Home > 1970, 20th Century, Book Club, French Literature, Gary, Romain, Novel, Translation Tragedy > Life is a serious matter because of its futility

Life is a serious matter because of its futility

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar) 1974. Not translated into English, alas…

Gros Câlin was published in 1974 and it is the first book by Emile Ajar. At the time, nobody knew it was Romain Gary’s pen name. I’d like to digress a bit and tell you about a famous French literary mystification. In the 1970s, Romain Gary was under the impression that journalists welcomed his books as the “new Gary” without really reading them. He decided to give himself a rebirth as a writer and created Emile Ajar. “Gary” comes from the Russian “Gari”, which means “burn” in the imperative form. “Ajar” means “embers”, also in Russian, a clue regarding the true identity of the writer. Only Gallimard knew.

At first Ajar remained hidden, which excited the curiosity of journalists and critics. When Ajar won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for La vie devant soi (Life Before Us), it became urgent that Emile Ajar met the press. Therefoe Gary asked his cousin Paul Pavlowitch to impersonate Emile Ajar. He will perfectly play his role and the truth will only be discovered when Gary committed suicide in 1980. In the meantime, everyone bought the lie. I watched a documentary about it lately and it was incredible. “Ajar” was invited in the most famous TV shows and the puppet Pavlowitch was soon out of control from his master’s hands. Gary was still publishing books under his own name at the time. While Ajar oozed youth and creativity, Gary published Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (In English, Your ticket is no longer valid), the story of an ageing man in love with a young woman and who experiences erection troubles. The critics saw Gary in that character; he sounded worn out when Ajar was full of vitality. Could they have guessed?

Back to the book.

Monsieur Cousin is the narrator of this rather plotless novel. He’s 37, a bachelor and lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Paris with a python named Gros Câlin, which means Big Cuddle. M. Cousin works as a statistician in some office. The acknowledged aim of his narration is to write a guide book about the life of pythons in Paris. Cousin looks a bit eccentric, old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous for the time, if we read how he is dressed.

Je me tenais là discrètement, avec mon petit chapeau, mon nœud papillon jaune à pois bleus, mon cache-nez et mon pardessus, très correctement habillé, veston, pantalon et tout, à cause des apparences et de la clandestinité. Dans un grand agglomérat comme Paris, avec dix millions au bas mot, il est très important de faire comme il faut et de présenter des apparences démographiques habituelles pour ne pas causer d’attroupement. I was standing there quietly, with my little hat, my yellow bow tie with blue dots, my comforter and my overcoat, very well dressed because of appearances and secrecy. In a big conglomeration like Paris, with at least ten millions, it is highly important to behave and to present the usual demographical appearances to avoid creating crowds.

He says his hair is scarce, blond and he has a banal face, one of those no one notices. The novel describes Cousin’s lonely life in a big city. He lacks of human interaction. He craves for human relationships. He tries to create bonds with neighbors, people on the metro, colleagues, and clients in cafés. Gary’s style is innovative and funny and it alleviates the sadness you feel for Cousin but his loneliness is nonetheless heartbreaking. M. Cousin is madly in love with his colleague Mademoiselle Dreyfus.

C’est une Noire de la Guyane française, comme son nom l’indique, Dreyfus, qui est là-bas très souvent adopté par les gens du cru, à cause de la gloire locale et pour encourager le tourisme. Le capitaine Dreyfus, qui n’était pas coupable, est resté là-bas cinq en au bagne à tort et à travers et son innocence a rejailli sur tout le monde. J’ai lu tout ce qu’on peut lire sur la Guyane quand on est amoureux et j’ai appris qu’il y a cinquante-deux familles noires qui ont adopté ce nom, à cause de la gloire nationale et du racisme aux armées en 1905. She’s a black woman from French Guyana, as her name Dreyfus shows it. There, native people often take this name, because of the local glory and to promote tourism. Capitaine Dreyfus, who wasn’t guilty, spent five nonsense years in the penal colony and his innocence reflected on everybody. I’ve read everything one can read about Guyana when one is in love and I learnt that fifty-two families chose this name because of national glory and racism in the army in 1905.

He interprets every move she makes as a mark of attention. He longs for their morning elevator rides that he imagines as travels. He has renamed every floor by the name of a country.

And what about the python? Gros Câlin is a medication against loneliness.

Lorsqu’on a besoin d’étreinte pour être comblé dans ses lacunes, autour des épaules surtout, et dans le creux des reins, et que vous prenez trop conscience des deux bras qui vous manquent, un python de deux mètres vingt fait merveille. Gros-Câlin est capable de m’étreindre ainsi pendant des heures et des heures. When you need a hug to fill your gaps, especially around the shoulders or in the small of you back, and when you really how much you miss two arms around you, a python of 2.2 meters long is marvelous. Gros-Câlin can hug me for hours and hours.

