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Life is a serious matter because of its futility

November 19, 2011 30 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and creativity, Gary published Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (In English, Your ticket is no longer valid), the story of an ageing man in love with a young woman and who experiences erection troubles.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?

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