In 1980, sensational headlines announced the suicide of Romain Gary, the best-selling and critically acclaimed French novelist, diplomat, war hero, literary prankster, and jet-set adventurer. In the decades that followed, his worldwide reputation dwindled to a bare flicker of recognition, and his books fell out of print. Lost as well was the memory of their Vilna-born Jewish author, an immigrant to France who would bear witness to Hitler’s war against the Jews from the cockpit of the aircraft bombers he flew for the Free French forces of Charles de Gaulle.
Indeed, many of Gary’s novels unfold against the backdrop or the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust; in them, his characters grapple with anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, social ostracism, and the dangers of historical forgetting and denial—all laced with the wit, irony, and suspense of a master storyteller.
It’s therefore heartening that the neglect may be starting to lift. Last year saw the release by New Directions of the first English translation of his final novel, The Kites, completed shortly before his death, and the rerelease of his well-known memoir, Promise at Dawn (1961). Last winter, a new movie based on the memoir came out in France, featuring the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Still, while the reviews have been respectful, they’ve stopped short of giving full due to this author of 27 books, two of which won France’s highest literary award. (Gary, whose early languages were primarily Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, wrote some of his books in French and others in English, and self-translated several from one language to the other.) But what makes his work worth re-reading and reconsidering is his distinctive sensibility and moral vision, conveyed in a voice at once serious and sardonic, charming and tragic, fusing Gallic insouciance with Russian moodiness, mixed with an absurdist twist of Jewish humor.
Judging humanity harshly but leaving room for hope, Gary’s remains a voice worth heeding. It comes across most powerfully in three books: the memoir Promise at Dawn and the late novels The Life Before Us (1975) and The Kites (1980). Publication of the second under a pseudonym led to scandal and the crash of his reputation.
Gary’s life was by turns dramatic and traumatic, aspects further heightened by fabrications both so numerous and so intricate as to render it exceedingly difficult to disentangle fact from fib. According to the excellent 2010 biography by David Bellos, appropriately titled Romain Gary: A Tall Story, the man who would rename himself Romain Gary and eventually also assume various pen names was born Roman Kacew in Vilna in 1914.
Though Gary would equivocate about his father’s identity and heritage, both of his parents were in fact Jews: Mina (whom he calls Nina in Promise at Dawn) and Leiba (a fur merchant, not the dashing theater star as suggested in that same book). Leiba’s conscription into the Russian army and then the Bolshevik revolution separated the family, and not long after his return from service he left again for a second marriage. By 1926, mother and son had settled in Warsaw. There Mina, a romantic Francophile, imbued her son with tales of the glories of France and with the ambition of becoming a writer and hero of the country she adored. They moved to Nice in 1928, when he was fourteen; in the years that followed, he would proceed to fulfill his mother’s dreams.
Promise at Dawn contains much of the story of how Roman Kacew became Romain Gary. Billed as a memoir, it is more fairly called an autobiographical novel; one of its most suspenseful plot elements (having to do with his mother’s death) is an invention. But emotionally the saga rings true enough to his chaotic boyhood, youthful artistic ambitions, erotic discoveries—and the jolt of war, leading to the fall of France and his escape from Nazi occupation to fight for the Free French.
The memoir’s engine is the intense mutual devotion that binds mother and son together as they make their way through the increasingly anti-Semitic lands of interwar Europe in a journey, propelled by the mother, that will save the son’s life. Once in France, the young man studies law, first in Aix-en-Provence and then in Paris, becomes a naturalized French citizen and signs up for military service, sets his sights on becoming an air-force pilot, and is accepted at officers’ flight school. But of the 300 students who successfully complete the four-month course of instruction, he is the sole cadet to be denied a commission.
The reason, he is told, is that he’s been a citizen for only three years—a statement interpreted by the enraged Gary as another way of saying that no Jews will be allowed into this exclusive club. Already a young master of adaptation and accommodation, he refuses to be deterred. “It had dawned on me at last,” he writes, “that the French were not a race apart, that they were not superior beings, that they too could be stupid, ridiculous, and as unjust as anyone else—in short we were all brothers.”
