Does anyone remember Romain Gary? In 1956, he won the Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary award) for Les raciness du ciel (The Roots of Heaven), the story of a European who tries the stop the slaughter of Elephants in Africa. I saw the film version in 1958, immediately drooled over the female lead, Juliette Greco, and was so impressed by the movie, or possibly Greco–that I read Gary’s extraordinary novel. The story made an indelible impression on me, resulting in part in my two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. Unfortunately, I never saw an elephant in Nigeria. But the novel stuck, and I subsequently re-read it a couple of times, as I followed Gary’s career as a novelist.
Fast forward to 1975 when the Prix Goncourt was awarded to someone identified as Emile Ajar for a novel—in its English translation—called Momo, the story of a “retired” Jewish prostitute and Holocaust survivor and her friendship with a young Arab boy. Ajar was Romain Gary, though that fact was not known for several years. Gary had believed that he didn’t have a chance with the French literary critics–who had written him off as no longer relevant–so he began writing under the pseudonym, Emile Ajar. The movie, called “Madame Rosa” (1977), starring Simone Signoret, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The original French edition of the novel, Le vie devant soi, not only won Ajar/Gary his second Goncourt Prize (thus skirting the rules that no writer can win the prize more than once) but was, also, the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century. Later English editions of the novel have been called The Life Before Us.
Gary already had a checkered career before he became a novelist: he studied law and was a pilot in the French Air Force during WW II. After the war be joined the French diplomatic service. He was married twice, the second time to Jean Seberg, who was picked as an unknown after a nation-wide talent search in the United States to star in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957). Seberg was generally panned for her acting, but determined not to give up, and appeared in Breathless (1960), directed by Jean-Luc Goddard, which made her a star. Suddenly Seberg was moving in circles that included Romain Gary (who in 1956 became the Consul General of France in Los Angeles).
Hocus Bogus—published as Pseudo, in France, in 1976—was Ajar’s attempt to assert that he alone had written the two published novels that bore the name ?mile Ajar.
Or, possibly to assert that Romain Gary was not Roman Gary but Emile Ajar. Or that Roman Gary’s career as a writer was over (as, in fact, the French critics had already said). Or, to throw off the critics, by pretending that one Paul Pawlovitch, one of Gary’s cousins, had written the two Ajar novels, using a pseudonym. That latter gambit should have been transparent, because Gary and Pawlovitch were related. You might say, then, that Hocus Bogus, brilliantly translated by David Bellos, is the hole in the donut, finally filled in. It’s all a bit of a game, an intellectual exercise, and above all the ramblings of a split personality, who spends most of his time in a psychiatric ward. As Gary concludes in a brief essay (“The Life and Death of Emile Ajar”), the gossip that came back to him after the spectacular rise of Ajar’s literary career made people pity “poor Romain Gary, who must be a little sad, a little jealous of the meteoric rise in the literary firmament of his cousin ?mile Ajar….” Gary adds, “I had a lot of fun.”
Hocus Bogus will not to be every reader’s cup of tea. It’s too incestuous. It’s meta-narrative by a scorned writer who not only attempts to regain his mojo but succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. It is also one of the most revealing commentaries on the artist’s life I have ever encountered. Gary states of his career, “I have always been someone else,” but also, “I was a spectator of my second life.” Perfectly said, since most writers rarely even get one life—that’s how fast their books sink into oblivion.
It’s up to Yale University Press to complete the circle by reprinting The Roots of Heaven and The Life Before Us for the contemporary reader. Trying to locate used copies anywhere is all but impossible.
By Emile Ajar
Translated by David Bellos
Yale/Margellos, 197 pp., $25.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.