Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”
More than other kids my age, I was aware of world events, especially the anti-colonial struggle sweeping the third world at the time. I vividly remember media reports of bombs going off in the French Algerian war. So it was that I was already tuned into the issues of the book. Gary took on themes that were to become of significant social importance in the future, including the environment and race relations. In Los Angeles he became a full-blown celebrity, writing articles for, among others, Life Magazine, and appearing often on television in both France and the U.S. As we shall see, this fame was exactly what he later sought to escape.
In 1945 Gary won the Prix de Critiques for his novel A European Education about anti-Nazi resistance movements. In 1974 his book Cuddles, a strange tale involving a python in a Paris apartment, was nominated for the Renaudot prize, awarded to a first novel by a new writer. It was only eligible because it was written under Gary’s secret pseudonym, Émile Ajar. He anonymously withdrew it from the contest in order not to deceive the judges. By the time he wrote Hocus Bogus in 1976, Gary had been intensely criticized by younger people who labeled him a Gaullist, part of the old, tired establishment. He was caught in the ironic dilemma of having taken a pseudonym to hide from the celebrity he had worked so hard to achieve.
Life Before Us became the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century and was also nominated for the Prix Goncourt, a prize that may not be awarded to an author more than once in his/her lifetime. Gary, of course, had already won for The Roots of Heaven. He was well aware that because of his deception, other nominees might be deprived of their chance to win. In an extremely convoluted series of events he threw the reporters, who were desperately searching for the author of this book, onto the track of his cousin Paul Pavlowitch. They had no choice but to believe that Pavlowitch, like the first person protagonist of Hocus Bogus, suffered from mental illness, which served to further confuse everyone. This was exactly what Gary had intended. The book did win the prize and was accepted by Pavlowitch. Even after the truth of its authorship was revealed, many reporters as well as academics refused to believe it, so convincing was the hoax.
Hocus Bogus is the false (but actually true) confession of Gary admitting to be Ajar, and an extremely clever critique of the literary critics. The ambiguous protagonist—Gary? Ajar? Pavlowitch?—believes he is a paranoid schizophrenic who confuses his personal paranoia with the world situations of the mid 1970s. This book is of particular interest to me because of my own schizophrenia. My whole life is involved in dealing with this debilitating condition, and yet, because I am intelligent enough to hide my disability, I am often put in the ironic dilemma of educating my friends and family as to its nature and severity. I also relate to Hocus Bogus in that I am often tortured by inner questions about my personal identity, feeling alternately that I am the only thing that exists, and that I do not exist at all.
To me, Romain Gary will remain a hero of humanist literature, not only because of what he wrote but also because of the life he lived.