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by Bamber Gascoigne

Romain Gary (1914-1980) - original surname Kacew, also wrote as Émile Ajar


French writer, who won the Critics Prize with his first work, Éducation européenne (1945, Forest of Anger). This modern variation of the traditional novel of a young man's coming of age, bought Romain Gary immediate acclaim. Books published under Gary's pseudonym Émile Ajar received more literary respect than books published under his own name. It has been speculated that the success of  Ajar, his alter ego, was the key factor to his death.

"There was a new school of transcendental abstraction is Paris; its adepts stood in front of an empty canvas with imaginary brush in their hand, going through a pantomime of the act of painting, thus expression their absolute rejection of all compromise with being and matter, including that of art itself, and one of their works had been bought for fifteen thousand dollars by the Twentieth Century Museum in Geneva, a perfect illustration of Malraux's Voices of Silence." (from The Ski Bum, 1965)

Details of the author's childhood are vague. In his book of memoir, Promise at Dawn (1960), Gary mentions that he never found out about his father, and his mother talked French with a heavy Russian accent. Absolute truth did not interest Gary, and in his memoir he said: "Then there is Merzavka, the god of Absolute Truth and Total Righteousness, the lord of all true believers and bigots; whip in hand, a Cossack's fur cap over one eye, he stands in a heap of corpses, the eldest of our lords and masters, since time immemorial the most respected and obeyed, since the dawn of history he has had us killed, tortured and oppressed in the name of Absolute Truth, Religious Truth, Political Truth, Moral Truth..."

According to some sources, Gary was born in Moscow, but it is possible that he was born in Kursk, or in Wilno, now Vilnius, Lithuania, the son of a Russian father, who abandoned his family, and a French mother, Nina Owczinski – however, his mother's background could have been Russian. According to some sources, she was a Russian Jew from Kursk. Her first or second husband was Lebja Kacew. After abandoning her stage career she moved with her son to Wilno, where Gary heard Yiddish in the streets and shops, and then to Warsaw.

From the age of 14, Gary lived with his mother in France, where he was educated. Nina worked tirelessly for her son despite declining health, sewing hats, selling jewelry, running a hotel, and telling him, "You’ll be a great French writer, you’ll be Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, Gabriele d’Annunzio, ambassador of France." She died from stomach cancer in Nice in February 1941. "My mother," explained Gary decades later, "was pretty legendary. By that I mean that she was pretty good at fabricating legends."

Before studying law in Aix-en-Provence and Paris, Gary earned a French baccalaureate. In 1935, he published two short stories under the influence of Malraux, 'L'orage', about a failed marriage, and 'Une petite femme', set in Indochina, in the French paper Gringoire. As Kacew he also wrote an unpublished manuscript entitle Le Vin des morts. The notorious paper had a strong anti-Semitic policy, but nearly a million readers.

During the World War II, Gary served as a pilot with the Free French Forces in Europe, and in North Africa, where his unit, formally called 'Lorraine Squadron', fought against Rommel's forces. In Egypt Gary contracted typhoid and spent many weeks dangerously ill. Between 1943 and 1944 Gary flew many missions over France, Belgium, and Holland, and received after the war the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. In London, Gary fought with Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement.

His first book, with the sarcastic title L’Éducation européenne, Gary completed in England. An English translation appeared in 1944, entitled Forest of Anger and referring to the forest where the Polish partisans are hiding. The protagonist, Janek Twardowski, is an adolescent who joins the Resistance in Poland under German occupation and learns to kill. The novel was later revised and reissued in English as Nothing Important Ever Dies (1960). 

His name, Romain Kacew, Gary changed first into Romain Gari, but soon anglicized it. Gari was his mother's stage name during her career as an actress.  Jean-Paul Sartre, who hailed Forest of Anger as possibly the greatest novel of the Resistance, met the young writer with Simone de Beauvoir at a café on Boulevard Saint-Germain and after listening to his tales he exclaimed: "Quelle mine d'expérience!"

In 1945, Gary married the English author and journalist Lesley Blanch; they divorced officially in 1963 and Gary married the American actress Jean Seberg, born in 1938. A well known and celebrted couple, they dined with the Kennedys and lunched at the Élysee with de Gaulle, whose faithful supporter Gary remained throughout his life. He even wrote an article which lashed the public mind for abandoning the President in 1969. At de Gaulle's funeral in 1970 Gary wore his Free French air force uniform. Seberg was a left-wing activist. In the U.S. she supported Civil Rights Movement. Until her death, she was persecuted by the F.B.I.

