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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Patricia Duncker
Romain Gary: A Tall Story
By David Bellos (Harvill Secker 497pp £30)
Where's Gary?

The root of the word 'pseudonym' is 'pseudos', which means a lie. Romain Gary (1914-80) acted out his life and published his writing via a welter of pseudonyms. He called himself Shatan Bogat, René Deville, Fosco Sinibaldi (after Count Fosco in The Woman in White, a novel he adored), John Markham Beach and, most famously, Emile Ajar. Why use a pseudonym? Always, or almost always, it means you have something to hide. Many eighteenth-century novels were published anonymously, but to publish as Anon, as Jane Austen did in her lifetime, is not the same thing as adopting another identity or gender different from your own. George Eliot could be a respectable clergyman whereas Marian Evans was a public scandal, and the careful sexual ambiguity of some contemporary writers - J K Rowling, A L Kennedy, A S Byatt - suggests that being read as a woman is still perceived as a disadvantage.

Gary's problem was literary success. Writing as Romain Gary he became a bestselling author in France and the Anglo-Saxon countries, translating his own work and writing both in French and in English, during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. He won the Prix des Critiques in 1945 for his first novel Education européenne (A European Education ), and the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1956 for Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven ). Towards the end of his life he reinvented himself as Emile Ajar and sent the manuscript of Gros-Câlin (French publication 1974) to his publishers, arranging for the work to be sent from Brazil. The book was shortlisted for the Renaudot Prize for first-time novelists. Gary, in an honourable panic, withdrew the book from all prize competitions, and actually hired his cousin's son, Paul Pavlowitch, to pretend to be Emile Ajar. However, Emile Ajar's second novel, and arguably Gary's masterpiece, La Vie devant soi (Life Before Us , 1975), won the Goncourt. A writer can only win the Goncourt once. Gary was trapped. His response, when accused of using a pseudonym, was to lie outright and produce a very effective smokescreen in the form of a fictitious confession, Pseudo (1976), translated this year by David Bellos as Hocus Bogus (Yale University Press 224pp £16.99). In it Gary claimed to be writing as Paul Pavlowitch, aka Emile Ajar, a deranged genius suffering from schizophrenia. Gary retreated once more into anonymous hiding. As he wrote in 1979 in his moving confession The Life and Death of Emile Ajar (published posthumously after his suicide in 1980; Bellos helpfully prints Barbara Wright's translation at the end of Hocus Bogus): 'I was tired of being nothing but myself ... (and) of the Romain Gary image I had been stuck with once and for all during the previous thirty years'.

Roman Kacew, a Russian Jew born in Wilno (now Vilnius in Lithuania) in 1914, had in fact lived many lives and perpetually reinvented both himself and his texts. Bellos, in his compelling and sympathetic biography, pursues the elusive author through his many incarnations. The reader will be grateful for the careful bibliography, clearly a masterpiece of detective investigation, and the numerous tables, indicating dates, titles, translations, variations and films, that Bellos provides. Gary's work, like the Europe where he began, was always in flux. Bellos acknowledges his debt to Gary's previous biographers, in particular Myriam Anissimov, who significantly subtitled her biography 'le cameléon'. Gary escaped in 1928 to Nice with his mother from what was by then Polish Vilna, and thus he commenced his long love affair with all things French. The many lives of Romain Gary included heroic wartime service as an airman in de Gaulle's Free French forces, a postwar career as a diplomat, life as a celebrity author, two marriages (one to actress Jean Seberg, which led him to Hollywood and a career in cinema), wealth, fame, more heterosexual sex than most of us can imagine, and eventual disillusionment with the literary establishment.

His experience with the 'Lorraine' squadron really was his finest hour. At last Gary belonged to a group where identity and origins were irrelevant. Many of the Free French airmen used pseudonyms to protect their families in Occupied France. Many were also Jews. Their heroic fight, in defence of the humanist ideals to which Gary subscribed with all his heart, formed the basis of his finest novels.

Bellos doesn't flinch from revealing the contradictory and unpleasant aspects of Gary's sexual appetites. He wolfed down women in a manner that would be startling even for the most assiduous sexual liberationist; and he liked prostitutes and very young girls, both erotic figures in his fiction. Gary's humanist solidarity simply didn't extend to one half of the human race. It is a damning failure of the imagination, one he shares with many other writers.

Some of the most fascinating parts of this biography explore Gary's writing methods. He wrote fast and illegibly on messy scattered sheets and then dictated his books to secretaries, with whom he frequently had sex to get himself going. He hardly ever corrected what he wrote. Bellos points out that the two novels rewarded with the Goncourt are both representations of spoken narratives. Gary himself denied that he actually had a literary style: 'I think I have no real talent, just a way of telling a story.' His main literary influences remained the classics of his adolescent reading: Dickens, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Fenimore Cooper, Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, and odder middlebrow writers such as Karl May. Storytelling, and retelling old stories, are both central to his method. The endless rewriting and translating of his own texts meant that there is no such thing as a stable, original text by Romain Gary, only endless translations, copies and repetitions. At the level of the text, Emile Ajar is very recognisably a product of Romain Gary, a fact that went unnoticed by most of the Parisian literary establishment.

Gary's story is one of a Jew who survived the twentieth century. Bellos makes a good fist of retelling the history of that century as it touched Gary's life in condensed and significant passages, such as his analysis of de Gaulle's mythic power to keep the ideal of France alive, even in defeat. These micro-historical narratives set Gary's gift for fantastic self-invention in an intelligible context. His optimistic humanism was a product of 'the quality of despair' - one of his key phrases - that left him only that desperate hope. The word 'humain' in French contains both the meanings human and humane. Gary had to believe that we are capable of accepting the stranger in our midst as one of our own; that we will, one day, become 'humain'. La Vie devant soi , the moving story of an affectionate love between a young Arab boy and an old Jewish woman, is still in print, easily available in any large French supermarket. The publishers print both names on the cover: Romain Gary and Emile Ajar. As both authors wrote in Hocus Bogus: 'Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction.' He certainly did.

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Patricia Duncker's latest novels are Miss Webster and Chérif (2006) and The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge (2010), both from Bloomsbury.