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The French novelist Romain Gary was ahead of his time – both in his discussion of now-timely themes, ...
2020-07-09 09:00:00

The Chameleon
The Life of Romain Gary

“Landscape, Antibes (The Bay of Nice)”, 1891, John Peter Russel / Wikimedia Commons
The Chameleon
The Chameleon

He published dozens of books under various pseudonyms. Among the themes he was interested in were organic multiculturalism, femininity and the need to protect the environment – long before they became popular.

Read in 11 minutes

“Everybody knows the story of the willing chameleon. He was put upon a green cloth and obligingly turned green; he was put upon a red cloth and obligingly turned red. Upon a white cloth he turned white, and on a yellow one, yellow. But when they put him upon a Scottish plaid, the little fellow burst.” Romain Gary uses this metaphor in his autobiographical novel, Promise at Dawn, one of his best books.

Romain Gary le caméléon is the title of his biography written a few years ago by Myriam Anissimov. Gary repeated the story of the chameleon in interviews. In Jacques Chancel’s 1975 radio broadcast ‘Radioscopie’, he said about himself: “I was a pilot for nine years, it was my first job; I took part in the Battle of Britain, in battles in Africa, in the landing at Normandy. After the war, I worked in diplomacy for seventeen years, and I concluded my career as consul general in Los Angeles. I was also a minister’s advisor, I wrote novels, reports, screenplays, I directed. More importantly – I come from Russia; Russian was my first language and my first culture. When I was six years old, my mother and I moved to Warsaw, I went to school there and studied Polish. Six years later, we moved to Nice – at the age of six, I mastered a third language and immersed myself in a third culture. I often think about the story of a chameleon that burst, placed on a plaid rug. Probably, it is thanks to literature that I didn’t lose my mind.”

He published dozens of books under the assumed name ‘Gary’, as well as under other pseudonyms. Among the themes he was interested in were organic multiculturalism, femininity as a carrier of important, ‘soft’ values, and the need to protect the environment. Gary wrote about them long before they became popular.

Galloping Francophilia

He was born on 8th May 1914 in Vilnius as Roman Kacew, son of Mina Kacew, who raised him alone. Some sources indicate Moscow as his birthplace, but Gary cited Vilnius.

His mother wanted to give birth in Paris, but she couldn’t get there in time. She was affected by “the galloping francophilia ubiquitous in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, jeanne-d’arc’ism typical for Eastern European Jews.” She instilled her love for France in her son. For example, via a collection of postcards with images of famous Frenchmen and women: Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt, and others. “In that wholly laudable universe which France was in my mother’s eyes, she viewed everything with the same approval, and calmly putting in the same basket the heads of Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Charlotte Corday and Marat, Napoleon and the Duc d’Enghien, she served it all up to me with an admiring smile.”

After years of being a French citizen, as well as a member of the diplomatic corps, he admitted that he still happened to anticipate the France that his mother told him about; the France that he would never get to know. Although he travelled a lot and lived, as a diplomat, in Bulgaria, Bolivia, Switzerland and the US, when asked if he felt cosmopolitan, Gary would disagree. He considered terms such as ‘European’ or ‘citizen of the world’ commercialized. As citizens, we belong to the smallest community, not the largest, he used to say. He recalled the periods of greatest prosperity in European history, such as the Renaissance, when cities were the most important cultural centres.

Nice occupied a special place in his heart. It was the city where he forged his first adult friendships and experienced his first romances. Gary’s great love was the Mediterranean. According to his will, following his suicide in 1980, his ashes were scattered in the sea, in the Roquebrune-Cap-Martin area (a town near Nice, where Gary and his first wife, the British writer and traveller Lesley Blanch, had a holiday home in the 1950s). In his novel The Life Before Us (published under Émile Ajar), Nice – with its astoundingly beautiful light, with the blooming bushes of mimosa – is a mythical space, a kind of refuge where one “can hide from life”, relax, and recharge. In Promise at Dawn, he writes of a market where his mother did grocery shopping (she ran a boarding house in Nice). Gary visited this market every time he returned to Nice: “Whenever I go back to Nice, I pay a visit to the Buffa Market, and I spend long hours among the leeks, the asparagus, the melons, the cuts of beef, the fruit, the flowers and the fish. The noises, the voices, the gestures, the smells and scents have not changed. It needs only very little, almost nothing, for the illusion to be complete, and this I achieve by closing my eyes. Then I wander through the market for hours on end, and the carrots, the chicory and the endives do what they can for me.”

