The life, death, and mythmaking of Romain Gary

As the 2007 Prix Goncourt announcement draws nigh, Emma Garman considers the tragic but exciting life of Romain Gary, the only writer to win the prestigious French literary award twice.

On December 2nd, 1980, Romain Gary lay down in his Paris apartment, a synagogue-size menorah at the foot of the bed, and put a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson in his mouth. Seconds later, the life of one of France’s most celebrated and prolific novelists — a decorated war hero, globe-trotting diplomat, and notorious lothario — was over. But this was more than suicide: It was the final act of mythmaking from a man preoccupied, above all, with manipulating the people and events in his life almost as deftly as those in his books.

“Immortal,” remarks Jeannot, the dictionary-obsessed narrator of King Solomon (1979) and one of Gary’s final alter egos. “There’s a word that always gives me pleasure.” The same sentiment is expressed more darkly in the autobiographical Promise at Dawn (1960): “The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul.”

Faustian collaboration being unavailable, Gary did the next best thing: He orchestrated the end of his life and its aftermath, leaving behind a note and instructions for the publication of The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, a confession of authorial subterfuge that revealed that the fêted young author Émile Ajar, recipient of the 1975 Prix Goncourt, was in fact Romain Gary, an out-of-vogue writer who had won the same illustrious prize 19 years earlier. With one bullet, French literature had lost two greats.

No trick! God’s treat is Jesus*

Just in time for Halloween, the Baltimore-Philly Poe war goes national.

True story: while the reporter was taping Helen McKenna-Uff and me at the Poe House last week we walked out the back door of the house and a black cat came slinking through Poe’s yard. Had an axe-wielding maniac followed on its heels, we would not have been surprised (hey, it is Philly).

This story is creepier if you’ve seen the false chimney (scroll down) in the cellar of that house.

Other seasonal links:

  • Stephany Aulenback, who’s been gearing up for Halloween at Crooked House, sent me the old “Telltale Heart” illlustration (above) and some other great Poe art that she found among the Dover Books Samplers.
  • Marla Carew writes: “Theresa Duncan, the Michigan born artist/blogger who committed suicide earlier in the year apparently set an automatic blog post to appear today (the Basil Rathbone dog story).”

* Finally, it wouldn’t be All Hallow’s Eve at if I didn’t post links to some Hallelujah Party snaps. (If you’re unfamiliar with this particular fundie Christian substitute for actual fun, go to the article that provided the title of this post.)

Fifteen seconds for In Search of Lost Time

A mid-November deadline looms, and between work and writing, I don’t have much steam left for books, email, or blogging. In fact, I’m at about 65% on the brain-deadness scale. Which translates into a whole lot of YouTube.

So while my mother-in-law, Jane, recently enjoyed all 3500 pages of In Search of Lost Time, then read a new biography of Proust’s mother, and now is halfway through Swann’s Way for the second time, the closest I’ve gotten to a masterwork lately is watching the All England Summarize Proust Competition. (Via the Rockslinga.)

You can read an excerpt from Madame Proust: A Biography here.

Paris Review interview extravaganza

In the Guardian last week, Orhan Pamuk recounted how, while writing his first novel, he read the Paris Review’s author interviews to bolster his own resolve.

When in 1977 in Istanbul I first read Faulkner in the Paris Review, I felt as elated as if I had stumbled on a sacred text. I was 25 years old, living with my mother in an apartment overlooking the Bosphorus, sitting in a back room, surrounded by books, chain-smoking, and struggling to finish my first novel. To write one’s first novel is not just to learn how to tell one’s own story as if it were someone else’s. It is at the same time to become a person who can imagine a novel from start to finish in a balanced way, who can express this dream in words and sentences. To become a novelist, I had dropped out of architectural school and shut myself up in a house. What sort of person should I now become?

“To read them again after so many years,” he says, “is to recall the hopes and anxieties of my early writing days.”