After the war Gary was in the French diplomatic service for 20 years. During this period in his life Gary remained mostly as an outsider to the intense debate about the Algerian war, although he published in Life an article, that annoyed both Gaullists and Leftists. He served at Sofia, Berne, as First Secretary of the French Delegation to the United Nations (1956-1960), and as Consul-Genral in Los Angeles.

Since his wife refused to accompany him to the United States, Gary asked the English novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard to join him as his "official mistress". Howard spent a week with him in Paris, and Gary introduced her to Albert Camus. Eventually Gary left for Los Angeles on his own. There he seduced his secretary and rented a separate apartment to use as a writing retreat and as a love nest for his affairs. (Romain Gary: A Tall Story by David Bellos, 2010, p. 277)

Upon his return to France, Gary became friends with Dominique Ponchardier, de Gaulle's bodyguard and an undercover agent, who formed an anti-OAS group. In the 1967-68 government of Georges Pompidou, he worked under Georges Gorse, minister of information, but resinged in May 1968, in support of the students. A regular or even intermittent traveller, Gary also lived in South Africa and then in Paris.

Gary wrote his works both in French and in English; the French are considered better. La Danse de Gengis Cohn (1967) was a tragi-comic novel about the ghost of a Jewish stand-up comedian who takes possession of his Nazi executioner. Roots of Heaven (1956), was set in Africa. The story of the inhuman aspects of progress and greed won the Prix Goncourt and was adapted for the screen in 1958. Lady L (1959) was a social satire. Originally Lady L, The Talent Scout (1961, Les Mangeurs d'étoiles), and The Ski Bum (1965) were written and published in English, and then secretly translated by a senior editor at Gary's French publishing house.

In 1968 the Cinema Control Commission asked for a ban on Romain Gary's film Les Oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou (The Birds Come to Die in Peru). George Gorse authorized the release. Chien blanc (1970), filmed by Samuel Fuller in 1982 under the title White Dog, was a commentary on racism and politics. In the story a dog is trained to attack blacks only. The film was banned in many countries, including the U.S. The original story appeared in Life magazine. After seven or eight scripts, Fuller was called in to direct. "Romain Gary wrote an allegory or parable which was an autobiography of his own life, the life of his wife, Jean Seberg, and the Black Panthers situation," Fuller explained later in an interview.

Labelled as a commercial author, in spite of his Fidel Castro beard and such experimental novels as The Dance of Gengis Cohn, (1968), and La Tête coupable Europa (1972), Gary felt that professional critics did not truly know his work, but mocked them in personal terms. With the emergence of writers such as Philippe Sollers, J.M.G. Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano, he was dismissed dismissed as a relic of the past. As Émile Ajar Gary published four novels, of which La Vie devant soi (1976) also won him the Goncourt award. Others were Gros-Câlin (1974), Pseudo (1976), and L’Angoisse du roi Salomon (1979), which was written in little more than six weeks, between November 1975 and January 1976. A reviewer called the book "a rather elaborate suicide note." Gary himself said of Pseudo, "This novel of the anguish, the panic that a young man suffers at the thought of his whole life ahead of him, was one that I had been writing ever since the age of twenty. . . ." In one scene the narrator cries: "I'm authentic! I'm not a hoax! I'm not pseudo-pseudo – "

Ajar's style was elliptical, he refused to grant interviews or make public appearances, but his novels gained a wide readership. Without knowing his true identity, critics hailed Ajar as a new hope of French fiction. When the secret of the mysterious Ajar was revealed after Gary's death, one reviewer stated, that "Gary was and could be recognized as a great writer and master of language, but not under his own name." As Fosco Sinibaldi he wrote a novel titled L’Homme à la colombe (1984) about the inefficiency of the United Nations.

