The Roots of Heaven 
by Romain Gary, translated by Jonathan Griffin.
Godine, 434 pp., $18.95, November 2018, 978 1 56792 626 2
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Promise at Dawn 
by Romain Gary, translated by John Markham Beach.
Penguin, 314 pp., £9.99, September 2018, 978 0 241 34763 8
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We are​ in the African bush, at night, in the mid-1950s. At a campfire Father Tassin, a Jesuit palaeontologist, is questioning Saint-Denis, the French colonial administrator of this corner of Chad. Tassin is looking for information about a mysterious figure called Morel, whose recent activities have scandalised all of French Equatorial Africa. Saint-Denis begins to recount lengthy conversations he had with people who recounted to him other people’s lengthy speeches about the unforgettable impression Morel made on them. The narrative layers, and the numbers of inverted commas required, get quite hard to keep track of. But every so often the administrator pauses for a while and considers the primordial landscape around him, while the Jesuit – whose superiors, we’re told, suspect him of having heterodox views – waits in imperturbable silence for the story to resume.

Morel’s activities, it turns out, had to do with elephants. A scruffy man with blazing eyes, a battered leather briefcase and a ‘slightly vulgar’ Parisian accent, he showed up one day at the Hôtel du Tchadien promoting the outlandish idea that it’s wrong to hunt elephants, especially for sport, and that without stricter conservation measures they would be in danger of extinction. The hunters, businesspeople, colonial functionaries and military men drinking at the Tchadien found it hard to decide whether he was a whimsical idealist or a provocateur. Only Minna, a young German employed there as a hostess, signed his petition urging the French government to take a stand on wildlife protection. The clientele assumed she had fallen in love with him. Morel then took to the bush and launched a vigilante campaign involving assaults on ivory traders, a manifesto inserted at gunpoint into a local newspaper, and the public spanking of a famous big game huntress. In time his campaign caught the world’s imagination, the global media descended on Chad, and troops fanned out to put an end to his activities.

It seems obvious to everyone that Morel can’t be driven by a straightforward concern for elephant conservation. The elephants must be a symbol – but of what? Of idolatrous reverence for the natural world, a missionary conjectures: evidently Morel belongs to the ranks of ‘misanthropes and atheists’. The governor, a self-proclaimed republican humanist, suspects Morel of misanthropy too: ‘That fellow is trying to tell us what he thinks of us, to show his scorn for humanity, and he uses elephants as a means of expression, that’s all.’ Or perhaps elephants are ‘a mere political diversion’, a front for stirring up troubles like Britain’s in Kenya and France’s in Algeria? An embittered hunter insinuates that Morel is ‘undermining the good name of the white man’ on behalf of Cairo or Moscow: a cynical strategy, the governor muses, since under any revolutionary regime ‘the elephants would be the first to die.’ For the anti-colonial rebels who associate themselves with Morel for publicity purposes, elephants are ‘an anachronism, a weight tied to the legs of a new, modern, industrialised and electrified Africa’. But for the time being they’re ‘a convenient image of African power on the march’.

Friendlier observers see Morel’s campaign as a parable, which they interpret in line with their own preoccupations. Elephants, a French columnist notes, resemble the rights of man, ‘those noble, clumsy, gigantic, anachronistic survivals of another age’. A retired English colonel laments that his type, quixotically devoted to fair play and decency, is being wiped out by ignoble realities, much as the elephants are. And among the lost souls who find redemption through contact with Morel, there’s a belief that he’s addressing, in an obscure but momentous way, the horrors of the human condition in the mid-20th century. One of his followers is an American airman in disgrace back home after being captured in Korea and tricked into claiming that his side was using biological weapons. Another, Minna, was raped by Russian soldiers during the fall of Berlin. The atomic bomb and the recent horrors of the Second World War weigh on everybody’s mind. Small wonder that people, alone in a godless universe, feel a need for company. ‘Dogs aren’t enough any more,’ Morel is reported to have said. People need ‘something bigger, something sturdier’. They need elephants to fill the void.

