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Life and literature

December 16, 2010 12 comments

Romain Gary committed suicide on December 2, 1980. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his death, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits organises an exhibition entitled “Romain Gary, from The Roots of Heaven to Life Before Us” Of course, I had to see it and thankfully my job requires regular visits to the Parisian headquarters of the company I work for. Turning the mandatory discomfort of being away from home into an opportunity has become my motto.

 I had never been to this museum, located Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris 7ème. It is coincidentally located very close from the 108 rue du Bac, where Gary used to live from 1963 until his death. I also paid a visit to his street.

 The exhibition has been organised with the help of Gary’s only son Alexandre Diego. Personal letters were showed. Unpublished manuscripts including the one of his first novel, written at 17, were displayed. Alexandre Gary said in an interview that he intends to respect his father’s will, as he explicitly wrote on this manuscript it should not be published.

I found really moving to see the pell-mell pictures Romain Gary had in his office. I enjoyed discovering the covers of the first editions of his books, in their English or French version. Most of them were published in English, before or at the same time as in French.

Some manuscripts were written in English and then translated and rewritten in French. I knew for The Ski Bum but not for Education Européenne, published in 1945 after a first English version – Forest of Anger – had been published in London in 1944.

It says :

To the question “How long have you been writing? In which language?”, Romain Gary used to answer:

“Do you know the story of the chameleon? You put it on a blue carpet, it turns blue; you put it on a yellow carpet, it turns yellow; on a red carpet, it turns red; you put it on a tartan carpet, it goes mad. I didn’t go mad, I became a writer. My first colour has been Russia, then, after the Revolution, it has been Poland, where I stayed 6 years. Then it has been the South of France, the lycée in Nice, the aviation, 10 years in Ajaccio, 15 years as a diplomat, 10 years in America, bilingual French-English, press correspondent… Voilà. I am the chameleon who never exploded.”

I was particularly impressed by the constant switch of languages he was doing. For example, there was a love letter to Christel Kriland in 1937:

Je voudrais [] te dire des mots qui n’ont jamais servi. Je voudrais inventer une langue spéciale pour te parler, quelque chose comme le contraire de l’esperanto. I wish I could tell you words that were never used. I would like to invent a special language to talk to you, something like the opposite of Esperanto.

Then it goes on in German, with French words in a parenthesis. I’m not fluent enough in German to understand the rest of the letter, unfortunately. This letter is interesting because it shows what aim he will have in writing: to create a language of his own. Characters have their voice, defined by the very way they choose and arrange words in their sentences.

The manuscripts were written in an urging handwriting, most of the time in rather big and incomprehensible letters. It gave me the impression that writing was a flow, that the hand had a hard time running at the same pace as his mind and that he was not a man who desperately contemplated a white page until he wrote the perfect word. To be honest, the reader can feel this burst of life in his novels and regret it sometimes, as some sentences could have been cut off. 

It was fascinating to see the genesis of the novels, like watching the drawings a painter made as studies before a major painting.

I wonder if what I just wrote is of any interest to anyone but me. Anyway. I had a lovely moment there, one of those ‘out-of-time’ moments when you set aside every day routine and do something for yourself only.

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