Romain Gary was a popular and prolific author, the only writer to win Le prix Goncourt a second time, by dint of assuming the pen name Émile Ajar, an imaginary person whom he persuaded a young relative to impersonate. The deception was not revealed until after his death.
This autobiography proves to be a version of his childhood and wartime experience as an airman in which it is impossible to distinguish embellished fact from fiction. Its central theme is the intense relationship with his mother, a volatile, overemotional former actress of Russian-Jewish descent. Abandoned by her husband between the two World Wars, she was obliged to slave away at a variety of jobs, from flogging fake jewellery at one extreme to running a successful upmarket dressmaking salon and later managing a hotel at the other.
As her son came to realise, all her frustrated ambition was channelled into him. From an early age, she parroted her unfailing belief that he would become famous, the only question being in what field. A fortune was spent equipping him with skills as a musician or singer, until his lack of talent became undeniable. Instruction in riding, fencing and shooting came into play. Painting was discouraged since she viewed artists as generally penniless and often syphilitic. She condoned her son’s desire to become a writer, but predicted the only remaining areas of achievement she could conceive: to become a great soldier, or a diplomat. In due course, Romain was decorated for his wartime service, and gained employment as an ambassador, thus providing evidence for the importance of having unfailing belief in one’s children and encouraging them to aspire to great things – but in this case, at what cost?
There was a further self-serving aspect of his mother’s love. Struck by his resemblance to a former lover (his real father?), she constantly urged him to look upwards in a certain manner. Even as a small boy, dressed in the silk shirts and velvet suits from a previous age to accompany her to the opera, he was instructed in all the etiquette required to be her future escort, in the absence of a husband.
It is astonishing that he did not become the laughing stock of his peers and emotionally damaged by all this. Yet perhaps he was. Apart from the many occasions when he was embarrassed by his mother’s effusive love, or furious over being obliged to depend on her financially while he was trying to write his masterpiece, when she became seriously ill, he was clearly stressed by the need to succeed while she was still alive, all the more difficult since World War ll had broken out. His emotional ties to his mother ran so deep that he even described her as if physically present, by turns approving and admonishing, during his wartime spell with the Free French in Africa.
The novel is packed with amusing, if far-fetched anecdotes. As a small boy seeking to impress eight-year-old Valentine, did he actually consume snails in their shells, and chunks of his own rubber sandals, which landed him in hospital? Did he and the rival for her affections really take turns to push each other onto a fourth floor window with just sufficient pressure to swing their legs over the edge, without falling to a certain death? Meeting by chance years later, both by then diplomats, was he really on the point of repeating this mad exploit, just before he was fortunately called away?
There is a brilliant description of his mother, in her role of hotel manager in Nice, terrorising the stallholders on her daily visit to the marché de la Buffa, a she passes judgement on their produce: elle “tâtait une escalope, méditait sur l’âme d’un melon, rejetait avec mépris une pièce de bœuf dont flop mou sur le marbre prenait un accent d’humiliation” and so on.
Yet this account of a life sufficiently interesting not to require any spicing up soon began to pall owing to the repetition, the verbosity, the odd mixture of exaggerated self-denigration and conceit, the frequent digression into an issue like his need to achieve, expounded in a paragraph of two pages or more of overblown prose. All this made for an exhausting read.
If it is to your taste, and you can stomach Gary’s somewhat sexist behaviour, which is what some reviewers may mean when describing the book as “dated”, you can read this to be entertained by the succession of implausible and at times unsavoury vignettes and exploits. I am most intrigued by the psychology behind all this. He wrote, to quote the English translation, “I do not often indulge in lying, because, for me, a lie has a sickly flavour of impotence: it leaves me too far away from the mark.” Yet the account is full of lies and deceptions, which he may have slipped into as a way of dealing with his mother’s overpowering love and belief that France was the model land where he would succeed.
It is hard to know how much he was traumatised by the shocking death rate amongst his fellow wartime pilots. Despite observing more than once how, no matter how bad things are, he keeps smiling, this is the man who, at the age of sixty-eight, decided to shoot himself fatally.