The extended final act of The Roots of Heaven – it centres on a massacre of a herd of elephants by Waïtari, a deracinated would-be post-independence leader – gives Morel a chance to explain himself. (The Conradian speakers round the campfire have temporarily been forgotten.) We already know he’s a former member of the French Resistance who learned to love elephants in a German concentration camp, ‘probably because they were the most different thing I could imagine from what surrounded me … the very image of an immense liberty’. Now he makes it clear that his struggle is animated in part by the memory of de Gaulle’s stand in 1940 – de Gaulle being ‘another man who believed in elephants’ – and in part by a notion of ‘biological revolution’: a faith that humanity will one day evolve into a form capable of genuine humaneness. This faith is loosely modelled on the evolutionary mysticism propounded by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1955), and by giving the last word to Father Tassin, who’s loosely modelled on Teilhard, the story ends on a note of post-Catholic optimism.

Still, it’s hard not to suspect that hope for the distant future is being used to license a programme of angry satire directed at humanity as presently constituted. At one point an atomic scientist comes to Chad to throw his weight behind Morel. Asked by a journalist if he’s disgusted by mankind, he smiles thinly and replies that of course he isn’t: otherwise why would he have devoted the best years of his life to giving it the hydrogen bomb? The Strangelovian teasing of the press that follows is close in spirit to Morel’s campaign. It’s also significant that the scientist is Jewish, because Morel and his associates are haunted – to an unusual degree for the pre-Eichmann trial 1950s, when Cold War priorities discouraged such talk – by the anti-Jewish character of the Nazis’ crimes. Brooding on the feelings of guilt and discomfort aroused by people who have ‘suffered too much’, Saint-Denis wonders if similar feelings motivated ‘the German theorists of racialism [who] preached the extermination of the Jews’. Stockpiled tusks are likened to ‘gold teeth “recovered” by the Nazis’, and Morel likens knick-knacks made from elephants’ feet to souvenirs from Belsen.

Perhaps because Morel himself isn’t Jewish, or perhaps because the other characters subsume it under the heading of postwar unease, this theme isn’t put forward as a general explanation of his wish to save the elephants. But it keeps being mentioned all the same. During Morel’s last stand he’s joined by a new character, an American photojournalist called Abe Fields, who’s abruptly brought in by means of a fortuitous plane crash. Abe is there to solve a technical problem the novelist faces, the need for a fresh point of view, and to play the role of a detached observer who’s finally moved to moral action. He’s also Jewish, and ‘the only major event he had not succeeded in photographing was the extermination of his family in Poland.’ ‘There should have been a Jew with Morel since the beginning,’ another character thinks. ‘Preferably a survivor of the German gas chambers.’ Minna thinks it’s similarly appropriate that ‘I, ein Mädchen aus Berlin’, should be at Morel’s side. Abe notes that she is rather attractive: perhaps by falling in love with her he can prove that ‘to be a man was after all not hopeless.’ The minimal comfort contrived so outrageously here seems closer than Father Tassin does to the heart of the novel’s multifarious concerns.

A strange​ mixture of Heart of Darkness, La Condition humaine, ecological fable and not quite sublimated Holocaust novel, The Roots of Heaven was published in France as Les Racines du ciel in 1956, winning the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into English a year later under the supervision of its author, Romain Gary. The Goncourt had come at an opportune moment: Gary, who was in his early forties, hadn’t been thought to be living up to his early promise. Sartre, Camus and Raymond Aron had praised his first book, a novel about Polish partisans, A European Education (1945), but he had later lost his audience, producing – among other things – an eccentric satire on racism and a Parisian rewrite of Oliver Twist. The initial response to The Roots of Heaven wasn’t universally admiring: the left complained about Gaullism and sentimental humanitarianism, the right sniffed at Gary’s un-French origins by censuring his verb conjugations, and the avant-garde preferred Michel Butor. But the book sold well – like a lot of Gary’s output it’s said never to have been out of print in France – and Gary did a good job of using the press attention to lodge his public persona in the national consciousness.

As a celebrity Gary functioned, in one writer’s words, as ‘a sort of Polish André Malraux’, a public servant and man of action as well as a novelist. Born Roman Kacew to Jewish parents in Vilnius, then part of the Russian empire, in 1914, he grew up under Polish rule before moving to Nice with his mother in the late 1920s. After studying law he joined the French air force in 1938, but was held back from the front line by suspicion of his foreign background and/or by antisemitism. When Pétain signed the armistice Gary stole a plane with some friends, made his way to Britain by way of North Africa, and joined the Free French. By the end of the war he was a member of the Légion d’honneur and the Ordre de la Libération, having survived an improbable number of bombing missions – on one he had to talk a blinded pilot through the landing – while using his spare time to write A European Education in a freezing Nissen hut in Hampshire. For the next 15 years he worked as a diplomat, with a stint in New York as a spokesman for the French delegation to the UN Security Council. He finished The Roots of Heaven on leave before taking up a post in Los Angeles as consul general.

