Magazine article The Spectator

'The Kites', by Romain Gary, Translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Kites', by Romain Gary, Translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Review

Article excerpt

When Romain Gary, a courageous and much decorated pilot in the RAF's Free French squadron, was presented to the Queen Mother shortly after the second world war and asked about his background he apparently chose to remain silent. 'Pour ne pas compliquer les choses,' was his own version of the one-sided exchange.

Gary, born Roman Kacew to Jewish parents probably in Vilna in 1914 and educated in Nice where he was taken as a teenager by his ambitious actress mother, was constantly re-inventing himself. In 1945, any explanation of how he had ended up in London, a captain, after his 1939 application to become a commissioned officer in the French army had been turned down, and how he had helped land a plane when the pilot had become temporarily blinded, would have seemed unbelievable. Yet Gary's decision not to even try to explain was far from unusual, even for those without his fame or glamour. How people managed to survive in France during the four long years of Nazi occupation was complicated and painful for almost everyone. Many French chose to move on with their lives without giving further details of how they spent the war years.

The occupation and its aftermath is fertile territory for a novelist and Gary, who had initially trained as a lawyer and after the war became a diplomat with posts in Bulgaria, Switzerland and the United Nations, used it for many of his bestselling books. In 1956 he was appointed French Consul General in Los Angeles, (aka the French ambassador to Hollywood), until he asked the Foreign Ministry to place him on the 'inactive list' so that he could pursue other interests.

Although he twice won the Prix Goncourt -- the second time was under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, which broke the rules -- as a novelist he is all but forgotten today. Among his 30 or so novels his most famous is probably the fictional autobiography, Promise at Dawn, filmed again in 2017 with Charlotte Gainsbourg. Gary is best remembered for his daring exploits and glamorous marriages, first to the writer Lesley Blanch, which ended in divorce in 1961, and second to the actress Jean Seberg, with whom he had one son, Alexandre.

The Kites was Gary's last novel, published in French in 1980, and he poured much of himself into it. Yet surprisingly this is the first translation into English and Miranda Richmond Mouillot, an American and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who settled in France, has succeeded brilliantly in ensuring the story works today as a fast-paced account of how the four years of German occupation affected one village in Normandy. …

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