Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik (2017) Original French title: Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre.

In 2017, two novelists published a novel about Romain Gary and his childhood in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The first one was Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik and the second one was A Certain Mr Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I have read both and already wrote a billet about the Désérable.

And now it’s time to discuss Romain Gary Goes to War, a biographical novel where Laurent Seksik imagines twenty-four hours in the life of young Romain Gary in his last year in Wilno. There is no accurate information about these events, nothing precise enough to lead a journalistic enquiry. The only things we know came from Gary and he was an unreliable narrator of his own past.

Seksik imagines these moments and we need to keep this in mind while we read his novel.

During the first part of the book, we’re on January 26th, 1925. Romain Gary was still named Roman Kacew. He’s almost eleven and living in the Jewish ghetto of Wilno. His father Arieh Kacew is a furrier by trade. He has just left his wife Mina and his son Roman to go and live with his pregnant mistress. Mina is thinking about emigrating to France. She’s barely scraping by and she wants more for her son.

January 26th is when Arieh plucks up the courage to tell his son that he’s going to be a father. This destroys any hope that young Roman could have had to see his parents reunited. It also means less money for Mina and him. Seksik makes up a believable Arieh, someone who wanted a serene domestic life and couldn’t live with Mina anymore. He wanted a gentle journey through life and she was a roller-coaster. Under Seksik’s pen, Mina comes to life, a character with a strong personality, someone difficult to live with, someone larger than life and consistent with the way Gary portrays her in Promise at Dawn.

Seksik gives life to the ghetto in Wilno, conjures up Roman’s extended family on his father’s side. They were religious, contrary to Mina. He shows us an intelligent young boy who wants to be close to his father, who lives with a formidable and trying mother whose moods are unpredictable. He pictures a young boy who’s clever, shy, in love with a classmate and tries to navigate in his current stormy waters.

On January 27th, 1925 Mina’s hat chop closes down. She’s bankrupt and she now has nothing to lose. She needs to start over. Her decision is made, emigration it will be and her son will be a great man.

The epilogue of the book is set in Wilno in 1943. The Jerusalem of the East that counted 60 000 Jews in 1941 has only a few thousands now. The Nazis have destroyed the ghetto and assassinated its inhabitants. Roman Kacew has lost his family.

Seksik recreates two days that will be decisive in young Roman’s future. He’s losing his father, his mother loses her business and he’s going to lose his quotidian.

From a literary point of view, I don’t think that Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre brings much. The style is fine but not brilliant and even if lots of details sound accurate, the inner thoughts of the characters are pure imagination. It is a good book to get a feeling of where Gary came from and also to deconstruct the myth he built around his father’s identity. All his life, he wanted the world to believe that he was a hidden son of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. His biographs demonstrated that it was not possible. He had repudiated Arieh Kacew, either because he wasn’t flamboyant enough or to avoid thinking and talking about his assassination by the Nazis.

Seksik takes time to describe Wilno, its ghetto and the Ashkenazi Jewish community’s everyday life. It’s like a reportage with virtual reality showing you a reconstruction of the pyramids or Pompei. And this part was interesting because it takes the reader into Gary’s world and it helps to understand his work. I thought about this book when I reread The Kites a few months later.

It’s remarkable to see that a few months after Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre went out, François-Henri Désérable published Un certain Monsieur Piekielny. Both books are about Gary’s childhood in Wilno. Both books are a way to remember what happened in Wilno, how a whole community was exterminated, how the Nazis changed this city forever. It was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

Out of the two books, the Désérable is the definitely the best. It’s more elegant, deeper with a delicate lightness. It’s more moving in the sense that the connection between the reader and the book is more emotional. The parts between his actual search for M. Piekielny and the ones where his imagination wanders are more clearly cut. Seksik’s books gives us to see Wilno and young Roman but it doesn’t say anything about his relationship with Gary’s literature. Désérable writes a mix between an enquiry, a personal quest and an ode to a man who is part of our literary Pantheon.

  1. July 22, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Interesting review! I’m cautious about biographical fiction – there’s so much of it about nowadays, and it seems to vary vastly in quality. Some I’ve really not liked, but oddly Julian Barnes’ take on Shostakovich rang very true for me. I guess the key is what you say: always remembering that this is an imagined fiction.

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    • July 22, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      I’m cautious about them too. But how can I resist a book like this about Romain Gary?

      It’s a pleasant read but I wondered what it really brought. Not a real biography; not a real non-fiction book either.
      The only real thing it brings is rememberance of all these innocent people who were just living their small lives and who were killed in the name of an inhuman idealogy. It gives them a voice, even if it’s not the main goal of this book. It also shows the reader that Gary really came from a different background than a classic French childhood.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. July 23, 2018 at 5:10 am

    Yes, I’m cautious about fictionalised lives too. But as you say, Gary was such an enigmatic figure, he would be irresistible to an author, I reckon…

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    • July 23, 2018 at 7:41 am

      He put fiction in his own life and yes, he’s a wonderful starting point for another writer. Seksik grew up in Nice, where Gary spent his youth when he arrived in France.

      Liked by 1 person

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