Gros Câlin hugs him tight and helps him fight his loneliness. Cousin becomes intriguing for other people and their curiosity brings them near him. Cousin has a problem though. Gros Câlin eats living mice. He bought a white mouse but he wasn’t able to feed Gros Câlin with her and he adopted her. She becomes Blondine. So now he worries sick that Gros Câlin might elect Blondine as his next meal. There’s a funny scene where Cousin meets a priest, Father Joseph and explains him his dilemma. He needs to feed Gros Câlin but can’t because he grows attached to the python’s food. Here’s the priest’s advice:

Achetez-en un tas, de souris. Vous les remarquerez moins. C’est parce que vous les prenez une à une que vous faites tellement attention. Ca devient personnel. Prenez-en un tas anonyme, ça vous fera beaucoup moins d’effet. Vous y regardez de trop près, ça individualise. Il est toujours plus difficile de tuer quelqu’un qu’on connaît. J’ai été aumônier pendant la guerre, je sais de quoi de parle. On tue beaucoup plus facilement de loin sans voir qui c’est, que de près. Les aviateurs, quand ils bombardent, ils sentent moins. Ils voient ça de très haut. Buy a lot of mice. You’ll notice them less. It’s because you take them one by one that you pay so much attention. It becomes personal. Take them in an anonymous bunch; it will affect you a lot less. You look at them too closely, it individualizes. It’s always more difficult to kill someone you know. I was a chaplain during the war; I know what I’m talking about. You kill more easily from afar without seeing who it is than when you’re close. The aviators, when they bomb, they feel less. They see it from far away.

When you know that Gary was in the RAF during WWII…

Then why a python? It’s company but it’s also a quest about humanity. For Gary, the humans aren’t finished; they haven’t reached the real degree that will entitle them to be called humans. It’s probably a way for Gary to swallow the inhuman horrors of the war. Pythons slough, they change of skin, and it’s a sort of rebirth. Something Gary burned to do. Something he was doing with Emile Ajar.

After reading Gros Câlin, I can’t help thinking that Gary was right to create Emile Ajar. Critics did not read his books attentively anymore. How did no one notice the likeness in the style between Gros Câlin and Adieu Gary Cooper? How come that nobody realized that all the Gary-ian themes are there, in the core of Gros Câlin. Fraternity, loneliness, love, WWII, the fondness for prostitutes and the endless question, “what does it mean to be human?” And the typical sense of humor. Gary considered himself as a Russian writer of French expression. The scene when Gros Câlin escapes the apartment through the toilet pipe and ends up tickling the neighbor’s bottom is absolutely hilarious, a taste of Gogol and his wandering nose.

The style is incredible, playful, innovative, funny, witty. M. Cousin misuses words and his speech becomes poetical and comic. It’s full of literary references used as casual expressions. They are not crutches, they are winks. M. Cousin will use phrases like the raw and the cooked, fruits of the earth, the confusion of feelings. Gary plays with Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Les affinités electives in French: C’est des sélectivités affectives, je veux dire des affinités électives. Then he talks about Gros Câlin’s intuitive affinities (affinités intuitives) A lot of vocabulary comes from economical words, extracted from papers that were full of the economic crisis of those years and also coming from Cousin’s profession. The coldness of the vocabulary enforces the feeling of numbers, of being no one is a big city. M. Cousin purposely uses words he doesn’t understand, thus creating funny effects. Sometimes Gary uses English turn of phrases:“C’est la dernière position qu’on a recours à, dans le yoga” instead of “C’est la dernière position à laquelle on a recourt dans le yoga”

It’s a delight; I have pages of quotes. And I’m very very frustrated that Gros Câlin hasn’t been translated into English. Can a publisher hire David Bellos to translate it? Really, it’s worth it and who could be more qualified for the job than Gary’s biographer and Perec’s translator? I’ll post a second entry after our book club meeting.

PS: Of course, I had to translate the quotes myself, and as I’m obviously not David Bellos, the translation does no justice to the original. The title of the post is a quote from the book.

PPS : What’s your favourite cover?

  1. November 19, 2011 at 4:25 am

    I’m going to have to read Gary. Sounds like quite a character. As for the covers, I dislike the one with the mouse. I prefer the third one as the snake is obviously a toy.


    • November 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Promise at Dawn is available in English and some others in used copies.


