[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 escapist tendencies. The carnival in Nice, the setting of the novel, is presented as a grand celebration of disguise and buffoonery. Gary also suggests that historically it is the histrionics of leaders like Hitler and Stalin that create the idealism and illusions which detonate holocausts.
In his preface Gary warns the reader that he remains faithful to the values he attacks with his irony. Irony is a means of testing and strengthening these values. Gary's narrative style is constantly putting this irony into relief. The reader is drawn into the webs of illusion spun by the characters and then plunged again into the midst of the reality of things. The language is memorable for its figurative, suggestive power, but especially for several aphoristic, ironic statements which punctuate the text. The reader is rewarded by the linguistic beauty of this novel and the pleasures of its thought-provoking thesis….
Sergio Villani, "French: 'Les clowns lyriques'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, p. 62.