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America, Switzerland, Outer Mongolia and Italy

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Ski Bum by Romain Gary

Anyone who knows me a little, be it in my flesh and blood form or under my Bookaroundthecorner alias, is aware that I’m a Romain Gary fan. Right. Today, I was stuck at home by snow, somehow it seemed the appropriate day to read The Ski Bum. As a coincidence, I was reading Romain Gary again 30 years after he killed himself, almost to the day. (He died on December 2nd 1980).

The Ski Bum opens with Lenny, an American ski bum, who flew from America to Switzerland. Lenny is looking for oblivion. He wants to fall into oblivion not to be sent to Vietnam. He skies into oblivion to run away from himself. He does his best to avoid speaking, thinking and feeling.

You must never feel too sure of yourself and imagine there’s no danger around. Emotions. Love. Tenderness. Life propaganda, that’s what it was. You had to watch it all the time. You fall for that and then life goes important on you.”

So Switzerland is interesting in many ways: it’s a neutral country, the ski experience is fantastic and he can avoid conversation since he neither speaks French or Schweitzerdeutsch. Lenny usually stays in a chalet belonging to Bug Moran and makes a living as a women ski instructor — with benefits. A perfect place to be, except when the snow melts. And now, the snow is gone and so are the ski tourists.

There was nowhere to go. No snow. It was summer. There was no getting away from it. They were stranded in Bug Monran’s chalet on the rocks like fish on the sand. Summer. The worst thing that can hit a guy.”

He is called in for a mysterious job that his employer thinks will suit him. Lenny doesn’t care to ask what it is about because “It simply didn’t matter to a bum what he did below six thousand feet” and hunger makes him go down to Geneva and take that job.

Down in Geneva lives Jess Donahue, the daughter of the American Consul. She is completely broke too and her father Alan is in rehab, for alcoholism. Like Lenny, Jess tries to run away from herself but she uses different means. She works for the local SPCA clinic, protests against all sorts of injustice in the world. She’s thinking about joining a kibbutz or the Peace Corps. She studies literature and is vaguely fancying the idea of writing a book entitled The Quality of Despair. She is just as lost as Lenny except than she has to take care of her father.

As a diplomat, Alan has CC plates for his car, which means his car is never searched through when he crosses a border. And that’s what interests Lenny’s employer, Ange. He needs to carry gold from France to a cosy Switzerland bank. As Lenny is a good-looking American and a womaniser, he is supposed to seduce Jess and find a way to cross the border with a valise full of gold.

But things won’t happen exactly as planned.

Lenny has a particular voice. He uses vocabulary in a very special and personal way. He dropped out of school at 14 and is almost illiterate. Concepts and words get confused in his head and his speach becomes facetious.  Jess is quite the opposite, very literate, all in brain. The narration alternates from Lenny to Jess, even inside a given chapter. The reader follows their thoughts and sees the scenes in both points of views and realises that they try to fool each other but neither of them achieves their goal. The way they speak tells more about who they are than many pages of psychological analysis.

Romain Gary put some autobiographical details in Alan’s character. Alan’s life overlaps Gary’s career as a diplomat. Alan is an alcoholic because of his job, Jess thinks.

“Her father still had idealism, though it was 1963 and his first crack-up could be traced to the hanging of Stravrov in Bulgaria, in 1947: he had personally assured the Agrarian Liberals that the USA, who were at that time members of the Allied Control Commission, would never allow the suppression of the democratic opposition. He had been given no instructions whatsoever to make such a commitment, he was merely acting out of deep understanding of everything his country stood for. Fatal”

This is a tragic event that actually took place when Gary was a French diplomat in Sofia. There are fascinating thoughts about what it is to be a diplomat in non-democratic countries, knowing what happens to the people and then get acquainted with the executioners in cocktail parties.

The characters around Lenny and Jess are peculiar, sometimes nuts. In the beginning of the novel, Gary describes the crowd of the bums living in Bug Moran’s chalet. It’s very funny. Jess’ friends are weird too. Thoughts about art, literature, politics ans society are spread in the novel, filling the romance with interesting issues or amusing comments.

“Albert Camus, prophet of the absurd, getting killed in an absurd automobile crash, which proves he was wrong and that there is some inner logic in life.”

I like Lenny and Jess, I always have. I like them for their fragility and their way to play the tough guys when they’re all soft.