A memoir detailing some of this, Promise at Dawn (1960), went down well in France and America, and Gary felt able to leave the diplomatic service. He hadn’t wasted his time in LA: there were script-doctoring jobs, his books were adapted into some terrible movies, and in 1962, aged 48, he married Jean Seberg. She was 23; A bout de souffle had come out two years earlier. Seberg had many problems – with drugs and abusive men, principally, and later with J. Edgar Hoover and mental illness – and Gary was a self-involved middle-aged roué with a volcanic temper. But apart from challenging Clint Eastwood to a punch-up at dawn over an on-set affair with Seberg, a challenge Eastwood declined, he doesn’t seem to have behaved too badly. His job, as he came to see it, was to help her hold things together, and he continued to try to do that even after they divorced in 1970. They carried on working together – in 1971 he directed her in a heartfelt flop about shooting drug dealers, Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! – and after her suicide, in 1979, he gave an emotional press conference denouncing the FBI, which had targeted her in the 1960s for her involvement with the Black Panthers. In his own suicide note, headed ‘For the press’, a year later, he wrote: ‘No connection with Jean Seberg. Aficionados of broken hearts should apply elsewhere.’

Gary didn’t stop writing while he was a Hollywood spouse, but he knew he was being discounted by Parisian intellectuals and felt isolated when he spent time in his flat on the rue du Bac. He moved between markets and languages – Lady L. (1958), The Talent Scout (1961), The Ski Bum (1965) and The Gasp (1973) were written in English – and dabbled unsuccessfully in writing plays as well as directing. His writing was slapdash as a matter of principle: ‘I hate works that are “well-made”,’ he said. He had no time for Parisian literary politics, and Paris in turn didn’t know what to make of a popular writer who prided himself on his contrarian stance. Gary was always good for a quote attacking Foucault or Robbe-Grillet, and he contrived to offend everyone when it came to such questions as Israel or Algeria. Asked for his position on the bourgeoisie, he responded: ‘Right inside it.’ He also affected the manner of a prewar Polish dandy, kissing women’s hands, wearing make-up and so on, and played the tasteless plutocrat at a villa he built in Mallorca, where according to his English biographer, David Bellos, in Romain Gary: A Tall Story (2010), ‘he mostly ignored the people he invited, prowled around looking glum and subjected everyone to the various strange diets he took up to keep himself in shape.’

By the 1970s he was unalterably fixed as a character: good copy, crazy outfits, strong opinions, but essentially an antiquated left Gaullist and a novelist with nothing new to say. He felt imprisoned, he wrote in a posthumously published confession, by the image he’d been lumbered with, and surmised that ‘the Parisian critics, who have other things to do than study texts seriously’, didn’t look too closely at his books before dismissing them. So he launched a parallel career under the name Emile Ajar, initially presented as a medical student who had escaped to Brazil after a brush with the law. Ajar specialised, as Gary did, in whisking together black comedy and out-and-out sentiment, and his books contained motifs and turns of phrase borrowed from Gary’s. Another of Gary’s habits – a tendency to frame his stories as spoken monologues, shading into comically inexpert narration, à la Gogol – became Ajar’s central gimmick: his narrators used a jumbled, malaprop French that served as a vehicle for pathos as well as humour. (George Saunders might be the best current analogue in English.) Gary let his own publisher in on the secret but the rest of the firm was kept in the dark. Raymond Queneau, passing Ajar’s first novel to a Gallimard subsidiary for publication, observed that the pastiche was suspiciously slick, and that the author ‘must be a pain in the arse’.

Ajar’s book – about a lonely man obsessed with his pet python – became a bestseller and Gary got to enjoy the spectacle of people who’d slated his own recent work describing the young man as a talent of a different order. There was speculation about the author’s identity – Queneau was often named as a candidate – but it was conducted on a fairly playful level until 1975, when Ajar’s second novel, The Life before Us, appeared. It was narrated by Mohammed, nicknamed Momo, an Algerian orphan brought up in a Belleville slum by Madame Rosa, a Jewish former prostitute and concentration camp survivor who makes a living caring for unwanted children. Ajar filled it with ethnic wisecracks: ‘For a long time I didn’t know I was an Arab, because nobody insulted me.’ ‘In my opinion, Jews are people like everybody else, but that’s no reason to be down on them.’ For good measure the novel ends with a deliberately heart-wrenching death scene that dramatises a touching concord between Jews and Muslims. The book is written in a macaronic street-kid argot which Gary dreamed up after wandering around an immigrant neighbourhood near Montmartre for a couple of hours. Momo’s language, Bellos reports, ‘was taken by serious critics – including major literary figures like Michel Tournier and established scholars of the French language, in France and abroad – as the authentic tongue of contemporary Belleville’. Then the novel won the Prix Goncourt.