As promised, I’m giving away one copy of each volume. The random number generator will decide the winner from all the entries I receive between now and tonight (Tuesday, the 30th), 9 p.m., EST. Send email with “Paris Review giveaway” in the subject line to maud [at] maudnewton [dot] com, and include your mailing address. No previous winners, please awards the books to Demian Farnworth of Fairview Heights, IL.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the date in the subject line.

I look at the week this week and I think: blah, so I am dedicating this week’s edition instead to genteel misbehavior… The Surrealist in me wants one of these… “One sent a funeral wreath when she told him she didn’t love him.” That’s clever.… Let’s all “dwell in our own enchantment,” to paraphrase Ben Okri, and have another go next Monday… In the meantime, I’m instituting the first Smart Set poll: do you agree with Cocteau that “poetry is a machine for the manufacture of love”? (Via.)

Matthew Tiffany on Portland, Maine’s Longfellow Books

From time to time I’m posting bookstore appreciations from readers. Below Matthew Tiffany of Condalmo praises Longfellow Books.

Portland, Maine has a good number of bookstores, considering its small size. Along with the late (and missed) Casco Bay Books, you have Yes Books, with its amazing selection of used and rare books. (Leave your wallet at home and take a predetermined amount of cash. Trust me.) Books, Etc. has been in the Old Port for years; despite being smack in the middle of this tourist-heavy part of town, they largely avoid stocking piles upon piles of books about lobsters and ornery-yet-handsome old fishermen.

There are others, all deserving of praise in their own way, but standing above them all is Longfellow Books. Since I am already on record describing it as “dynamite,” I now face the task of proving its dynamiteness.

Named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born and raised here, and attended Bowdoin College, the store is a short distance down Congress St. from the Longfellow Square statue. The space itself has a sort of aura of calm once you enter — other bookstores, there’s just a different atmosphere. At Longfellow, one gets a sense of having entered a retreat, a sanctuary. Somehow, the store seems to sense customers who aren’t serious about their books and burps them right back out onto the sidewalk. There’s usually unassuming music playing, just loud enough to pick up on and trigger curiosity, if you’re interested. There’s occasionally a dog sleeping inside. The dog is, without fail, calm.

The selection is eclectic — yes, there are a few books aimed at the heavy tourist trade, but the store is often more focused on books by local, just-getting-started authors of fiction and poetry. Longfellow does the most to support local writers, from holding readings to drumming up support in its e-mail newsletter, and seems to draw the bigger names more readily as well. An enormous crowd turned up for the recent Achak Deng/Eggers reading. That’s one of my favorite things about Longfellow — one gets a sense there, more than anywhere, of not being the only person in Maine with an interest in good writing.

If you’d like to see your favorite bookstore mentioned, send email to bookstores [at] maudnewton [dot] com telling me about it. Please include a photo or a link to one.

Happy weekend from the Delta research dept., now with Eudora Welty references

As far as I can tell, some twenty-odd years after the events of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and not long after the novel appeared, my great-grandfather was hired to manage the plantation Welty fictionalized in it.

The book is set in September 1923, at Shellmound, just north of Greenwood, Mississippi.

Very little happens in Delta Wedding, and apparently that was intentional. “The Delta enclave was, [the author] told Charles Bunting, ‘all such a fragile, temporary thing…. At least I hope it was. That’s why I searched so hard to find the year in which that could be most evident.’”
The book is probably my least favorite of Welty’s, but its insights into the pretensions of cotton gentility are considerable. The wedding of the title is of the plantation owner’s daughter to the young man who manages the plantation. Her family is not exactly over the moon about the match.

“Mama, I think it’s so tacky the way Troy comes in from the side door,” said Shelley [another daughter] all at once. “It’s like somebody just walks in the house from the fields and marries Dabney.”….

“Well, one thing,” said Tempe [an aunt] in a low voice to Shelley, … with a sigh of finality, “when people marry beneath them, it’s the woman that determines what comes. It’s the woman that coarsens the man. The man doesn’t really do much to the woman, I’ve observed.”