  2. November 19, 2011 at 9:38 am

    I like the second and the last best. The tone of some of the quotes immediately reminded me of La Vie devant Soi. If an author has this distinct a voice, an attentive reader should able to realize but on the other hand, another name… Why and how would you guess?
    It does sound like a very wonderful book, warm but still witty and complex with all the allusions.
    How big is the chance it will be translated?


    • November 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm

      Gros Câlin is the first Ajar.La vie devant soi is the second, published a year after.
      But Ajar sounds like Gary. Cousin and Lenny from Adieu Gary Cooper play the same game with vocabulary.


    • November 19, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      Tiny chance to be translated unless a small publisher becomes interested in it. I wish they stopped translating Madame Bovary again and again and publish Gary again


  3. November 20, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I wonder if there has been a misunderstanding reagardong Effi Briest. November 26 is “my readalong” The Silent Angel. Effi Briest stopped yesterday. That’s what I meant with last Saturday – of the readalong.


    • November 20, 2011 at 9:41 am

      Yes, I thought “last Saturday of the month”. That’s me not you. I’ve had trouble remembering the schedule of the German lit month.
      Well my review is half done, I’ll be late.
      Really I’m not good at reading on demand.


  4. November 20, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    After our meeting, here are the major thoughts about this book:

    – It is rather plotless, not a page-turner but a real pleasure for the quality of the style and the themes developed in the book. As the language is so peculiar, it took about 20-30 pages to get used to it and really enter into the novel.

    – It is full of humor, funny but bittersweet.

    – It would be difficult to translate into English as it is full of wordplays, innuendos, strange turn of phrases and re-use of words instead of others. This backs up my idea that the ideal translator is the one who translates Perec.

    – The python is an interesting choice of an animal. Usually, it’s considered by humans as a cold animal, not affectionate at all. The fact that Cousin finds comfort in a python proves him as lonely as possible. Even a python, the coldest animal, is better than nothing. In any case, Cousin seeks human connection at any cost. If being seen with a python creates human interaction with neighbors, passersby or colleague, that’s perfect. He needs friendship and Gros Câlin is an ersatz of friendship. One of us thought about Facebook and the misuse of the term “friendship” it creates. As Gros Câlin, it’s an illusion of friendship.

    – Something I haven’t mentioned in the review. Sometimes, there’s confusion between Cousin and Gros Câlin, Cousin speaking instead of the python. Does loneliness drives crazy?

    – It describes very well the anonymous life in Paris. It was written 37 years ago but Gary had already an acute vision of the general indifference of people in big cities. It’s a criticism of dehumanized life in Paris.

    – The book is incredibly sad but the style and the humor Gary put in it avoid useless pathos. It’s moving but not by pushing the usual emotional buttons of a reader.


  5. November 22, 2011 at 2:01 am

    I haven’t got round to this yet – I’m still stuck in a few other French novels, and well – it doesn’t exactly look like the easiest of French novels for a beginner like me – no simple plot or train of thought, not easy language. I shall certainly miss all the wordplay.

    I have read Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable, and it’s true, it does seem like an old man’s novel. Another thing I remember about ticket is that it’s about business – successful businessmen – society in a much wider sense – I seem to remember there was a lot about the North African community – and it’s not so much about the individual and his feelings, as young men tend to write about.


    • November 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

      I hope you’ll be fine anyway. Ask as many questions as you want about the language; you can contact me by e-mail. I know what it is to read in a foreign language.

      Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable is the first Gary I read. I was a seventeen year old girl, needless to say that the erection problems of a man of 60 were far far from my preoccupations. I fell in love with his writing with this book though. It is written from the point of view of an ageing man but you need to put the book in its context to better understand it:

      1) It was the economic crisis of 1973 and it was a shattering moment for France. We have no oil resources and the country was full of slogans to urge the population to save energy. (Chassez le gaspi, “chase waste”) Some major companies went bankrupt. The economy had to be reinvented.

      2) It was the MLF years (Mouvement de Libération de la Femme) i.e. feminist fights. It’s also the end of an era for relationships between men and women. Men had to find a new place, couples had to be reinvented too.

      3) Gary was ageing and he commmited suicide not to become an old man. (He died in 1980, he was 66). He was a womaniser and I guess that if he had the same erection problems as Rainer, it must have bothered him a great deal. There’s some truth in seeing Gary in Rainier.

      The combination of 1) and 2) challenged the vision the men of this generation had of their virility. The “erection problem” is a physical one for Rainier in his relationship with Laura but it’s also a mental one. It’s a symbol of the new way men had to see their manhood. What is amazing with Gary is that he managed to capture the changes in the society “live”, without the benefit of hindsight. (Chien Blanc is incredible for that too.)

