By the time Romain Gary shot himself in the head, the French-Russian writer had published over fifty novels under four different names, directed two movies, fought in the air force, and represented France as a consul. His marriages—first to the British writer Lesley Branch, then to the American actress Jean Seberg—had brought him celebrity. He had enmeshed some of France’s literary giants in an elaborate hoax that broke fundamental precepts of the country’s cultural institutions.
But Gary always saw his own life as a series of incomplete drafts. Even as he planned his own death, he remained on the path to self-improvement. “To renew myself, to relive, to be someone else, was always the great temptation of my existence,” read the essay he left with his suicide note. It’s perhaps no surprise that biographies of the author often seem overwhelmed by the slippery nature of their subject. “Romain Gary: The Chameleon,” “Romain Gary: The Man who Sold his Shadow.” Gary was one of France’s most successful writers, but he lived the life of a spy.
Roman Kacew was born in 1914, perhaps in Moscow but just as likely in Kursk, a small city near modern-day Turkey. His mother was poor and Jewish, an outcast in the Russian Empire. He never knew his father; the name Kacew came from a second marriage. From a young age, the boy began inventing stories about his heritage. He decided before the age of ten that he came from greatness: his father was really the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine, with whom he shared a fierce stare.
Kurksk didn’t last long. Next came Vilnius, then Warsaw, then Nice in southern France. Moving was tough for Kacew, who was scrawny and had to learn new languages fast. It was worse for his mother, a former actress who worked as a maid to support her son. She was driven to prove her son’s greatness. In each new town, she pushed the young boy to find his passion—dance, music, theater—always leaving open the possibility that he might write.
Looking back on his childhood in his semi-autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn, the writer would later paint this search for a passion as a search for a public identity. The question of a pseudonym runs through the novel. Even as his mother exhorts her son to impress his French peers, she asks that he tailor his work to their expectations. “‘We have to find you a pseudonym,’ [my mother] said sternly. ‘A great French writer cannot have a Russian name. If you were a virtuoso violinist, it would be great, but, for a titan of French literature, it just won’t do.’”
The name Romain Gary came to him while he was defending the country in the air force. Romain was just the French version of what he already had; Gary was a new flavor. In Russian, it means “burn,” and it’s a command in the imperative. He knew it best from gypsy love songs. “Gari, gari… burn, burn my love.” His colleagues began to call him Romain, then just Gary, which they often took for his first name. Gary Cooper was a popular figure in wartime France.
After the war, Gary became French secretary to the United Nations, then General Consul in Los Angeles. He was well-polished and a good public speaker. Pictures from the period show him hand-feeding elephants or looking thoughtfully through a mansion window. One has him signing books, dressed in a navy military uniform.
It was in Los Angeles that he met Seberg. She had just finished filming Breathless under the direction of Jean Godard. He had just turned forty-five and was getting bored with his marriage to Lesley Branch. At his wife’s suggestion, he began to date the actress as a means of distraction. But Seberg soon became pregnant, and Gary left one woman for the other. They were a public item—the pair dined with the Kennedys and with General Charles de Gaulle. She entertained as the beautiful actress, while he, acting the part of the expatriate intellectual, always showcased his refinement.
A reporter eating dinner with the couple described Gary as the Pygmalion to Miss Seberg’s Galatea. “‘You should see what I gave her to read,’ Gary began. “‘Pushkin, Dostoevski, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert...’” “‘Madame Bovary!’” Jean sang out. “‘That could have been me if I had stayed in Marshalltown one day longer.’” Gary may have seemed a little eccentric. But still he was a talented diplomat: he could make any young American see her life reflected in the French canon.
Gary was slowly infiltrating this canon. His novels, published under the official name, met with instant success. A European Education was acclaimed by its 1945 audience; Jean-Paul Sartre speculated that it might be the first great novel about the Second World War. By 1956, Gary had achieved France’s highest literary honor. His novel, The Roots of Heaven, won the Prix Goncourt, an award given annually to the best novel written in French.