Gary met Seberg in 1959 and nine months later Seberg divorced her husband. She had started her career in the U.S. in Saint Joan (1957), but brought then vitality and emotional appeal to French movies of the early sixties. Her films included Bonjour tristesse (1958), A bout de souffle (1960), In the French Style (1962), Lilith (1964), Paint Your Wagon (1969), Airport (1969), L'attentat (1972), The Wild Duck (1976). Generally Seberg looked better in French films than those of Hollywood. Displeased with movies made from his books, Gary directed Birds in Peru (1969), based on his story and starring his wife Jean Seberg. Shortly afterward the film was finished their marriage ended in separation. However, they maintained a friendship.

Seberg, who never fully recovering from the loss of her infant daughter (most likely fathered by Gary), committed suicide with barbiturates in 1979. Her body was found in the back of a car. She had disappeared from her home a week before. Earlier, on returning from filming in Guyana, Seberg attempted to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a subway train. Romain Gary shot himself in Paris, on December 2, 1980, with the Smith and Wesson revolver he had legally owned since 1960. In his suicide note, headed "For the press", he wrote that his suicide had no connection with Jean Seberg: "Devotees of the broken heart are requested to look elsewhere." 

For further reading: La nuit sera calme by Romain Gary and François Bondy (1974); Romain Gary/Emile Ajar by Jean-Marie Catonné (1990); Un picaro métaphysique: Romain Gary et l’art du roman by Jorn Boisen (1990); Die Weltsicht Romain Garys im Spiegel seines Romanwerkes by Claudia Gronewald (1997);  'Romain Gary: A Foreign Body in French Literature' by Nancy Huston, in Exile and Creativity, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman (1998); Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Ralph W. Schoolcraft (2002); Romain Gary: A Tall Story by David Bellos (2010); De Gary à Ajar, le voyage de Romain: biographie by Valéry G. Coquant (2019); 'European Language and the Resistance: Romain Gary's Heteroglossia,' in Writing Occupation: Jewish Émigré Voices in Wartime France by Julia Elsky (2020); Monsieur Romain Gary: consul général de France: 1919 Outpost Drive, Los Angeles 28, California by Kerwin Spire (2021); Monsieur Romain Gary, écrivain-réalisateur: 108, rue du Bac, Paris VIIe, Babylone 32-93 by Kerwin Spire (2022); Seberg-Gary: une quête ininterrompue by Tony Jagu (2022)

Selected works:

