story is similar, though transposed a few years earlier and morally reversed. Again we have a teen-age boy who becomes an anvil to history. His name is Janek Twardowski; his father, too, has been killed fighting the Germans. He himself dwells among the partisans in the icy forests of occupied Poland…. His body withstands the stress. But his mind finds scant shelter against the rigor of certain thoughts: Is it really worth all the suffering? How much real freedom was there before the Germans came? How much will there be once they are driven off? How much culture is worth a million deaths?...

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Charles Rolo

It is, I submit, unsettling if not wicked for the author of a personal history to leave one guessing as to where fact ends and semifiction begins. This is my one complaint about Romain Gary's splendid book Promise at Dawn…. It is labeled nonfiction; the narrator is named Romain Gary; and he refers to his story, which coincides with the known facts of Gary's life, as "an autobiography." However, M. Gary has said: "This book is autobiographical in inspiration, but it is not an autobiography … truth has been reduced to artistic truth alone." Thus one is doomed not to know how much art has doctored life…. What is certain is that Gary, whether he has reproduced, retouched, or departed from reality, has done so...

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Curtis Cate

[Romain Gary's] books ring with the echo of a profoundly Russian, if not Manichean, bafflement before the spectacle of a world bristling with new satanic inventions—atomic bombs, brain washing, concentration camps.

This deep sense of protest is as evident as ever in his latest book, "Promise at Dawn," which opens with an imaginary evocation of the grinning gods of stupidity, dogmatic truth, mediocrity and servility. Its original title was to have been "La Lutte Pour l'Honneur"—"the struggle for honor"—but no one needs to know it to realize that this romanticized autobiography is something more than a "life with mother" story. It is the story of a young boy's endeavor to achieve manhood in an...

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Charles C. Lehrmann

In the autobiographical work, La Promesse de l'aube, Romain Gary tells us … about the factors that have determined his personal position and his humanitarian philosophy. First of all, this book is a moving tribute to his Jewish mother, a Russian woman, eccentric and mad in the eyes of her new French compatriots, who molds her son in her fashion and prepares him for an extraordinary career.

And he has … fulfilled the promise tacitly made to that mother to accomplish everything she expected from him in the sphere of heroism and self-realization. Rarely has filial piety expressed itself with greater affection, sensitivity, insight, gratitude. (p. 279)

There is no reference...

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William Barrett

Hissing Taies … is a good illustration of [Romain Gary's] copious and lively imagination; and though his facility does not always serve him equally well, since the stories are quite uneven, the collection as a whole is remarkably provocative and enjoyable.

Most of the stories provide us with some melodramatic villain to hiss at. M. Gary revives successfully the old-fashioned story—like those of O. Henry, Frank Stockton, or some of Robert Louis Stevenson—that has a definite anecdotal point, perhaps even some twist at the end, rather than merely presenting a slice of life in the style of flat realism.

In "A Craving for Innocence" a Frenchman, aspiring to escape the sordid...

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Henri Peyre

The wish to recover in fiction something of the boisterous illogic and of the impetuous action which had once entertained our ancestors in the Spanish, French, and English picaresque novels has spurred several Englishmen and a few Frenchmen to attempt a revival of the genre among us…. Romain Gary, soon after he made a startling entry into literature with one of the most moving books written about the underground in eastern Europe, Education européenne (1945) [A European Education], declared to a literary weekly, La Gazette des lettres, on October 12, 1946: the 'modern novel will be picaresque or it will not be at all. Picaresque, like a fresco teeming with adventures, motion and swarming...

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Pamela Marsh

[In Romain Gary's novel], treating the concentration camps as one huge joke hardly grates at all, especially when the joke is told by Genghis Cohn, who has seen it all from inside the barbed wire and now narrates "The Dance of Genghis Cohn." As Cohn says, "If you are the holder of a historical world record for sadness, all that is left for you to hang onto is your sense of humor."

But if the humor is not too black to swallow, most readers will find it blue enough, blasphemous enough, to leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

The tale begins with an irresistible fancy.

