Magazine article The Spectator

His Own Best Invention

Magazine article The Spectator

His Own Best Invention

Article excerpt

Romain Gary: A Tall Story

by David Bellos

Harvill Secker, £30, pp. 518,

ISBN 9781843431701

Just as it will sometimes happen that a critic feels obliged to preface a review with a declaration of interest, so I should now declare a lack of interest. Prior to being commissioned to review David Bellos's heroically well-researched and hugely entertaining biography, I confess I had never managed to finish one of Romain Gary's books.

When I lived in Paris in the 1970s Gary was in fact my near neighbour. A conspicuous figure around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, 'disguised as himself', as Bellos phrases it, flashily tanned, resembling in his flamboyant black-leather outfits a cross between a plumper Dali and the clownish caricature of a Mexican dictator, the thick dye of his improbable jet-black hair and moustache visible from the far side of the boulevard, a committed Gaullist to boot, which didn't help in the post-1968 years, he had about his person an aura of glossy sleaze, if you'll pardon the oxymoron.

And his novels? Yes, they were regular bestsellers, had been (mostly atrociously) filmed - The Roots of Heaven by John Huston, Lady L by Peter Ustinov - and twice won the Goncourt (the second time illegitimately, of which more later). But one didn't read them. One would not have been seen dead reading them. Nobody read them.

Except, of course, the public.

Such an admission may make me seem snobbish and elitist, but even Bellos, confronting his subject's lamentably prolific output, has frequent recourse to qualifiers like 'kitschy' and 'middlebrow'. So much so that one initially cannot help wondering what could have attracted him in the first place: he is, after all, best known as the translator of Georges Perec, a writer with whom Gary had, save his Jewishness, absolutely nothing in common.

Or had he? Wittgenstein wrote somewhere that, on the profoundest level, differences resemble each other more than similarities do, and it becomes increasingly obvious that what fascinated Bellos was the degree to which both writers sacrificed themselves to the cult of literary games-playing. On everything he wrote the Oulipian Perec imposed the grid of a rigorously adhered-to linguistic constraint (notably, the lipogrammatic e-less-ese of La Disparition), while the Olympian Gary carried matters just as far in the reverse direction, systematically emancipating himself from most of the conventional codes and pieties to which the writer as public figure is expected to pay at least lip-service. …

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