Romain Gary wrote The Ski Bum in 1964, in English and that’s the book I’ve been reading today. It’s out of print now but I found a used copy on Amazon. I thought Gary translated it in French later, but in fact, he did more than that, he re-wrote it in 1968. The French version is entitled Adieu Gary Cooper as Lenny reminds people of Gary Cooper. I have read the French version several times and I have favourite quotes in it. I was a bit disappointed not to find them again in the English version. The French version is a lot better, less cheesy and a lot more poetic, funny and witty. Clearly, Gary was more at ease with writing in French than in English. The story is the same but the language, the thoughts and descriptions are superior in French. So if his Anglophone biographer David Bellos, who is also a translator from French, could translate Adieu Gary Cooper in English, it would be perfect.

  1. December 2, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    This sounds like it would make a great film, but then my mind works that way.

    How many of his books have you read? I checked at wikipedia and there was a long bibliography.


    • December 2, 2010 at 9:01 pm

      Yes, it could be a great film. Oddly, I’ve never been tempted to watch the film versions of his books. I’d like to see White Dog, though. Have your seen it?

      How many of his books have I read? Well, according to my book shelves, about 20. Plus a biography. And the book his former British wife Lesley Blanch wrote about him. And the one written by Nancy Huston, who’s a great fan too. And the one his son wrote about himself and his life with his father. I have paperback editions, hardcovers when the book is not in paperback, and used hardcovers of books I already have in paperback, all printed at the time the book was published.
      I’m a maniac, I know…


  2. December 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    I think I only read La vie devant soi. Such a brilliant book. I think he is a fascinating character. Writing under two names, in two languages, rewriting his books. That’s actually very interesting that he re-wrote and did not translate it. A tragic figure as well.


    • December 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm

      His life is a novel in itself.
      Immigrant, Jew, resistant, aviator, diplomat, film-maker and last but not least, writer. He is fascinating. His style has this Jewish sense of humour I like so much and such poetry. He has something that really resonates in me.


  3. December 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Book Around the Corner: From the little I read, it certainly sounds like a fascinating life. No, I haven’t seen the film. Why did he commit suicide?


    • December 3, 2010 at 9:44 pm

      He left a note that said :
      “D Day
      Nothing to do with Jean Seberg. The enthusiasts of broken hearts should look somewhere else.
      It could be due to a nervous breakdown. But then you would have to admit it dates back to the time I became a man and that it allowed me to accomplish my literary work.
      Then why? Perhaps the answer lays in the title of my autobiographical piece “The Night Shall Be Still” and in the last words of my last novel: “because I couldn’t say it better”. Eventually, I have expressed myself fully”

      He was convinced that “La vérité meurt jeune” (“Truth dies early”). He was ageing and he couldn’t stand it. He thought his best work was behind him. Ageing also meant losing physical and sexual capacities, and I suspect that was unbearable to him.

      His suicide was well thought. Every practical detail was taken care of. His son Alexandre was 17 in 1980. Gary took the precaution to emancipate him before committing suicide, so that he shall be free to do what he wanted. His mother Jean Seberg had passed away in 1979. In his book, S. ou l’Espérance de vie, Alexandre Gary leads the reader into thinking that his father killed himself because Jean Seberg was dead. Not because he couldn’t stand the pain but because she was unbalanced and he was now sure not to let his son alone with her.


  4. December 5, 2010 at 12:20 am

    Thanks. It sounds as though he’d considered it heavily since he emancipated his son beforehand.


    • December 5, 2010 at 10:38 am

      Yes. He had also left instructions about who should make the decision to reveal he was Emile Ajar.
      This is not a rock star suicide due to drug/alcohol abuse.


  5. December 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Fascinating. I have never HEARD of this writer so its a bit of a revelation to discover someone so well known who had slipped beneath my radar


  6. ale
    March 25, 2011 at 1:55 am

    bookaroundthecorner you are my last hope.
    I live in Italy and the search of this novel is really driving me crazy.It’s impossible to find.I searched everywhere for mounths.
    I ask you if you know a website where I can find it or somethingelse.
    It’s such a despair not be able to read its.
    If you can help me,I would be very grateful.


  7. December 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    More about the Gary/Ajar affair here


  8. November 10, 2012 at 10:17 am
  1. January 15, 2014 at 7:31 am
  2. June 24, 2018 at 6:05 pm

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