Cohn was once a Jewish comedian, known for his bawdy jokes. Even in the concentration camp, making...

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Auberon Waugh

[White Dog] is so boring and so disgusting that I would not review it at all if it did not demonstrate one reaction to the foreigners' predicament most vividly. Briefly, the foreigners' predicament is that they have no money and nobody is interested in what they think. Gary reckons to make a fortune by insulting the Americans, and I dare say he will succeed. Many of the things he says about black racists, professional Negroes and white liberals are perfectly valid, even if a trifle obvious. It is his repulsive way of saying it—spattering his narrative with he-man obscenities and unnecessary references to pus—which reveals the full depth of his intellectual dishonesty. Instead of telling intelligent,...

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David Leitch

Emile Ajar—whoever he is—has lately become a household name in France. His fame stems from having declined a literary prize, the Goncourt [for La Vie devant Soi].

There were several other bull points for news editors in the 'affaire Ajar', not least the fact that his name is a pseudonym…. Naturally this began guessing games about his true identity: was he an already famous writer—Romain Gary, for instance—or a relation of his?…

In any case the novel became an immediate bestseller, even without the Goncourt imprimatur, while publishers and littérateurs savaged each other with a spite and gusto that would have made the appalling Goncourt...

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Roland A. Champagne

[Momo, the narrator of La Vie devant soi,] is one of a group of children abandoned by Parisian prostitutes and brought up by a former Jewish streetwalker, Madame Rosa…. In trying to discover what it means to be a fourteen-year-old Arab in this ghetto, Momo provides an intriguing autobiography of French subcultures as well as of his own confrontations with them.

Momo's street idiom portrays the life-styles of the Jews, Arabs, Africans, Algerians, and other French immigrants of this unique ghetto in the stark reality of their shabby existence. But he does not give us stereotypes. Momo observes the mutual cooperation and cohabitation of this community of heterogeneous pimps, transvestites,...

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Barbara Wright

"Le cas Ajar" became headline news in France with the publication of Ajar's first book, Gros-Câlin, in 1974; a year later he refused the Prix Goncourt for his second, La Vie devant soi. Both books were almost unanimously praised by the critics, but most reviews began: Who is Emile Ajar?…

[His third book, Pseudo, later attributed to Romain Gary], on one level, is the result of the author's finally agreeing to reveal at least some "facts" about himself. He writes it in the first person, as Paul Pavlowitch, one of the names he answers to in private life…. He describes, from the point of view of the quarry, the manhunt he was subjected to; he tells what it is like to be told...

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Daphne Merkin

Momo is so strenuously, so determinedly heartwarming, that it seems in constant danger of blowing a fuse. As for the orphan boy Momo, he's a winsome tyke if ever there was one, a veritable Little Lord Fauntleroy of the gutter, and yet I must admit I managed to remain completely inured to his charms. In fact, with each new ingenuous pronouncement upon the human condition that the young philosophe made—"I believe that if you want to live, you should start very young because later on you're sure to depreciate and no one will make you any presents"—I found myself growling in belatedly-recognized sympathy with that childophobe, W. C. Fields.

Momo inverses the usual literary...

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John Naughton

So … what have we here? [Is Momo a] crateload of schmaltz about there being honour even among whores (and their children)? At one level, yes. At another, we have one of the funniest, saddest, most humane, most readable novels for years. The detachment of the child, his kerbside cynicism, the immediacy of the narrative style, the hilarious misuse of language ('dramatic' for 'traumatic', 'artistic' for 'autistic')—these are the features which lift Momo far above the level of mere corn and into the stratosphere whence it was discerningly plucked by the jury of the Prix Goncourt. (p. 851)

John Naughton, "Rosa's Children" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978:...

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Patrick Breslin

Romain Gary, author of a score of books, is obsessed in this new novel [Europa] with the chasm between Europe's great cultural achievements and its great crimes—Nazi barbarism the best, but not the only, example. Gary pursues that obsession through the tale of the slide into schizophrenia of Jean Danthes, French ambassador to Rome, and produces a novel that is portentous and obsessive.