      I think there is a lot about feelings in this book. There are beautiful passages about Rainer’s love for Laura and her love for him too. What charmed me are soft sentences such as “C’était un de ces bouquets de fleurs qui partent toujours à la recherche d’un coeur et qui ne trouvent qu’un vase”.


  6. November 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    At risk of making an invidious comparison, Stephen King at the height of his success became concerned that critics weren’t responding to his books but simply to his name. He started writing as Richard Bachman, slowly building a following under that name before being eventually exposed.

    I rather sympathise. King and Gary are obviously very different writers, but it’s fair for both to want their books assessed (for better or worse) on their merits rather than their authors’ respective fame.

    The interpretation of every move as a mark of attention is wonderfully obsessive. Placing so much weight on so little, on an elevator ride.

    The use of the python does sound interesting. That thorough yet impersonal hug, devoid of real affection. That ability to slough off an old skin in favour of a new.

    A shame then that it’s not available in English!


    • November 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm

      It’s all a question of image, isn’t it? It’s hard to fight against the image people have of you.
      It’s a real loss that it isn’t translated into English. I think you’d like it, Cousin would move you.


      • December 1, 2011 at 4:51 pm

        I shall have to start elsewhere with Gary clearly. Not that I’m getting any reading done at the moment at all. Work. Most frustrating.


        • December 1, 2011 at 4:54 pm

          For you, it should be Promise at Dawn.
          Have you tried audio books? You need less energy to listen than to read and since you commute everyday… There are free versions of classics online. For example, in French, you can find a lot of short-stories by Maupassant.


  7. December 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    I love music too so if I have time to listen but not read I listen to that. Promise at Dawn seems to be out of print, but available. I’ll track down a copy.


    • December 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      Look on Amazon US, they seem to have new and used copies.
      I don’t understand why they published Bellos’s bio of Gary last year and have the books out of print. Isn’t it obvious that you’d be interested in reading the novels if you read the bio??


  8. December 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Read more about Romain Gary : here’s Litlove entry


  9. Angie
    January 21, 2017 at 11:15 pm

    I read Gros Câlin when I was very young. My aunt had (and still has) an old copy of this book translated into Spanish and I didn’t have anything else to read on holidays here at Coronel, Concepción, Chile. I remember thinking it was a lot of fun and blushing here and there as kids do when they think they are reading something for adults only. I keep reading my favourites parts as years and holidays at my aunt’s passed by. Now, maybe 15 years later, I just decided on a whim I wanted to see if there was an ebook version to keep it on my kindle. Unluckly, it seems I’m going to keep borrowing it every year. I’m very glad I came across this entry, as I didn’t know a thing about the author’s life, that it’s interesting enough to search for more of his books. I’m dissapointed I didn’t google it sooner! It’s such a sad thing it wasn’t translated into English (I’m surprised it was translated into Spanish before that! though I suppose it was somehow easier to translate from French).
    As for the covers, I’m going to vote for the one it’s on my aunt’s copy: https://http2.mlstatic.com/cros-calin-emile-ajar-D_NQ_NP_1095-MLC4092030080_042013-F.webp
    (Sorry for any mistakes; as stated, English isn’t my mother tongue)


    • January 22, 2017 at 9:04 am

      Thanks a lot for your message. Did you check the Reading Romain Gary page and the “Wednesdays with Gary” category? There’s more about him there.

      Incidentally, I discovered Gary the same way you did: on holiday, one of his books was in the appartment my parents rented for the week. I didn’t know Gros Câlin had been translated into Spanish or even sold in Chile. Did you read anything else by him?
      I can see on Amazon Spain that La vida ante sí, Las Raíces Del Cielo and La promesa del alba are available. The three are good.

      Thanks for adding your cover, I love comparing covers from one country to the other.

      PS: no worries about mistakes while writing in English, English is not my mother tongue either. 🙂


  10. January 24, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    The only Romain Gary I’ve read is Hocus Bogus which he wrote as Emile Ajar. It’s very frustrating that they are mainly out of print (or in this case not translated). Definitely due a revival!


    • January 25, 2017 at 12:00 am

      Yes he is. I think you can find English copies of Promise at Dawn, Life Before Us and The Roots of Heaven.


  1. November 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm
  2. December 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm
  3. January 20, 2012 at 12:45 pm
  4. April 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm
  5. July 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm
  6. November 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm
  7. December 4, 2012 at 8:52 am
  8. November 21, 2013 at 12:10 am
  9. February 12, 2014 at 12:23 am

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