December 2, 2010, marked the 30th anniversary of his death, but the French-Jewish novelist Romain Gary, born Roman Kacew in Vilnius in 1914, has never been more current. And as if to prove it, an insightful new biography, “Romain Gary: A Tall Story” by David Bellos, appeared recently from Harvill Secker.
Bellos, an expert translator and biographer of the intricate French-Jewish author Georges Perec, is an experienced guide to abstruse literary machinations. It’s just as well, since the life and work of Gary might baffle a less astute guide. Gary wrote under a half-dozen different pen names — sometimes directly in English, which he mastered inadequately — and scattered misleading misinformation about himself throughout books and interviews.
He is best remembered for his novel “The Life Before Us” (“La vie Devant Soi”), about an orphaned Arab boy’s devotion to a terminally ill Auschwitz survivor and ex-prostitute. In 1977 Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi turned the book into “Madame Rosa,” a film starring Simone Signoret in the title role. More recently, it has been adapted for the French stage in a touring production featuring actress Myriam Boyer in the Signoret role; filmed in February 2010, this play was broadcast across Europe on December 22 by Arte TV.
Also notably, a museum exhibit of Gary’s literary manuscripts opened on December 3 at Paris’s Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits on the boulevard Saint-Germain, where it is running until April 3rd. Bellos points out that Gary’s hastily scrawled manuscripts are a mess for even practiced textual editors, and this makes the aforementioned exhibit all the more extraordinary. An accompanying catalog, “Readings of Romain Gary,” (“Lectures de Romain Gary”) appears in January from Les éditions Gallimard, containing essays by many hands, including gadfly Bernard-Henri Lévy and the always informed biographer Pierre Assouline. This recent spotlight of attention is welcome and necessary, as accurately understanding Gary — a best-selling novelist whose works received screen adaptations from film directors like John Huston and Peter Ustinov — has proved to be a surprisingly lengthy and complex process.
Much useful spadework was done by the doughty French-Jewish biographer Myriam Anissimov in 2004’s monumental “Roman Gary: the Chameleon” (“Romain Gary, le Caméléon”), released in a revised and updated edition by Les éditions Folio Gallimard. Anissimov’s fascinating opus is more than 1,000 pages long and microscopically detailed, definitively refuting Gary’s lifelong claims in memoirs and interviews that although he chose to identify “100%” as Jewish, only his mother was Jewish, while his father was of Mongol and Tartar ancestry. Anissimov definitively proves that both of Gary’s parents were in fact Jewish, citing in its entirety Gary’s birth certificate, in which the names of his father (Aryeh-Leib Kacew) and mohel (Itzik Berkatman) are included. So why did Gary pretend to be only half-Jewish?
The answer may appear in another book from Les éditions de l’Herne, “Judaism Isn’t About Blood,” (“Le Judaïsme n’est pas une Question de Sang”), a compilation of interviews from the 1950s to the 1970s in which Gary expresses his feelings about being Jewish. By pretending to “choose” a Jewish identity, Gary was, in his own mind, creatively electing Judaism rather than just accepting what was handed down to him by a father whom he despised and who abandoned the family when Gary was still a young boy.
A similar sense of re-creating reality informs Gary’s constant fabrications, claiming in interviews that his mother was an actress (she was not) or that he attended a performance of Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” in Berlin in 1925 — which, as Anissimov points out, would have been quite an achievement because that German-Jewish composer’s work premiered only in 1928, when Gary was living in France. Ultimately, Gary’s most notorious imposture, publishing pseudonymous novels, including “The Life Before Us,” signed “Émile Ajar,” becomes part of the author’s lifelong perpetual act of self-re-creation.
These factually challenged assertions do not faze Bellos, whose translation of Gary’s labyrinthine multiple-identity novel, “Pseudo,” appeared as “Hocus Bogus” from Yale University Press in January 2010. Bellos underlines that beyond Gary’s creative mendacity, one aspect of his life was indubitably genuine. After Germany invaded France, Gary escaped to London, where he became a war hero, serving as a fearless bomber pilot for the Free French Forces. Flying missions even when recuperating from battle wounds, Gary fought a feisty personal, even visceral battle against the Nazis (in one interview, Gary described himself as “testicularly anti-racist”) that was a concrete reality in a life devoted to more amorphous artistry, and his wartime loyalties remained a permanent obsession.
Gary’s worship of Charles de Gaulle continued even after the French president’s 1967 news conference following the Six Day War, in which de Gaulle referred to the “Jewish people, self-confident and dominant” (“Le Peuple Juif, sûr de Lui-meme et Dominateur”). Many French Jews felt that it was too soon after the Holocaust, a subject that was still largely taboo in French public discourse, for such criticism. The brilliant political and social theorist Raymond Aron, in his 1968 study, “De Gaulle, Israel and the Jews,” explains that after the French president’s comment, a “burst of Jewishness exploded in [Aron’s] French consciousness.”
By contrast, Gary explains in a 1970 interview included in “Judaism Isn’t About Blood” that he was “extremely flattered” by de Gaulle’s remarks because they marked the “first time in [Jewish] history that the Jews were described as an elite people.” Gary charges that the Jews are “contaminated by anti-Semitism” and that de Gaulle’s comment should be taken “with a smile,” unless his auditor “immediately thinks of Auschwitz. Although it must be said that there is more to Jewish history than Auschwitz.”
Gary goes on to describe how after the publication of his 1967 novel “The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” de Gaulle wrote him a letter full of “sympathy for the book and for the sufferings of the Jews.” In this case, Gary was indubitably truthful: The aforementioned letter from de Gaulle does indeed exist and was printed in Gary’s posthumous “Ode to the Man Who Was France” (“Ode à l’Homme Qui Fut la France”), published in 2000 by Les éditions Folio Gallimard. When it counted, Gary was ultimately accurate, as when he left a suicide note in 1980, explaining that he decided to end his life because he had written all he wished to write and not because his estranged and tormented ex-wife, film star Jean Seberg, had committed suicide a year earlier.
Yet such basic home truths in Gary’s life and work can be obscured by his prose style and grandiose, self-mythifying persona. “The Dance of Genghis Cohn” itself demonstrates Gary’s paradoxical approach of using, as Bellos observes, “vulgarity and coruscating wit to defeat the greatest obscenity of 20th-century history, the slaughter of the Jews by Nazi Germany.” The novel’s protagonist (a blend of Mongol and Jewish, as Gary himself claimed to be), murdered by the Nazis in 1943, becomes a dybbuk in the mind of his executioner. The victim/protagonist forces his murderer to sing songs redolent of Yiddishkeit, like “My Yiddishe Mama.”
Such burlesque ironies, painted with broad brushstrokes in a popular novel published one year before the release of Mel Brooks’s film “The Producers,” demonstrated the comic potential of ridiculing Hitler, but offended some readers in France, notably a critic from the weekly news magazine L’Express, who termed “The Dance of Genghis Cohn” an “affront to the memory of those who died at Auschwitz.” Forty-five years on, readers and critics are relishing the same pitilessly absurdist authorial voice, describing savage and coarse events of modern history in the savage and coarse terms that so troubled Gary’s readers when his books first appeared decades ago.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.