Romain Gary, born Romain Kacew (8 May 1914 - 2 December 1980) was a French novelist, film director, WWII pilot and diplomat. He wrote under many pseudonyms including Shatan Bogat, Rene Deville and Fosco Sinibaldi. He is the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice, once under his own name and again under the pseudonym Émile Ajar.
- When a war is won, it's the losers, not the winners, who are liberated.
- Tulipe (1946)
- Disease-carrying thoughts swarm and multiply in the dark and twisted labyrinths of our minds, and all that is needed is a mob and a good political slogan for the epidemic to be spread once again, with a burst of automatic weapons or a mushroom cloud.
- I sat day after day in my little room, waiting for inspiration to visit me, trying to invent a pseudonym that would express, in a combination of noble and striking sounds, our dream of artistic achievement, a pen name grand enough to compensate for my own feeling of insecurity and helplessness at the idea of everything my mother expected from me.
- Promise at Dawn (1960) as quoted in "Great Pretenders" by Emma Garman in Tablet (31 October 2007)
- A writer’s subconscious is one of the filthiest places there are: as a matter of fact, you can find the whole world there.
- The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1967)
- There is more to Jewish history than Auschwitz.
- Interview (1970), republished in Le Judaïsme n’est pas une Question de Sang [Judaism Isn’t About Blood] (2008) by Les éditions de l’Herne, as quoted in "A Chameleon on Show" in Forward (12 January 2011)
- Gari in Russian means "burn!"… I want to test myself, a trial by fire, so that my I is burned off.
- La Nuit Sera Calme [The Night Will Be Calm] (1974)
- During the war he was an airman and slaughtered civilians from on high.
- Pseudo (1976)
- The gossip that came back to me from fashionable dinners where people pitied poor Romain Gary, who must be a little sad, a little jealous of the meteoric rise in the literary firmament of his cousin Emile Ajar… I’ve had a lot of fun. Good-bye, and thank you.
- The Life and Death of Émile Ajar (1980), an essay written prior to his suicide, as quoted in "Romain Gary: A Short Biography" by Madeleine Schwartz, at The Harvard Advocate
- Humour is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man's superiority to all that befalls him.
- As quoted in The Harper Book of Quotations (1993) by Robert I. Fitzhenry, p. 223
- The bombs I dropped on Germany between 1940 and 1944 maybe killed a Rilke or a Goethe or a Hölderin in his cradle. And yes, of course, if it had to be done over, I would do it again. Hitler had condemned us to kill. Not even the most just causes are ever innocent.
- As quoted in Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2003) by Tzvetan Todorov, p. 217
Quotes about Gary
- Alphabetized by author
- Gary’s life was shaped by war, revolution, emigration, anti-Semitism, defeat, and murderous low-altitude bombing runs. But he never wallowed in victimhood – quite the contrary. He wrote scathing satires of the victim syndrome, and never claimed that his changes of country and language were anything but opportunities to be someone else.
He didn’t need to know whether he was Russian, or Jewish, or Polish, or Catholic, or French. In a questionnaire on ethnic identity he would have answered: all of the above. Gary is a good model for our own century of transnational lives.
- In 1966, Gary and Seberg visited the memorial of the Warsaw ghetto, in the city where he’d lived as a child for several years before moving to France. This confrontation with the trauma of history — a horror he narrowly avoided — was overwhelming. Gary hallucinated the arm of a hidden Jew emerging from a sewer grill shaking its fist, and fainted from the shock. When he came to, some combination of survivor’s guilt and righteous anger was conceived, taking shape in The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1967) — a breathtakingly original, hilarious, and complex exploration of Gary as a man, an author, and a Jew.
Genghis (né Moishe) Cohn, a comedian from Berlin imprisoned in Auschwitz, exposes his bare bottom to Schatz, the SS officer who kills him, and instructs him to “Kush mire in toques.” (Opines Cohn’s ghost: “There have undoubtedly been more worthy and noble last words in history than ‘Kiss my ass,’ but I have never made any claim to greatness and, besides, I’m quite pleased with my effort…”).