Danthes is "a man of immense culture" to whom Europe's cultural warehouse is as familiar as his own office, and more on his mind. Yet Danthes was two years in Dachau, and so has experienced Europe at its most barbarous. The two sides of Europe are pulling him apart.

So too is his complex...

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Romain Gary's La bonne moitié is a dramatic comedy in two acts; it is a play of the absurd, subtle, tragic and amusing, very much in the vein of Emile Ajar's La vie devant soi, linguistically speaking. The author plays with his culture, with his language and with the syntax, and that precisely because he is in full possession of each.

This is a perfectly balanced work, light and serious, deep and absurd and written with remarkable finesse. Children of executed World War II French Résistance fighters are taken care of by Theo Vanderputte, himself a former member of the Résistance turned informer for the Gestapo. Is this turncoat a traitor or a martyr? How is this half-buffoon and...

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Ted R. Spivey

[Gary] has a visionary sweep that allows him to show how romantic idealism plays a role in modern life. Gary projects man into a new age that lies beyond modern tragedy; at the same time, The Roots of Heaven evokes the hell of the Hitlerian domination of Europe and contains one of the deepest contemporary views of the sufferings of man in modern times…. Gary's ontology is based on the idealism of both romanticism and neoromanticism, and it is bolstered by a strong sense of the freedom of the will. The idea, so strong in The Roots of Heaven, of man's being able to achieve his freedom by exercising free choice can be attributed in part to the existentialism of Sartre and Camus. Yet Gary has also found...

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Sergio Villani

[The title of Romain Gary's novel, Les clowns lyriques], a phrase from Gorky, is an image of the despair which, according to Gary, tortures Western societies—the tragic despair of the bourgeois who constantly seeks distraction in order to escape the realities of his condition. In his pursuit of the impossible, he misses the few fleeting moments of happiness the present could offer.

This social ill is represented by a group of characters who have devised various escape mechanisms….

The background of the action gives a social and historical perspective to the thesis. The references to Hollywood create the image of a factory of artificiality which nurtures and amuses Western...

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G. Mermier

[In Les cerfs-volants] Ambroise Fleury is a postman for the French PTT, an unusual postman who plays with kites, who gives them familiar or funny names…. [He] and his family carry the love of France in their hearts; as true patriots, they know its history by heart. With his kite games the postman enjoys a reputation almost equal to the cuisine of Marcellin Duprat, master cook and patron of the Clos Joli restaurant: this is France, its little eccentricities and its love of good food! Page after page, the novel's narrator Ludo tells us about the people of Clery….

But there is more, much more, in this admirable novel, so real with its vignettes of the war, of 1940, of the Resistance,...

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John Weightman

When the novelist, Romain Gary, committed suicide some months ago, he left behind [Vie et Mort d'Émile Ajar, a] small time-bomb to explode after his death and cause red faces among the members of the French literary establishment. It is an account of how, from the early 1970s onwards, he wrote four successful novels under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, while continuing to publish other works under the name he had already long made famous…. His motive, he says, was a desire to renew himself, to escape from the persona in which the critics had imprisoned him….

Sad to say, apart from discomforting some critics who no doubt deserve to be pilloried, the book falls a little flat…. Gary, as a...

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Daniel E. Rivas

In spite of some biographical overtones, Les Cerfs-Volants is a piece of fiction, not a political or sociological tract, although some critics will inevitably search here for hidden meanings and obscure references that may provide clues to the author's state of mind and whatever motives may have compelled him to end his life.

Les Cerfs-Volants is inscribed into the tradition of the Bildungsroman, which has produced notable examples in French letters. From the point of view of technique, there is nothing revolutionary about this first-person narrative, which recounts the childhood, adolescence, and early adult years of Ludo Fléury…. The story is one of survival and perseverance...

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