Gary, Romain

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GARY, Romain

Pseudonyms: Émile Agar; Fosco Sinibaldi. Nationality: French. Born: Romain Kacew, Vilna, Lithuania, 8 May 1914. Education: Studied law in Aix-en-Provence and Paris. Military Service: French Air Corps: Salon Flying School, shooting instructor, 1938; Free French Forces, 1940-44. Family: Married 1) Lesley Blanch in 1944 (divorced 1952); 2) the actress Jean Seberg in 1962 (divorced 1970), one daughter (deceased) and one son. Career: Writer, Vogue; Secretary and adviser, French embassies, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Bern, Switzerland; spokesman, United Nations, 1952-56; Chargé d'Affaires, La Paz, Bolivia; Consul General of France, Los Angeles, 1956-60; traveled and wrote for American journals. Awards: Prix des Critiques, 1945, for Éducation européenne ; Prix Goncourt, 1956, for Racines du ciel, 1975, for La Vie devant soi.Died: Suicide, 2 December 1980.



Forest of Anger. 1944; as Éducation européenne, 1945; revised edition, as Nothing Important Ever Dies, 1960; as A European Education, 1960.

Le Grand Vestiaire. 1948; as The Company of Men, 1950.

Les Coleurs du jour. 1952; as The Colors of the Day, 1953.

Racines du ciel. 1956; as The Roots of Heaven, 1958.

Lady L. 1958.

The Talent Scout. 1961; as Les Mangeurs d'étoiles, 1966.

The Ski Bum. 1965.

La Danse de Gengis Cohn. 1967; as The Dance of Genghis Cohn, 1968.

La Tête coupable. 1968; as The Guilty Head, 1969.

Adieu Gary Cooper. 1969.

Chien blanc. 1970; as White Dog, 1970.

Europa. 1972; translated as Europa, 1978.

Les Enchanteurs. 1973; as The Enchanters, 1975.

The Gasp. 1973. Gros-câlin (as Émile Agar). 1974.

Les Têtes de Stéphanie. 1974; as Direct Flight to Allah, 1975.

Au-delá de cette limite votre ticket n'est plus valable. 1975; asYour Ticket Is No Longer Valid, 1977; as The Way Out, 1977.

La Vie devant soi (as Émile Agar). 1975; as Momo, 1978; as

Madame Rosa, 1979; as The Life before Us, 1986.

Pseudo (as Émile Agar). 1976.

Clair de femme. 1977.

Charge d'âme. 1977.

Les Clowns lyriques. 1979.

L'Angoisse du roi Salomon (as Émile Agar). 1979; as King

Solomon, 1983.

Les Cerfs-volants [The Kites]. 1980.

L'Homme á la colombe (as Fosco Sinibaldi). 1984.

Short Stories

Gloire á nos illustres pionniers. 1962; as Hissing Tales, 1964.


Johnnie Cœur. 1961. La Bonne Moitié. 1979.


La Promesse de l'aube. 1960; as The Promise at Dawn, 1961.


Tulipe. 1946.

Pour sgnarelle (essay). 1965.

Les Trésors de la mer Rouge. 1971.

La Nuit sera calme, with François Bondy. 1974.

Vie et mort d'Emile Ajar. 1981.


Film Adaptations:

Roots of Heaven, 1958; The Man Who Understood Women, 1959, from the novel Les Coleurs du jour; Lady L, 1965; Oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou, 1968 (as Birds in Peru, 1968); Promise at Dawn, 1970 (as La Promesse de l'aube, 1970); The Ski Bum, 1971 (as Point Zero, 1971); La Vie devant soi, 1977 (as A Life Ahead, 1977, and Madame Rosa, 1978); Clair de femme, 1979 (as Womanlight, 1979); Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid, 1981 (as Finishing Touch, 1981, and A Slow Descent into Hell, 1981); White Dog, 1982; Genghis Cohn, 1993, from the novel La Danse de Gengis Cohn; Les Faussaires, 1994 (as The Imposters, 1994), from the novel La Tête coupable.

Critical Studies:

Romain Gary issue of Livres de France (France), 18(3), March 1967; "Romain Gary and the End of an Old Dream" by Frederic C. Gray, in Proceedings: Pacific Northwest Conference on Foreign Languages , edited by Walter C. Kraft, 1973; "The Art of Survival: Romain Gary's The Dance of Genghis Cohn, " in Modern Language Studies, 10(3), 1980, pp. 76-87; "On the Death of a Friend: Romain Gary" by Francois Bondy, in Encounter (England), 57(2), August 1981, p. 33-34; "A Man and His Double" by Francois Bondy, in Encounter, 57(4), October 1981, p. 42-43; "The Symbolic Imagination of Romain Gary" by Jane McKee, in The Maynooth Review/Reiviu Mha Nuad (Ireland), 6(2), May 1982, pp. 60-71; "Emile Ajar Demystified" by Bette H. Lustig, in The French Review: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of French, 57(2), December 1983, pp. 203-12; "Gary-Ajar and the Rhetoric of Non-Communication" by Leroy T. Day, in The French Review, 65(1), October 1991, pp. 75-83; "Romain Gary: Last Judgement Questionnaire" by Nancy Huston, in Brick , 47, Winter 1993, pp. 28-34; "On the Holocaust Comedies of 'Emile Ajar"' by Jeffrey Mehlman, in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and 'the Jewish Question' in France, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, 1994; "The Labor of Love" by Tzvetan Todorov, in Partisan Review, 64(3), Summer 1997, pp. 375-83; "Romain Gary: A Foreign Body in French Literature" by Nancy Huston, in Suleiman , edited by Susan Rubin, 1998.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Films— Oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou, 1968; Kill! 1971.

