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Wednesdays with Romain Gary – Part eleven

March 26, 2014 4 comments

La Tête coupable (1968) English title: The Guilty Head.

Gary_LecturesLa Tête coupable is the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume, Pour Sganarelle, is an essay about novels, novelists and literature in general. The second one is La danse de Gengis Cohn and you can read my sloppy billet about it here. The last one is La Tête coupable. It’s out of print in English but you can get really cheap used copies online. I haven’t read Pour Sganarelle — yes, there are some Garys I haven’t read. Regular readers know I’m not good at reading essays, so it’s not a surprise that this one is on the shelf, unread.
I have read La Tête coupable a very long time ago. We find again the character Cohn. He’s now living in Tahiti under the protection of Bizien, the Napoleon of tourism. He apparently lives a peaceful life with a Tahitian woman. Sometimes he cons people into paying a Gauguin tax, surfing on the guilt the island feels towards the painter. As I’m browsing through the book, picking paragraphs here and there, I can feel the energy of Gary’s writing, his fantasy. I don’t remember the plot but it sure sounds totally crazy with snippets of insight about the world’s affairs. It’s hard not to think about William Somerset Maugham.
Cohn is a cynic and a picaro. Sganarelle is a character of the comedia dell arte and a famous facetious valet in Molière’s plays. Gary is going towards comedy there but as always he uses humour and laughter to cover his traces. Cohn is a histrion with a sad side.

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to desensitise himself.

Or:

Un cynique (…) est en général un homme très vulnérable qui tuerait père et mère pour essayer de se désensibiliser.

A cynic (…) is usually a very vulnerable man who would kill his own father and mother to try to keep himself from feeling. (Translation reviewed by Erik Mc Donald.)

The first one is my translation, I wanted to keep the verb “desensitise”. In French, “se désensibiliser” is not really used in the sense Gary uses it. It’s a medical term. He applies it to emotions. I wanted to keep it because it represents Gary’s ways with the French language. Using a word in a close but in a different meaning and always surrounded by other words that make its new use sound perfectly natural. It brings wit in the text and also a lightness that contradicts the seriousness of the message.
Shuffling through the pages of La Tête coupable, one word comes to my mind: déjanté. That’s the word for a special brand of French craziness for which I still haven’t found an equivalent in the English language. Feel free to throw ideas around.

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