Romain Gary John Weightman - Essay

John Weightman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 mature writer, simply played a prank on the Parisian literary world by using a pseudonym, but there is no fundamental difference between the Ajar books and the novels he wrote under his original name. Contrary to what he implies, he did not renew himself from the creative point of view. There is, in any case, a contradiction in his argument; he points out that the critics ought to have guessed the truth, because of the many resemblances in style and incident between the Gary and the Ajar novels; if so, where is the renewal?

On reading some of the books of the two series side by side for the first time, I began by thinking that he perhaps gives freer rein to his characteristic emotionalism as Ajar than as Gary, but on reflection even this is not so; Clair de femme, which he published as Gary, is on the same level of feverish anguish as the Ajar-novel, L'Angoisse du Roi Salomon. All these later works, in fact, seem to be frantic variations on the impossibility of living by someone who is overwhelmed by the mystery of time and organic decay and the absence of an ultimate meaning. But it is one of the ironies of literature that even a genuine feeling, when it is given overheated expression, does not result in the best kind of art.

John Weightman, "Binominal Theorem," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4090, August 21, 1981, p. 953.