In thus reframing his setback, he finds a back door to slip inside the club after all. In his wartime service Gary would distinguish himself by fighting for the French ideal of liberty and by proving himself a worthy brother to his comrades in the French Resistance. Dismayed by the Franco-German armistice in June 1940, he joins other aviators aboard a plane they manage to land in North Africa, where he is declared a deserter and subsequently denaturalized by Vichy as a Jew. Still undaunted, he uses his Polish fluency to help smuggle himself and two comrades onto ships carrying Polish soldiers to Britain and join the war against Germany from there. Subsequently he flies numerous missions over Africa and Europe, repeatedly facing serious injury and potential disaster. By war’s end, risen to the rank of captain, he is one among only five surviving French flyers of the approximately 200 who signed up with the Free French in 1940. Among his many lifetime awards is the Cross of the Liberation for distinguished service during the war.
Nor did his wartime exploits constitute the sole fulfillment of his promise to his mother. The hero of France had also become a writer whose first novel, A European Education, set during the war, had just appeared in 1945 under his new name of Romain Gary. In Promise At Dawn, Gary gives his mother credit for instilling in him the ideals for which he’d fought in a war that he had also fought for her—for the sake, as he put it, of “a world where no woman, Chinese, Jewish, Indian, or whatever would have to carry her child uphill on her back: for a world where no one would be left alone.”
If that was the ideal, Gary’s wartime education was also a crash course in how to grapple with the potential for savagery, often mislabeled heroism, that is contained within every human being. “When it comes to killing my fellow men, I am not enough of a poet,” he writes in Promise at Dawn: “I cannot give myself to it with the necessary zest; I cannot raise my voice in a sacred hymn of hate, and I kill without any satisfaction, stupidly, because I have to.”
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And yet the writer also cannot allow that too-pious declaration to pass unqualified. The real nightmare that haunts him, he insists, has to do with having bombed but missed a German submarine:
There is no getting away from the simple and brutal conclusion that my feeling of guilt and my nocturnal horrors are due to the fact that I have not killed—an extremely unpleasant admission.
This conundrum—the inhumanity that resides ineluctably within humanity—would remain unresolved for him even as, in the postwar years, he continued to pursue the two careers his mother had steered him toward. As a French diplomat, he served in Bulgaria, Switzerland, New York (at the United Nations), and Los Angeles. He also wrote several more novels, including The Roots of Heaven (1956), which he would describe five years later in Promise at Dawn as a “big book . . . urging human beings to take the protection of nature into their own hands.” Recounting the main character’s quest to save elephants from extinction, the novel can also be read as a plea for humanity to recover from its war-instilled numbness to atrocity. Ahead of its time as an ecological appeal, it was also very much of its time in its depiction of soul-wounded war veterans seeking moral reawakening and the possibility of redemption. It received nothing less than France’s top literary honor, the Prix Goncourt.
That is as far as Promise at Dawn took readers by the time of its appearance in 1961. After it, Gary’s already multi-faceted life became even more so.
With his 1962 marriage to the actress Jean Seberg, then at the peak of her career for her leading roles in the movies Saint Joan and Breathless, his celebrity took on the aura of Hollywood-style glamor. At one point he challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel over the latter’s affair with Seberg. (Eastwood declined.) By 1970, though, the marriage itself had ended, and Gary’s literary reputation had likewise begun to fade. French critics grumbled that his work was too sentimental, that he himself was much too prolific, and, perhaps worst of all, that it and he were too “popular.”
Thus the stage was set for his next career: literary hoax-master. To test the critics at their own game, he would write under a pseudonym. Would they detect the same flaws in the hitherto unknown Emile Ajar that they perceived and decried in Romain Gary?