  • Éducation européenne, 1945
    - Forest of Anger (tr. 1944) / rev. and re-tr., A European Education (US title, 1960); Nothing Important Ever Dies (GB title, 1960)
  • Tulipe, 1946
  • Le Grand Vestiaire, 1949
    - The Company of Men (translated from the French by Joseph Barnes, 1950)
  • Les Couleurs du jour, 1952
    - The Colours of the Day (translated by Stephen Becker, 1953)
    - film: The Man Who Understood Women (1959), dir. by Nunnally Johnson, starring Leslie Caron, Henry Fonda, Cesare Danova
  • Les Racines du ciel, 1956
    - The Roots of Heaven (translated by Jonathan Griffin, 1958)
    - film: The Roots of Heaven (1958), dir. by John Huston, starring Trevor Howard, Juliette Greco, Errol Flynn. "The book begins with a man in a German prison camp. He is rebellious, comes into conflict with the commandant of the stalag and is put into solitary confinement. As time passes, he begins to hallucinate. He conjures up a vision of elephants, the only free creatures on earth... After the war the man goes to Africa in quest of the freedom enjoyed by the elephants, discovers that they are being persecuted and becomes their defender. His efforts take on a symbolic significance, and great scientist, artists and politicians from all over the world come to join him. The Roots of Heaven was a prophetic book, anticipating the concerns of today's enviromentalists." (from An Open Book by John Huston, 1980). "For many reasons the favorite picture in which I played was The Roots of Heaven. This story by the Frenchman, Romain Gary, was one of the most unusual I ever read." (from My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Erroll Flynn, 1959)
  • Lady L, 1959
    - Lady L.: A Novel (tr. 1959)
    - Lady L (suom. Sirppa Kauppinen, 1960)
    - film: Lady L. (1965), dir. by Peter Ustinov, starring Sophia Loren, Paul Neman, David Niven, Claude Dauphin, Philippe Noiret, Michel Piccoli
  • La Promesse de l'aube, 1960
    - Promise at Dawn (translated by John Markham Beach, 1961)
    - Aamunkoiton lupaus (suom. Ulla-Kaarina Jokinen, 1964)
    - film: Promise at Dawn (1970), dir. by Jules Dassin, starring Melina Mercouri, Assaf Dayan, Didier Haudepin, François Raffoul; play First Love by Samuel Taylor
  • Johnnie Cœur, 1961
  • Gloire à nos illustres pionniers, 1962
    - Hissing Tales (short stories, translated from the French by Richard Howard, 1964)
  • The Ski Bum, 1965
    - The Ski Bum (tr. 1965)
    - Hiihtopummi (suom. Pirjo Ranta, 1967)
  • Pour Sganarelle, 1965
  • Les Mangeurs d'étoiles, 1966 (La Comédie américaine, 1966-1970)
    - The Talent Scout (translated by John Markham Beach, 1961)
  • La Danse de Gengis Cohn, 1967
    - The Dance of Gengis Cohn (tr. Romain Gary with the assistance of Camilla Sykes, 1968)
    - TV film: Genghis Cohn (1993), dir. by Elijah Moshinsky, starring Antony Sher, Robert Lindsay, Diana Rigg, Matthew Marsh
  • Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou / Birds in Peru, 1967 (film)
    - dir. by Romain Gary,
    starring Jean Seberg, Maurice Ronet, Pierre Brasseur, Danielle Darrieux
  • La Tête coupable, 1968
    - The Guilty Head (tr. 1967)
    - film: Les Faussaires (1994), dir. by
    Frédéric Blum, starring Gérard Jugnot, Jean-Marc Barr, Viktor Lazlo
  • Adieu Gary Cooper, 1969 (La Comédie américaine, 1966-1970)
  • Chien blanc, 1970
    - White Dog (tr. 1970) film: White Dog (1982), dir. by Samuel Fuller, starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, Lynne Moody
  • Les Trésors de la mer Rouge, 1971
  • Kill!, 1971 (director)
    - dir. & screenplay by Romain Gary, starring James Mason, Stephen Boyd, Curd Jürgens, Jean Seberg
  • Europa, 1972
    - Europa (translated by Barbara Bray and the author, 1978)
  • Les Enchanteurs, 1973
    - The Enchanters (translated by Helen Eustis, 1975)
  • La nuit sera calme, 1974 (with François Bondy)
  • Gros câlin, 1974 (as Émile Ajar)
    - film: Gros câlin (1979), dir. by Jean-Pierre Rawson, starring Jean Carmet, Marthe Villalonga, Francis Perrin
  • Les Têtes de Stéphanie, 1974 (as René Deville)
    - Direct Flight to Allah (translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, 1975)
  • Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n'est plus valable, 1975
    - Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid (translated by Sophie Wilkins, 1977)
    - Tästä eteenpäin matkaliput eivät kelpaa (suom. Sulamit Reenpää, 1976)
    - film: Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid (1981), dir. by George Kaczender, starring Richard Harris, Jennifer Dale, George Peppard, Jeanne Moreau
  • La Vie devant soi, 1976 (as Émile Ajar)
    - The Life Before Us (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1986)
    - Elämä edessäpäin (suom. Annikki Suni, 1978)
    - films:  La vie devant soi (1977), dir. by
    Moshé Mizrahi, starring Simone Signoret, Michal Bat-Adam;  La vie devant soi (2010), TV film, starring Myriam Boyer, starring Myriam Boyer, Julien Soster and Eddie Rahaingo
  • Pseudo, 1976 (as Émile Ajar)
    - Hocus Bogus, 2010 (translated by David Bellos)
  • Clair de femme, 1977
  • Charge d'âme, 1977
    - The Gasp (tr. 1973)
  • La Bonne Moitié, 1979
  • L’Angoisse du roi Salomon, 1979 (as Émile Ajar)
    - King Solomon (translated by Barbara Wright, 1983)
  • Les Clowns lyriques, 1979
  • Les Cerfs-volants, 1980
    - film: Les cerfs-volants (2007), dir. by Jérôme Cornuau, starring Tchéky Karyo, Marc-André Grondin and Gaëlle Bona
  • Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar, 1981
  • L’Homme à la colombe, 1984 (as Fosco Sinibaldi)
  • Roots of Heaven, 2018 (translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin; introduction by David Bellos 2018)

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