By now the rumours were proliferating. Some said the unknown author was a Lebanese terrorist, others that he was this or that famous writer, and Gary claimed to have met a young woman who told him she had had a liaison with Ajar, who was, she said, ‘a terrific fucker’. Gary recruited a distant cousin called Paul Pavlowitch to play the part of the elusive novelist for the press, and an interview duly appeared in Le Monde. But reporters soon unearthed Pavlowitch’s identity and his relationship to Gary, after which they descended on the rue du Bac. Gary denied everything: he had given Claude Gallimard a solemn assurance that he wasn’t Ajar and couldn’t see a way to back down. On his lawyers’ advice he arranged for Ajar to turn down the Goncourt, which isn’t meant to be given to the same writer twice. Ajar’s next move was to publish a pseudo-memoir, called Pseudo (1976), narrated by someone with a similar biography to Pavlowitch, except that he’s subject to psychotic breakdowns and unhealthily obsessed with an older relative who’s a celebrated writer. He couldn’t publicise his first novel, he explains, because he was in a secure unit in Cahors, oppressed by the horror of existence:

I was hugely relieved when on the appearance of my second book highly competent critics declared that Emile Ajar did not exist. I cut out the articles and glued them on the walls that surround me. When I have any doubts or suspicions or external or respiratory symptoms, including perspiration, panic attacks, and other signs of life that occasionally fool even me, I sit down in my armchair, look around at these brotherly book reviews, stuff my meerschaum with British phlegm, and read and reread these attestations of unbeing, which should have been written on walls for thousands of years.

Pseudo explained not only the pseudonymous author’s reclusive ways but also his debts to Gary’s writing, which readers had belatedly noticed. When quizzed about that, Gary would say it was only natural for beginners to imitate older writers, then speak of his sadly under-recognised influence on the rising generation. L’Affaire Ajar was now cleared up: as Bellos puts it, the book seemed to show ‘that Emile Ajar was Paul Pavlowitch and that Paul Pavlowitch was mad … Clearly, Romain Gary was a victim of his unstable, mythomaniac, certifiable and already certified relative.’ Pavlowitch went along with the deception and, presumably after showing that he was no longer mad, landed a job in publishing on the strength of his writings as Ajar. A movie adaptation of The Life before Us won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1978, and a fourth Ajar book came out a year later. The authorship question didn’t resurface until December 1980, when Gary – frightened of age and impotence, suffering from depression, lonely since Seberg’s death and not shy of grand gestures – shot himself. He left a short note and a longer text, ‘The Life and Death of Emile Ajar’, unpacking his hoax. It ended: ‘I had a great deal of fun. Au revoir et merci.’

In his lifetime​ Gary laid claim to quite a few identities. He was a proud Frenchman and admired de Gaulle for the theatricality with which he embodied ‘a certain idea of France’. The idea and the performance were what counted: he was less interested in de Gaulle’s postwar politics, though as a compagnon de la Libération he didn’t like to hear the general being denigrated. As a Polish-educated gentleman he knew his way around Adam Mickiewicz and had, he said, ‘a physical need’ to read Conrad again and again. The first published version of A European Education depicts its resistance fighters as Polish irredentists, though in later editions they stand for more all-purpose ideals. Thanks to another language learned in childhood, Gary felt just as connected to what he called ‘the holy Russia of drunken coachmen, swearing mujiks and Volga boatmen’. In nobly exiled moods he had no truck with Bolshevism, scoffed pickled cucumbers, wore large hats and borrowed extensively from Gogol and Dostoevsky. He also nursed a complicated fantasy of having Tartar and Cossack blood, and of being an illegitimate son of Ivan Mosjoukine, an interwar star of Russian and French silent films.