Between 1974 and 1979, Gary published four novels as Ajar, and each met with success. The first, Gros-Câlin, presented the satirical fictional diary of a lonely statistician who transfers his hunger for love to his pet python, which he affectionately calls “big-hug” (gros-câlin). Bizarrely comical in its evocation of the search for authentic human connection against the glib backdrop of a commerce-oriented urban Paris, the book earned wide praise. One reviewer called its author the “most ruthless moralist since [the 17th-century fabulist Jean de] La Fontaine” and the “most tragically joyous poet since [François] Villon and [François] Rabelais.”
The second Ajar novel, The Life Before Us, is the second of Gary’s books that I’ve picked out for special attention. It appeared in 1975 and attracted even greater acclaim than Gros-Câlin, being hailed as “the best love story of the season” by one critic who had previously derided Gary as “creatively impotent,” and its author extolled by another as “Ajar! Now that’s real talent!”
The first-person narrative is related by Momo, an abandoned and impoverished Algerian boy being raised as a Muslim by his elderly Jewish foster mother, an Auschwitz survivor and former prostitute known to all as Madame Rosa. (Many Americans may be more familiar with the 1977 movie based on the novel, Madame Rosa, directed by Moshe Mizrahi and starring Simone Signoret.) Like the memoir Promise at Dawn, this is a coming-of-age story that centers on the mutually protective love between a mother and son.
Madame Rosa shelters Momo as best she can from the prejudice and racism that surround them in their tawdry neighborhood. At the same time, their interactions with characters of every religion, race, age, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class, including pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and educated professionals, provide Momo with an unusual schooling in diversity and the necessary street smarts for survival. Throughout, Gary regards Madame Rosa and her friends with respect and sympathy, refusing to judge them by their professions or identities.
Many of the characters in The Life Before Us also come with back stories as immigrants and refugees like Momo himself: another theme that obviously carried personal weight for Gary and that in 1975 was also politically pertinent as then-French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was nullifying the right to French nationality for children born of foreign parents. Chapter by chapter, as the already ailing Madame Rosa grows increasingly weak, Momo’s fate lies in the balance. Yet the child’s faux-naive voice, filled with malapropisms and fragments of Arabic, Yiddish, and street slang, remains heartbreakingly comical throughout.
This book, too, was awarded the Prix Goncourt—Gary’s second. But there was a catch. The committee, unaware that Emile Ajar was a phantom, expected a real person to attend the awards ceremony. At this point, having successfully duped the world, most writers would probably have owned up to the prank and declined the award, which could not be won twice by the same person. Not Gary. He persuaded a relative to pose as Ajar, sitting for interviews and photo sessions.
Over the next four years Gary’s machinations to maintain the falsehood grew ever more complex. When the hoax was finally uncovered, press and public turned on him with a vengeance. He defended himself with various weak rationales, writing plaintively in one essay that “It was a new birth. I was renewing myself. Everything was being given to me one more time.”
That “one more time” would turn out to be the final time. He committed suicide on December 2, 1980 at the age of sixty-six. It would take almost four decades for The Kites, the last novel published under his own name in France, to appear in English translation. But if this novel, gracefully rendered by Miranda Richmond Mouillot, sparks new interest in Gary, it will have been worth the wait. So central is the role of memory, both personal and historical, to The Kites that this may also be the most fitting work to remember him by.
Ambrose Fleury, World War I veteran and postmaster in rural Normandy, shares an odd family trait with his war-orphaned nephew Ludo: the inability to forget. To memorialize the heroes of French history and culture, Ambrose builds kites inspired by their feats and achievements and instructs Ludo in the art of constructing and maintaining them. Thus, when Hitler’s army invades and then occupies France, the kites also become symbols of hope and reasons to resist.
Another resister, if of a comic variety, is Marcellin Duprat, the owner and proprietor of the town’s famed three-star Michelin restaurant who finds his own sense of purpose in upholding the French culinary heritage—and who exploits the patronage of Nazi officers to gain valuable information for the Resistance. Also among Duprat’s most devoted customers is Julie Espinoza, a well-known Parisian Jewish madame who has successfully transformed herself into a wealthy, widowed Hungarian aristocrat; she, too, hobnobs with Nazis in order to gather intelligence for the Allies.