This week’s photos are of my great aunt and grandmother. I believe they’re in the fields at Shellmound.

Eric Weinberger on Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons

Mark Sarvas’ praise for the depiction of fathers and sons in Sándor Márai’s novel The Rebels led me back to Kafka’s Letter to Father (a gift a friend brought me from Prague several years ago). It’s an illuminating document — complex, sad, highly self-serving — but not a work of art. Writing about the feelings a father inspires is difficult.

Eric Weinberger, who taught expository writing at Harvard for eight years, collects nonfiction writings by sons about their dead fathers. Below he traces his interest in the genre and admires Fathers and Sons, which follows four generations of Waugh men responding to their dads.

In the same year, which was 12 years ago, I read both And When Did You Last See Your Father, by Blake Morrison, and The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson, and thus began reading sons who write about their dead fathers. I became especially interested in the brief biographical sketch or intermittent rumination, and soon came upon a masterpiece of the genre, an essay called “The Author at Sixty” by Edmund Wilson. The piece appears in a small book characteristically titled A Piece of My Mind, whose table of contents is notable for its ten chapter headings of single, grand words like “War,” “Science,” “Sex,” and — venturing one word further — “The Jews.” Most of these chapters are twenty to thirty pages long. “The Jews” is fifty-three; “The Author at Sixty,” last of the ten, is thirty-one.

When Wilson turned 60, he had special reason to consider his father, who had died in his sixty-first year. The essay, written in the family home in Talcottville, New York, begins and ends on a note of increasing estrangement. He feels, as an American, he is at least one century and possibly two behind his contemporaries. He spends his time only in the few towns or cities he likes and has business in. He rejects what has been his life’s work. “I have ceased to try to see at first hand what is happening in the United States… I do not want any more to be bothered with the kind of contemporary conflicts that I used to go out to explore,” he writes, adding with satisfaction, “Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.”

His thoughts naturally turn to his late father, a brilliant, hypochrondriac lawyer subject to frequent nervous breakdowns and complete withdrawal from his family. Edmund Wilson, Sr., for all his talent and high accomplishment, had surrendered goals and ambition; “He had had every possible success at law, and law in the long run bored him. More and more he would drop his practice.” Then, “When he felt that the money was running low, he would emerge from his shadow or exile and take on a couple of cases, enough work to retrieve the situation.” He is described as someone “who liked to travel in style and paid a good deal of attention to his clothes. He was tall and good-looking and rather vain, and women were supposed to adore him. He was undoubtedly a very self-centered man…”

Essays like “The Author at Sixty” are marvelous for their cadence, for the plain, unadorned sentences so often beginning with “he” and thumbed throughout with “him,” “himself,” “his”: almost Biblical. This is Blake Morrison writing about his dead father: “The weeks before he left us, or life left him were a series of depletions; each day we thought ‘he can’t get less like himself than this,’ and each day he did. I keep trying to find the last moment when he was still unmistakably there, in the fullness of his being, him.”

Echoes of Morrison’s observations sound throughout a more recent book, Fathers and Sons, in which Alexander Waugh writes about his illustrious literary family, particularly his father Auberon. “A father’s death resolves nothing,” says Alexander. “While the son remains conscious the relationship never ends. Neither does it flourish. Instead it trundles round and round on an axis of the mind, suspended, unclosed, incomplete.”

In nearly all cases the son is more prominent than the father he recalls. But Auberon, who wrote about his own more famous father, Evelyn, in the 1991 autobiography Will This Do?, was one of the best-known British journalists of his time. Known as Bron, he was the type of newspaper columnist who could not exist in these earnest United States: an eager and savage fantasist, who created an antic persona starting in the 70s with a regular series of his “diaries” in the satirical biweekly Private Eye. He died in 2001, before September 11, since when we have needed him most. Continue reading…