Being a Lithuanian Jew was a more complicated matter. Gary’s most forceful assertion of Jewishness came in The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1967), in which the ghost of a Yiddish-speaking nightclub comedian possesses his Nazi murderer, now a West German police chief. The vengeful dybbuk’s comedy routines were seen as a hair-raising display of bad taste when the novel appeared in France two weeks before the Six-Day War, and Gary didn’t get bracketed with the wave of French-Jewish self-exploration initiated a year later by Patrick Modiano’s La Place de l’étoile. His French biographer, Myriam Anissimov, found evidence that he’d downplayed his Litvak background after his arrival in Nice and thinks he viewed it as an obstacle to social success in 1930s France. (‘He wasn’t entirely wrong,’ she adds.) Romain Gary, le caméléon (2004) puts a lot of emphasis on his guilty self-invention and the re-emergence of a hidden Jewish self in the late 1960s. Bellos quarrels with this: Gary never said he wasn’t Jewish, wrote black-comically about the Holocaust as early as 1945, and later avoided meeting a movie director who had impugned his Jewish pride ‘for fear he would have to teach him a lesson with his fists’.

Gary’s persona, Bellos suggests, was largely fixed in London in 1943, when to be a Free Frenchman, a gallant Pole, a fighting Russian and an RAF officer, all in one, was to embody the defence of civilisation, as well as being effective in securing patriotic one-night stands. For Gary the whole point of being French was that one could have multiple hyphenate identities without being any less so. All the same, it isn’t easy to read his biggest sellers today without wondering about the elaborate distancing of Jewish material. The Conradian apparatus with the Jesuit and the colonial administrator that’s wrapped clumsily around the central story of The Roots of Heaven is one example. Exhibit A, however, is Promise at Dawn, a Jewish-mother story which contains hardly any references to being Jewish – or ‘more or less Jewish’, as the young Gary puts it. He comes out with the phrase because his mother – who isn’t at all religious but occasionally speaks of God ‘in a way that showed a certain bourgeois respect for somebody who had “made good”’ – is trying to drag him into a church to pray he’ll do well as a student. ‘That has nothing to do with it,’ she snaps. It turns out that she knows the priest: ‘My mother believed in the importance of good personal contacts, even in her dealings with the Almighty.’

Promise at Dawn – which Gary, as John Markham Beach, translated into English in 1961, adding new passages as he went along – tells the story of his childhood in Vilnius and Warsaw, his coming of age in Nice, and his adventures in England and Africa during the war. It’s organised around the conceit that his achievements as a writer, diplomat, aviator and, we’re given to understand, philanderer all spring from his being, at heart, a mother’s boy. The promise of the title is his mother’s fixed belief that her son is destined for fame. In France, she tells him, he will become ‘a d’Annunzio, a Victor Hugo, a Nobel Prize winner’, and an ambassador who has his suits made in London. When the war comes, she’s certain he’ll cover himself in glory, and her letters, filled with stirring generalities, sustain his fighting spirit. But there’s a twist. In 1944 he returns to Nice in a splendid uniform to find that his mother had died of natural causes soon after the fall of France: the letters were written en bloc and left with a friend in Switzerland, who sent them off at suitable intervals. His successes have tasted of ashes ever since.

It’s a suitably tearjerking ending, and, not very surprisingly, it isn’t really true. In reality he heard about her death soon after it happened and the posthumous letters are a fiction. There are other fictioneering touches: he calls his mother Nina, for example, instead of Mina – probably, his biographers agree, to make her sound less Eastern European and/or less Jewish. His first marriage, to Lesley Blanch, author of The Wilder Shores of Love (1954), whom he met in London in 1944, isn’t mentioned, perhaps because it doesn’t fit with his frequent complaints – or boasts – that his mother’s fierce love spoiled him for other women, or perhaps because, by the time he was writing, it fitted them all too well. (Blanch put up with his hyperactive extramarital sex life, having interests in that direction herself, but the relationship foundered in the 1950s over the way his hands, ‘confronted by any practical demand, flapped helplessly like fins attached to his wrists’.) More mysteriously, Gary writes that he hardly knew his unnamed father, who ‘left us almost immediately after I was born’ and later died of fright at the entrance to a German gas chamber. Arieh-Leib Kacew was shot, along with his second family, and Gary’s parents didn’t separate until he was 11 or so.

But Promise at Dawn isn’t offered as a work of strict veracity. It’s made clear from the outset that the reader is in the hands of a raconteur who has road-tested each anecdote – or, in one instance, lifted it from Gogol – and understands the need to keep film producers interested. There’s a fair amount of roundabout bragging, done with a comic touch. His proudest achievement, he says repeatedly, is winning a table tennis tournament in 1932. He paints a memorable portrait of his mother, who on her first appearance upends a classic scene – the boy’s painful discovery, at 13, that she has been starving herself in order to feed him properly – by comforting him with an offer of a Gauloise: ‘She had encouraged me to smoke since I was 12.’ Later she works out that her adolescent son has been pawning household items to pay for visits to a local brothel. A ‘look of pride and triumph’ spreads over her face.