- Emma Garman, in "Great Pretenders" in Tablet (31 October 2007)
- Too famous for his work to be judged without bias, Gary felt he needed to break free from categorization. So, in 1973, at age 59 — the same age his mother was when she died — Gary invented Émile Ajar. He was by then twice divorced, retired from the diplomatic corps, and had published 22 books, including the Goncourt-winning The Roots of Heaven (1956), about illegal elephant poaching in Africa. It was time for a new adventure, as he explains in The Life and Death of Émile Ajar: “I was tired of being nothing but myself…there was the nostalgia for one’s youth, for one’s debut, for one’s renewal…. I was profoundly affected by the oldest protean temptation of man: that of multiplicity.” … events turned downright farcical. The Life Before Us was awarded the 1975 Prix Goncourt, the rules of which stipulate that it may be awarded to an author just once in his lifetime, and Gary had already received it for The Roots of Heaven. He instructed Ajar’s lawyer to turn down the honor on her client’s behalf, but the prize administrators would hear nothing of it. “The Goncourt Prize cannot be accepted or refused any more than life and death. Mr. Ajar remains the laureate.”
- Emma Garman, in "Great Pretenders" in Tablet (31 October 2007)
- Beyond Gary’s creative mendacity, one aspect of his life was indubitably genuine. After Germany invaded France, Gary escaped to London, where he became a war hero, serving as a fearless bomber pilot for the Free French Forces. Flying missions even when recuperating from battle wounds, Gary fought a feisty personal, even visceral battle against the Nazis (in one interview, Gary described himself as “testicularly anti-racist”) that was a concrete reality in a life devoted to more amorphous artistry, and his wartime loyalties remained a permanent obsession.
- When it counted, Gary was ultimately accurate, as when he left a suicide note in 1980, explaining that he decided to end his life because he had written all he wished to write and not because his estranged and tormented ex-wife, film star Jean Seberg, had committed suicide a year earlier.
Yet such basic home truths in Gary’s life and work can be obscured by his prose style and grandiose, self-mythifying persona. The Dance of Genghis Cohn itself demonstrates Gary’s paradoxical approach of using, as Bellos observes, “vulgarity and coruscating wit to defeat the greatest obscenity of 20th-century history, the slaughter of the Jews by Nazi Germany.” The novel’s protagonist (a blend of Mongol and Jewish, as Gary himself claimed to be), murdered by the Nazis in 1943, becomes a dybbuk in the mind of his executioner. The victim/protagonist forces his murderer to sing songs redolent of Yiddishkeit, like “My Yiddishe Mama.”
Such burlesque ironies, painted with broad brushstrokes in a popular novel published one year before the release of Mel Brooks’s film The Producers, demonstrated the comic potential of ridiculing Hitler, but offended some readers in France, notably a critic from the weekly news magazine L’Express, who termed The Dance of Genghis Cohn an “affront to the memory of those who died at Auschwitz.” Forty-five years on, readers and critics are relishing the same pitilessly absurdist authorial voice, describing savage and coarse events of modern history in the savage and coarse terms that so troubled Gary’s readers when his books first appeared decades ago.
- Benjamin Ivry, in "A Chameleon on Show" in Forward (12 January 2011)
- In 1975, Emile Ajar's second novel, La Vie devant soi, was a French literary sensation. The fictionalised memoir of an Arab boy growing up in a Parisian suburb, packed with extraordinary slang, aggressive jokes and almost unbelievable characters, the book was lathered with praise by critics, eventually winning the Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Booker. It went on to become the bestselling French novel of the 20th century. There was only one problem: Ajar was actually Roman Gary, already a bestselling French author (and previous winner of the Goncourt, which is supposed to be awarded to any particular writer only once), who had reinvented himself to outwit the literary establishment and win a new readership.
- By the time Romain Gary shot himself in the head, the French-Russian writer had published over fifty novels under four different names, directed two movies, fought in the air force, and represented France as a consul. His marriages — first to the British writer Lesley Branch, then to the American actress Jean Seberg — had brought him celebrity. He had enmeshed some of France’s literary giants in an elaborate hoax that broke fundamental precepts of the country’s cultural institutions.
But Gary always saw his own life as a series of incomplete drafts. Even as he planned his own death, he remained on the path to self-improvement. “To renew myself, to relive, to be someone else, was always the great temptation of my existence,” read the essay he left with his suicide note. It’s perhaps no surprise that biographies of the author often seem overwhelmed by the slippery nature of their subject. “Romain Gary: The Chameleon,” “Romain Gary: The Man who Sold his Shadow.” Gary was one of France’s most successful writers, but he lived the life of a spy.
- Madeleine Schwartz, in "Romain Gary: A Short Biography" at The Harvard Advocate