Romain Gary Curtis Cate - Essay

Curtis Cate

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 age of crumbling values and revolutionary upheaval, and it explains, more explicitly and movingly than Gary has ever done before, why his books are so haunted by a sense of solitude, of bereavement, of a paradise irretrievably lost. (p. 1)

The narrative moves, with the irresistible momentum of a novel, toward … [a] climactic post-war rendezvous that was once again to reunite a doting mother with her battle-scarred and bemedaled son….

"Promise at Dawn" is a deliberately picaresque autobiography. To some this may seem an offense against what is presumed to be historical veracity. Yet life being so often stranger than fiction, I incline to think that only a style in keeping with the mustache-twirling flourishes and languorous, heavy-lidded gestures of the Rudolf Valentino and Lillian Gish era could do justice to these extravagant interwar events and the marvelously extravagant woman who strides invincibly through them.

The one flaw in this book is an occasional weakness for baroque overemphasis, particularly in the reiteration of the author's sense of solitude…. Yet the occasional stammerings of speech and rococo lapses of taste … are too slight to mar the beauty of a memoir which is as lovely a posthumous bouquet as any loving mother could ever hope to receive. (p. 40)

Curtis Cate, "Growing Up in a Crumbling World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 15, 1961, pp. 1, 40.