Here and there Gary hints that his mother’s aspirations compensate for dingier realities. Her tales of a glamorous life on the Russian stage, a moneylender sneers, aren’t true: ‘When I first knew her, she was singing in third-rate vodka joints and soldiers’ dives.’ In Poland a nasty boy even calls her an ‘ex-cocotte’. But the pose, the performance, is what’s important, just as it is for her son when he gets down to the work of becoming a famous French writer. He acquires a dressing gown ‘of ample proportions, modelled on the one which had already made a great literary reputation for Balzac’, and spends weeks agonising over possible pen names: François Mermonts or Lucien Brulard, Romain de Roncevaux or Hubert de la Vallée? (He doesn’t say how or why he settled on Romain Gary, and his biographers haven’t solved the mystery.)

Romain Gary was a name of sorts in the US in the 1960s, and in the UK his work circulated in orange Penguins and movie tie-in editions. (‘Only Sophia Loren was woman enough to play Lady L. in the film of Romain Gary’s exuberant novel.’) But the current effort to refloat him in the English-speaking world isn’t made easier by his peculiarities. Some of these are stylistic: the Ajar books, which depend on wordplay and mordantly doctored clichés, need an imaginative, interventionist translator. Ralph Manheim, who did an English version of The Life before Us in 1978, was too grand to take advice on roughening up the text from a pipsqueak like Ajar, and since then only Bellos has risen to the challenge, with a free rendering of Pseudo as Hocus Bogus (2010). Though Gary wrote English well and checked over translations of his writings, they don’t always read well now.

Then there’s his racial and sexual politics. Gary deplored racism, but his satirical gestures depended on turning its tropes inside out in a way that might well have the same sort of effect that Charlie Hebdo cartoons do on contemporary Anglophone audiences. The Roots of Heaven is equivocal, too, about the desirability of decolonisation: as Bellos points out, Gary’s job at the UN was to keep motions about decolonisation off the table. The result was speeches like this, addressed in his mind by Saint-Denis to Waïtari, a black former deputy to the National Assembly:

Monsieur le Député, I’ve always yearned to be a black man, to have a black man’s soul, a black man’s laughter. You know why? Because I thought you were different from us. Yes, I thought you were something special, something different on this sad earth of ours. I wanted to escape with you from the white man’s hollow materialism, from his lack of faith, his humble and frustrated sexuality, from his lack of joy, of laughter, of magic, of faith in the richness of after-life … from all the things people like you, Monsieur le Député, are daily injecting in the black man’s soul.

And so on. As for Gary’s women, they claim ‘you can’t judge men by their sexual behaviour,’ or, in another version, ‘by what they do when they take off their pants. For their really filthy tricks they dress up – they even put on uniforms, flags and decorations.’ Like his quips in Promise at Dawn about whether or not he has an Oedipus complex (of course not, he says: in fact, I like young girls, ‘and I am sorry to add that this tendency has grown stronger in me as I grow older’), these lines have not improved with age. Gary once had to exercise diplomatic immunity after getting arrested in the US for crossing a state line with a teenage prostitute in his car, and animals, mothers, prostitutes and motherly former prostitutes often serve as the love objects in his writing.

The main difficulty, however, is that his books can sometimes seem more impressive as component parts of a giant system of motifs and displacements than as individual works. In Pour Sganarelle (1965), a rambling treatise on the art of the novel, Gary claimed that the task of fiction was to absorb not just the reader but the writer, so that the novelist became a creation of his or her text. Pour Sganarelle, Bellos cheerfully concedes, is a ‘ragbag of opinionated bunkum’, but it isn’t completely fanciful to picture Gary’s output as a sort of Borgesian master-fiction in which a succession of selves – Romain Gary and Emile Ajar chief among them – assemble themselves. Those selves appear to write best when they’re fluid. When he isn’t sure who he’s being today – Jew, post-Catholic or Muslim, dutiful Gaullist or scalding Russian satirist, louche celebrity or precocious little boy – Gary’s evasions can still bring his dusty bestsellers to life, lights blinking, subtexts whirring.

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