Literarilly fantastic

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment Go to 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:


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.

  1. November 21, 2013 at 2:23 am

    Have you noticed how often we both post on the same day?

    Anyway, I’m very happy for you that you got to see a play from your favourite author and that it was a good production too. I’m interested to see what you made of the Kurkov. I thin I’ve read 3 of this author and Penguin Lost was the best of the 3 IMO


    • November 21, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      Kindred spirits? It’s more and more difficult for me to post outside of weekends, bank holidays or vacation.

      I was so happy to be there at the right moment and to be able to find a ticket. I decided to go as soon as I saw the poster. You know how much I love going to the theatre.
      I enjoyed Penguin Lost. I was thinking about Gros Câlin and then I saw there was a play…Kismet.


  2. November 21, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Glad you had such a good time watching a play by one of your favorite authors, Emma, but I’m still jealous it’s you walking around Paris and not me! Oh, well. Hope you enjoy the rset of your visit.


    • November 21, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      I was walking around Paris for work, not so funny. I happened to have an evening free between two working days. That’s why I’m so grateful for this unexepected treat in the middle of my business trip.


  3. November 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Looking forward to hearing about the penguin before going with the python….


    • November 21, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      Well, you know Gros Câlin makes my list of favourite Gary books. It’s a unique one. You’re lucky, your French is fluent, you’ll be able to discover this wonderful tale if you’re willing.


  4. Brian Joseph
    November 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    It is really a nice experience to be surprised by a live adaption of a favorite work. This is true especially in light of the d=fact that these efforts often fall short.


    • November 21, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      Gary’s work is great on stage. His prose is made to be read out loud. It’s not spoken language but it has a musicality that goes well with acting.
      It reminded me just how wonderful a writer he was.


  5. November 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    This is so wonderful, Emma! You walk through the streets and suddenly discover that a book by your favourite writer has been adapted into a play and that play is happening now! How much better can life get 🙂 So glad to know that you enjoyed the play version of ‘Gros Câlin’. It is sad that Romain Gary’s works are hard to come by in English. I got his ‘Promise at Dawn’ after you recommended it. I am hoping to read it in December. I knew that it was about his mother, after I read the book’s blurb, but I didn’t know that she was the heroine of the book. I can’t wait to read it.


    • November 21, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Isn’t that wonderful? I couldn’t believe it! I’m sure people thought I was crazy to stare at the poster and take its picture. I passed the news to Delphine (the author of the blog Gary et moi) and she had also taken a picture of the poster. We’re like teenagers about a rock star. 🙂
      I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about Promise at Dawn. I’ve never heard anyone saying “I’ve read it and didn’t like it”


      • November 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm

        It is wonderful that Delphine also took the picture of the same poster! And her blog is called ‘Gary et moi’? Isn’t that awesome 🙂 I remember you gushing about ‘Promise at Dawn’. I know it is going to be awesome. I can’t wait to read it.


        • November 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm

          She’s got a special blog dedicated to Romain Gary. I really hope you’ll have a good time reading Promise at Dawn.


  6. November 23, 2013 at 9:29 am

    That’s such a lovely thing to happen and how great that it was up to your expectations.
    I should read Gary again one of these days.


    • November 23, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      It was amazing and it made my day. Lovely experience.


      • November 23, 2013 at 9:44 pm

        I wanted to ask you something – would Gros-Câlin cheer up someone who is very ill? It’s for my father and he liked La Vie Devant Soi. I’d like to send him a few books to cheer him up a bit.


        • November 23, 2013 at 10:55 pm

          I’d choose Promise at Dawn. Gros Câlin is funny but bittersweet. There’s a lot about loneliness in it. For the fun, the Malaussène series by Pennac is great if he hasn’t read them yet.


        • November 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm

          PS: I’m very sorry to hear that your father is unwell.


          • November 24, 2013 at 10:47 am

            Thank you, Emma. Yes, it’s sad.
            He has read Pennac but I don’t think he has any other Gary but la vie devant ski.


            • November 24, 2013 at 11:04 am

              Well then, I recommend
              – The Roots of Heaven
              – Chien Blanc.
              – Education européenne

              Avoid Clair de femme (about death), Lady L (very funny but about old age) and Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable.

              Les Enchanteurs could be distracting.
              L’homme à la colombe may suit him too. (satirical novel about the UNO)


              • November 24, 2013 at 11:28 am

                Thanks you so much.


              • November 24, 2013 at 11:44 am

                You’re welcome.

                Btw, 2014 will be the 100th anniversary of Gary’s birth. Born the year WWI started. Fought on the right side during WWII. First literary success with Education européenne, a book about war. Isn’t he “literature and war ‘readalong” compliant? 🙂


              • November 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm

                🙂 I’ll think about it but – in theory – the list for 2014 is finished. And it has to be translated . . .


              • November 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm

                Used copies in English are available on Amazon (US & UK)


  1. February 12, 2014 at 12:16 am

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