Life and literature

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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 Unpublished manuscripts including the one of his first novel, written at 17, were displayed.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said in an interview that he intends to respect his father’s will, as he explicitly wrote on this manuscript it should not be published.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.

  1. December 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    What a great opportunity to see the display of one of your favourite authors. Was there anything there unexpected or anything that changed your view of this author?


    • December 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm

      Anything unexpected ? The language thing. Of course I knew he could speak several languages (French, German, English, Russian at least) but not that he wrote so much in English or that he switched between two languages inside a letter.

      Nothing changed my view of him. I enjoyed seeing the manuscripts and I think his son is really respectful in his way to manage his inheritance.


  2. December 17, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I like to hear anything mentioning “my town” and makes me want to go soon. This is not one of the museums I know. Unless I am very intersted in an author I wouldn’t want to stare at his handwriting. Different for artists as they often include drawings. It’s an interesting post. I like what you write about his use of language. Sounds like me… But he isn’t a “true” bi-/trilingual in the sense of speaking several languages since his childhood? He acquired them later? Same for our English, I guess. What would the opposite of Esperanto be like? I like every writer that pays attention to words and notices that some words, even though they have the same meaning in two languages, feel different in another.
    I saw I have his La promesse de l’aube (I got La vie devant soi but I read it already). Did you like that?


    • December 17, 2010 at 9:08 am

      Seeing the manuscripts is like watching the drawings of a painter: it’s the process of his creation.
      Romain Gary was a true trilingual of Russian/Polish/Yiddish. These were the languages spoken around him. He started to learn French when he was 5 or 6, since his mother had in mind to emigrate to France. You know there were important Russian communities in France (Paris and Nice I think) after the revolution in Russia.

      At the museum, I bought a book of essays written by different authors about one of Gary’s books. Nancy Huston, who is an Anglophone Canadian and lives in France, also experiences the switch of languages. She chose to compare the two versions of La Danse de Gengis Cohn, the one in French and the one in English, both written by Gary. She noticed the same thing as me on The Ski Bum, that I reviewed earlier this month. She explains that Gary was re-writing the books to adapt to the references of his readers, so that they could better understand what he wanted to say. I may write a post about this because it overlaps with an article I’ve just seen on Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary.

      At my tiny level – of course I can’t compare to him – I experience this switch of language too. When I write a post in English, I think in English. I shut out the French. I try to find the right English word to express a thought or a feeling about a book. Sometimes it’s difficult because my vocabulary is limited. When I can’t find the right word, I wonder how I would express this thought or this feeling in French. And only then I look for the English word in the dictionary and choose the one that seems the most appropriate. Then I check the translation in the English-French dictionary, to be sure that I find again the initial French word. (Am I clear?)
      With all this book blogging in English, I have now difficulties to talk about books in French. For example, I start to say “publisher” instead of “éditeur”. I even mix “faux-amis” words in the opposite way. Like saying ‘librairie’ instead of ‘bibliothèque’. It’s crazy.
      But English is a language I can “feel”, I can’t explain this properly. I’ve never felt this with German. I even bought a English-German dictionary when I was in lycée, because I needed to translate things in English to find the German. Especially to pick the right word between “durch, für, gegen, ohne, usw…”

      By the opposite of Esperanto, he meant a language she would be the only one to understand, a language only existing for their love.

      La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) is a beautiful book. I was about to say it’s THE book to start reading Gary but no, I would make different recommendations according to the person asking for it. I don’t know you and haven’t been reading your blog for long but I think you’ll like La Promesse de l’Aube. It’s the one I would have recommended you to read.


  3. December 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    That is fascinating. I wasn’t ware of his slavic lineage or had forgotten.
    I always had an affinity for English and can’t remember a time I dind’t talk it. It is almost the only language I use at present (work and private). German is not as precise as English, sentences are complicated and the vocabulary is rather poor compared to English. (And yes, you were clear).
    I realize this now while reading Sebald. I looked at the English translation as someone asked me how it was (dicrepancies on the first pages already). The flow of the sentences is easier in English.
    I am a huge Nancy Huston fan by the way. I think I might like La Promesse de l’aube, not sure when I will get to it. My blog doesn’t reflect my tastes so well. My time is so limited I often choose according to length and I loose patience with longer books (I still haven’t finished Anna Karenina that I started 1 year ago) and don’t explore the work of one writer like I used to either. (I loved reading everything from one author like Virginia Woolf or Jean Rhys)


    • December 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

      I’ve always had difficulties to remember German vocabulary. And the genders aren’t the same as in French, which is disturbing. (and at the same time showing that gender is just a convention). Plus that thing of putting the verb at the end of the sentence is difficult, you need to know your whole sentence before speaking.
      English suits my mind because it seems more malleable than French. Yes, the vocabulary is very rich. To think they even have a verb like “to elope” to describe that situation is incredible. You need a whole sentence in French to say what “to elope” means. I wish I could speak English better than I do and I’m not improving as fast as I’d wish to. But speaking French at home and working in French doesn’t help.
      Gary used to say he wanted to twist French and take with the French syntax the same liberties as what is possible with Russian. Apparently Russian is malleable too. The last book I’ve read (Roman avec Cocaïne — excellent–) was translated from Russian and the translator also indicated that characteristic of the Russian language. I think that’s why Gary is still read — and now studied at school, I hope that will not kill him — compared to other famous writers of his time. His language was not ‘proper’ at the time — some critics killed some his books for this — but it doesn’t sound outdated now.

      Have you read La Virevolte by Nancy Huston ? If you have, I’d be interested to read your thoughts about it. (there’s a review on my blog)


  4. December 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I starte to learn Russian but I am lacking time, it would need more than a few minutes here and there. Still something I would like to do. I want to learn Swedish now as it is such a mix, should be fairly easy and one could read Norwegian and Danish literature as well. Great, no? German can be a nuisance. I think that is why English readers rave about Sebald (yes, again, I am sorry)… They should read him in German… Not sure he’d still be such a success in the blogging world. You really have to twist your head around his sentences. It took me 70 pages until I could ready him fluently and German is probably the language I master best.
    You are doing great. I don’t think many would think you don’t write in your native tongue. I haven’t read La Virevolte, am not even sure I got it. I read L’empreinte de l’ange and another one, forgot the name…I wanted to read le Cantique des plaines…


  5. December 22, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Yes, this is of interest to anyone who likes to see the development of a writer’s work. When you get close to original manuscripts you feel close to the writer as his hand touched the page and held the pen. I have never read Romain Gary though – I am not even sure that I have heard of him before


    • December 22, 2010 at 9:45 am

      I was also interested in the correspondance with his publisher (Gallimard) regarding book titles. For Promise at Dawn, he asked to Gallimard if he agreed with Promise at Dawn and said he should answer quickly, since he (Gary) would need to include a passage in the book to explain the title to the reader.
      You’re right, it’s moving to think his hand touched the page and held the pen. Writers currently typing everything from the start should think about that ! Their future readers will never have the opportunity to feel that connection.


  6. December 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    Discover Romain Gary, read Litlove’s post here


  1. November 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm
  2. June 24, 2018 at 6:04 pm

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