* * *

Romain Gary was a fighter pilot, diplomat, novelist, and filmmaker, and his life and literature tantalized French society from 1945 until his suicide in 1980. Before 1965 he wrote neither on the Holocaust nor about any subject surrounding his own Jewish identity. When Jewish themes finally began to emerge in his writing, they developed in tandem with an increasingly evident sense of alienation and depression. Nevertheless, La Danse de Genghis Cohn (1967) and subsequent novels presented defiant explorations of the author's faith in humanity. Beyond his sense of isolation as a Jew, Gary continued to identify European, and specifically German, culture with respect for the rights and integrity of the individual.

Gary's earlier works, notably L'Education européenne , Les Couleurs du jour, and Les Racines du ciel, met with instant acclaim. His heroes were artfully developed through the tragicomic situations Europeans had faced in wartime and in the years that followed. Typically an "ordinary" man or woman living in extraordinary times, the bold partisan and the poor refugee alike could be the subject of Gary's eloquent and witty examinations of the Western civilization that had survived the challenge mounted by the fascist armies. In the first postwar years Gary, like others of his generation, wrote as if the new Europe had learned through its suffering to be cosmopolitan and inclusive. The problems of negotiating different national or ethnic memories of the war years did not receive attention, and the appearance of evidently Jewish characters in L'Education européenne was not accompanied by comment on their identity or on the distinctive situations they encountered as Jews. In La Promesse de l'aube, an account of his childhood, Gary gave no attention to the Jewish cultures he experienced in Vilna and Warsaw, and the happy life he painted appeared as if untainted by anti-Semitism. In subsequent years Gary would consistently refer to a mixed Russian, Cossack, Jewish and Tatar heritage, which only obscured the extent to which his Jewishness had affected his early years in Russia and as a refugee in Lithuania and Poland. A life of moving among societies in which anti-Semitism was still more or less accepted gave him reason to prefer the interesting cosmopolitan identity he was often charged with creating himself.

La Danse de Genghis Cohn was the first work to signal Gary's growing critique of European culture and politics, themes he developed further in subsequent novels, for example, in Europa and The Gasp. Throughout his literary career Gary nevertheless maintained that liberal European ideals represented the benchmark for a humane society and that war and genocide had only underlined the need to explore Western concepts of enlightenment and human rights with greater precision.

Gary's turn to writing about Jews was partly influenced by his experience in the United States, where William Styron , author of Sophie's Choice, was a longtime companion, but the timing of the shift in his works appears to have been more directly related to his return to Europe. Like many Jewish intellectuals in Europe and America, Gary was disturbed by the resurgence of anti-Semitic violence and then by anti-Zionist politics in Europe in the 1960s. At the time of the appearance of Genghis Cohn, he revisited Warsaw, touring the site of the former ghetto. Gary then rounded on his wartime hero, Charles de Gaulle, when on the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967 the president broke off military ties with Israel, speaking of the "arrogance" of the Jews. While Gary argued that the Holocaust had shown that Jews needed a homeland in Israel, his response to Israel was also far from uncritical. There was, he maintained, a nationalist and "racist" extreme in Israel that he had no desire to excuse. Personally, he once commented, he would prefer to live in Italy rather than Israel. The "Jewish shift" in Gary's novels, from the time of Genghis Cohn, correspondingly turned on the life of Jews marked by pressures similar to those he had faced in the Diaspora: multicultural, the Jews were also frequently conscious of the limits with which the societies they lived in could accept them.

Writing on Jewish subjects late in life under the pseudonym Emil Ajar, Gary created Jewish characters that were, like the author himself, aging and alienated. The Jewish novels are those in which Gary made his sense of alienation from high society most evident, a trend that was heightened in his last works. He felt no compunction about refusing literary honors he felt morally compromising, notably the Prix Paul Morand of the Académie Française, named after a literary rival and wartime supporter of the Pétain regime. Gary's personal crises were often tied to his work, and scholars have continued to debate whether his obsession with pseudonyms and the continual re-creation of his public persona should be connected with his suicide in 1980. Like Hemingway, Gary shot himself in a dressing gown, leaving his partner to discover his body and a brief suicide note.

—George R. Wilkes

See the essay on The Dance of Genghis Cohn.