A chameleon extraordinaire, like Gary himself, Julie has taken the art of “passing” as a non-Jew to new heights. “Our kind has a thousand years of training and experience,” she says. About her favorite brooch, a golden lizard, she adds: “The lizard is an animal that has survived since the beginning of time, and when it comes to slipping off between the rocks, it can’t be beat.”
The serio-comic comings and goings of Duprat and Espinoza provide a measure of dark humor amid the gory reports of deaths suffered by others working for the Resistance. When Ambrose learns of the infamous 1942 roundup in Paris of more than 13,000 Jews—penned up for days in the Vel d’Hiv bicycle stadium without food, water, or sanitary facilities, they were finally deported to concentration camps—he flies seven yellow kites, all fashioned as Jewish stars: Gary’s way of grieving for their ordeal and fate while also paying homage to perished aviator comrades. Another homage in the book is to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where Pastor André Trocmé oversaw the rescue of between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews. Ambrose flees there in order to avoid arrest for his act of defiance, and from there he himself is eventually deported to the camps.
Throughout the novel, the adolescent Ludo’s story intersects with that of the young Polish beauty Lila, with whom Ludo is instantly smitten, and of her financially shaky aristocratic family who spend summers at a nearby estate. The romance is a fairy tale turned upside down, a picaresque grounded in the gritty reality of Nazi-occupied France.
Even as Ludo becomes involved in ever riskier missions for the Resistance, Lila rationalizes her sexual liaisons with Nazi officers as an evil necessary for survival. In time she, too, joins the Resistance, assisting in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. But her mission remains secret, unknown to the townspeople who, after the liberation, hurry to humiliate her, cheering as the town barber publicly shaves her head as a collaborator. This leads Ludo to rage against the hypocrisy of his neighbors, many of whom had joined the Resistance only after the Allied landing. Watching the “familiar faces, faces I’d known since childhood” in their ritual taunting of Lila, the horrified Ludo muses, “They weren’t monsters—that was what was so monstrous.”
Ludo holds true to his love for Lila and marries her, not because he has forgotten the war—he is incapable of forgetting—but in acceptance of the lesson that, as Gary wrote in Promise at Dawn, “part of being human is the inhumanity of it.” In The Kites, he put it this way: “As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling ourselves pious lies.” But admitting our human inhumanity does not amount to an accommodation with evil. Resistance will not stamp evil out, but it is a start; to act, one requires both hope and the will to go on.
And in The Kites, at least, hope does continue to fly—literally. Ambrose miraculously returns from the camps and resumes building and flying his kites. Ludo and Lila marry and begin to raise a family. They have not forgotten anything, but they have figured out a way to live despite remembering.
Not so Romain Gary, whose suicide was at odds with the optimistic ending of his final book, and also with his protestations throughout Promise at Dawn that he was immune to despair. Perhaps he protested too much. That book closes as it opens, with him lying on the beach at Big Sur, listening to the surf, watching the seals and sea birds but now in a mood reflective, ruminative, and sad. In these final passages there is little trace of the humor that earlier in the memoir he identifies as the source of what helps him prevail despite despair: “It is with our fraternal predicament that my laughter and derision try to come to grips, probing for something much deeper and more significant than myself.”
Had his armor—his Jewish gift for self-deflecting humor—lost its protective power by life’s end? Such wrestling, even in the form of the absurd humor of Gros-Câlin, is what gives his work its complex moral richness. Indeed, many of his books read like magical tales of survival against the odds, of reinventions in new lands under new identities. It is the archetypal story of Joseph, thrown into the pit by his brothers, only to be later elevated in the court of the Pharaoh thanks to the canny wisdom he derives from his travails.
It is also the plotline of Romain Gary’s personal Jewish journey through the inferno of 20th-century Europe, only to emerge triumphant—for a time.