As Gary rose in fame, his marriage began to wear. A rumor surfaced that Seberg had slept with a member of the Black Panther group and was now carrying his child. The actress became depressed; she was found on a tropical beach half-dead after an attempted suicide. By the time Seberg gave birth to Gary’s child, the two had already agreed to separate. A few months earlier, Gary had discovered Seberg was having an affair with Clint Eastwood and asked for a divorce. It’s said that he first challenged the actor to a duel.
Emile Ajar was a ruse. Romain Gary had been “classified, catalogued, taken for granted” by the critics, which, to the author, precluded them from taking his work seriously. Emile Ajar, however, was relevant and fresh. He was a Franco-Algerian medical student living in Brazil in order to avoid charges of terrorism. And Ajar’s first novel seemed to offer the novelty it promised. Loosely translated as Cuddles in English, Gros-Calin tells the story of a statistician who falls in love with his pet python. It is a touching, humorous book, and only a few critics discerned that certain lines echoed Gary novels.
Ajar’s next was even better, said the critics. Madame Rosa (Life Before Us) seemed to seamlessly bring together all of France’s post-war worries. The earnest account of an Arab boy living with his Jewish foster mother, an obese Holocaust survivor, touched on guilt, immigration, and French identity. To the discerning reader, The Life Before Us might have seemed a rewrite of Gary’s Promise at Dawn, with the attention now shifted to another boy-mother pair. To France’s literary elite, it was worthy of its own Goncourt. Ajar’s own ambiguous identity made the prize all the more important. The name was neither definitely Jewish nor definitely Arab, which, to critics, tinged the political narrative with an uncertainty. By uncovering the author’s true identity, France might earn insight into the book’s meaning.
Emile Ajar was carefully planned. Gary would send manuscripts to his son Diego, who, like the supposed Emile Ajar, was living in Brazil. Diego would then send them to the publishers in Paris. Only Seberg, Diego, and a couple of close friends could claim to know Ajar. But the Goncourt prize made the scheme difficult to hold up. The recipient of France’s highest literary honor can’t just hide out across the Atlantic—the secret had to be divulged. Before the ceremony, a revelation was released to the press: Paul Pawlovitch, Romain Gary’s distant cousin, had written the books. As a decoy for the writer, Pawlovitch accepted the prize and moved into Gary’s apartment building, where he and Gary continued forging papers and preparing speeches for Emile Ajar.
They were successful—even when Gary revealed himself to be Ajar in his suicide note, several critics refused to believe it. After all, they had made a place for Ajar in their own pantheon. “Ajar marks the revolt against the literature of our daddies; Ajar is the anti-cliché combatant,” wrote one critic. In France, The Life Before Us is the highest selling novel of the twentieth century.
When the ten members of the Academy Goncourt come together to discuss books, they’re self-consciously making history. On the second Monday of each month, some of France’s foremost writers and critics meet in a private room on the second floor of an elegant restaurant. There, they talk about the state of French writing and survey the country’s talent. The search for the best novel of the year pauses in August, when the group splits for vacation. Academy rules are strict—one book a year, and the award can be given to any author only one time. It’s been that way since 1902, when Jules and Edmond Goncourt founded a prize to celebrate French prose.
The room has hardly changed. I ate there once, on my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. The “Salon Goncourt” is shaped like an egg and lined with pictures of momentous gatherings. When you close the large wooden doors, you can’t hear a noise above the clinking of silverware on porcelain plates.
This was the institution against which Gary was writing. It was insular and back-scratching and he hated it. “Outside Paris there is no trace of that pathetic little will to power,” he wrote. So as he conformed to French standards, he was also chipping away at them. He had integrated himself into the country’s cultural monolith only to gnaw at it.
Romain Gary spent much of his existence inventing secrets, but at the end of his life he was very clear. As he prepared to kill himself in 1980, he wrote in an essay:
“And the gossip that came back to me from fashionable dinners where people pitied poor Romain Gary, who must be a little sad, a little jealous of the meteoric rise in the literary firmament of his cousin Emile Ajar…
I’ve had a lot of fun. Good-bye, and thank you.”