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Literarilly fantastic

November 21, 2013 24 comments

Gros Câlin by Romain Gary. 1974 (excellent year)

Something literarilly fantastic happened to me today. I’m in Paris on business and this morning, as I was walking in the metro, my new purple scarf snaked around my neck, distractedly looking at the advertisements on the walls, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at this:

gros_calin333

New visitors of these blogs don’t know what it means. Copinautes know pretty well that I was ecstatic: a novel by Romain Gary, made into a play! I HAD to see that. My previous experiences with Gary on stage were all excellent. I’ve already seen Gary/Ajar where Christophe Malavoy impersonated Gary telling his life. The text was adapted from souvenirs by André Asseo, Gary’s friend from high school. Jacques Gamblin also read Gary on stage, using the texts of his fake interviews gathered in La nuit sera calme and I’m not quite recovered from the disappointment of missing this one. La vie devant soi (Life Before Us) has been made into a very successful play with Myriam Boyer as Madame Rosa. And the theatre version of La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) was a delight to see. Romain Gary might be unknown in the Anglophone literary world, but in France he keeps interesting readers and theatre directors. And his texts bear the stage adaptation very well.

I wrote a billet about Gros Câlin (literally “Big Hug” or “Big cuddle”) as we read it with our book club in 2011. It is the story of M. Cousin who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a python named Gros Câlin. This is the first novel Gary wrote under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. Cousin describes his life with his python and it’s both hilarious and sad. It’s comical because Cousin sees life through distorting glasses. He’s fond of his python because he loves to be hugged by Gros Câlin, it helps for his desperate case of loneliness. M. Cousin is in love with his colleague Mlle Dreyfus and he explains their interactions in the office in the middle of his dissertation about pythons and the anecdotes about his life with Gros Câlin.

The play version is faithful to the novel. Jean-Quentin Châtelain played a convincing Cousin. His playful tone put forward all the fun of the text, showed how crazy Cousin is sometimes. He never crossed the fatal border of farce. He managed to be pathetic when Cousin is and he let us know that behind that façade of craziness was hidden a troubled and lonely man. In the novel, there’s an episode when the python goes to the apartment below by slipping into the toilet pipe and caused a fright to the neighbour by accidentally brushing against her bottom while she was using the toilet. When Châtelain told this on stage, the whole audience was shaking with laughter.

The setting was sober, made with mosaic tiles that reminded me of the skin of a snake. The lights were well used, not too much. It’s a challenge for the actor: he’s alone on stage and leads the show during 1:30 hour. Impressive. As good as the actor and the direction were, the real star is Romain Gary himself and his wonderful way of playing with the French language. It’s unique and he reinvented himself when he wrote under the name of Emile Ajar. M. Cousin is Gary’s imaginary relative. He plays with words. He slips, twists the grammar, speaks in riddles, uses one word for the other and yet keeps the sentence intelligible.

Chien Blanc starts with Gary watching a python in the Los Angeles zoo and interacting with it. I wonder if Gros Câlin stemmed from this observation or if the choice of a python has something to do with Gary’s love for the Monty Python.

If you can read in French, Gros Câlin is worth a try. I exited the theatre with a huge grin on my face and an ache in my jaw muscles due to laughing out loud so much. My next billet will be about Victor who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Kiev with a penguin. He doesn’t have a Miss Dreyfus to dream about but he has a Nina in his life. And Nina was the name of Gary’s extraordinary mother, the heroin of La Promesse de l’aube. La boucle est bouclée.

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