He also had a favourite neighbourhood in Paris. “When they ask me if I’m French, I feel I should answer – I’m a bacquist, I’m from rue du Bac.” From 1963 until his death, Gary lived in 108 rue du Bac in the seventh district of Paris, near the Museum d’Orsay. He had two adjoining apartments there.

Humanism in lowercase

Gary was driven by a love for humanity, but lowercase humanity – he was moved by its imperfections – says the philosopher and literary critic, Tzvetan Todorov. Gary himself repeated that he wrote “in praise of weakness”, his driving force was respect for the weak, and that most of mankind’s misfortunes resulted from its unhealthy fascination with force.

The expression of this attitude is The Life Before Us, written under a pseudonym (Gary’s authorship was not disclosed until after his death). “Madame Rosa was Jewish when she was born in Poland, but she’d peddled her ass for several years in Morocco and Algeria and spoke Arabic as well as you or me. [...] Most of the other tenants in the building were black. There are three black lodging houses on the rue Bisson and two more where they live in tribes like in Africa. [...] The rest of the street and the Boulevard de Belleville is mostly Jews and Arabs. It goes on that way as far as the Goutte d’Or, then the French population starts in.” This is how Momo (Muhammed), the narrator, sketches out the geographical coordinates of the narrative. Momo is one of the pupils of Madame Rosa, who, as a retired prostitute, runs a “clandestine rest home for the children of whores.” Among her charges are Jews, Arabs, Africans and Vietnamese. Among the neighbours: Madame Lola, a transvestite and also a former boxer from Senegal; Monsieur N’Da Amédée, an illiterate in a pink silk suit and “the biggest black pimp and procurer in all Paris”; old Monsieur Hamil, who reads the Koran and Les Misérables for hours; and Dr. Katz, who treats the entire neighbourhood. Everyone is poor, most have problems with the law, and everyone helps each other. When Madame Rosa no longer has the strength to walk up the stairs (she lives on the sixth floor, of course, without an elevator), her neighbours gather and carry her down and then around her favourite neighbourhoods of the city to make her feel better.

To me, The Life Before Us is one of the most beautiful books about love. Love between the adoptive son and the mother that Madame Rosa is for Momo. The figures of the mother and the whore were both very important to Gary, who often portrayed prostitutes as the epitome of generosity; the providers of love. It is also a picture of a cultural mosaic devoid of tenderness and sentimentality. Perhaps Gary was able to paint it so expertly, because he himself experienced the meeting of different cultures. “He had something of a resident of Great Rus, something from a Polish Jew, a native Frenchman, and an American vagabond. Together, all this formed an amazing mix that came too early for the sensitivity of his era,” claimed Tzvetan Todorov (himself of Bulgarian roots, settled in France).

The Life Before Us is also an outstanding example of wit. “Humour is a weapon of the weak, it is about disarming reality, so that it does not overwhelm us with its weight. Humour is a tool of mental hygiene, self-defence, armes blanches par excellence. Humour is also a form of stoicism. Whenever I write, I am mocking myself, and by ‘myself,’ as Victor Hugo said, I mean all of us,” Gary said in 1973.

“A certain Mr Piekielny”

For six years, Gary and his mother lived in Vilnius – “just passing through”, as she liked to emphasize. They lived in a tenement house in Grand Pohulanka, at number 16. A single woman from Russia with a child and an unknown source of income attracted the resentment of their neighbours. She was accused of fencing. The accusation was unfounded, but her bitterness could not be appeased. She called the neighbours to the stairwell and “[…] announced with pride and vehemence, in a voice which still resounds with an uncanny clarity in my ears: ‘Dirty little bourgeois bedbugs, you don’t seem to realize with whom you have the honour of speaking! My son will be an Ambassador of France, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor […].’ Even as my hand writes these words I can hear the loud, coarse laughter of the ‘dirty bourgeois bedbugs.’ And perhaps I shall be allowed to say, for the clarity of this tale, and comical as it may sound, I am today a Consul General of France, and officer of the Legion of Honor,” Gary writes in Promise at Dawn.

Among the mocking crowd was one neighbour who did not laugh, and was greatly impressed by this speech. It was a man called Piekielny, whose name could not have been a worse match for the neat appearance of a modest man [piekielny means ‘hellish’ in Polish – trans. note]. “Mothers have a way of feeling these things,” he told little Roman, offered him Turkish delight and continued: “Perhaps you will really be someone of true importance... Perhaps you will meet the famous and the great of this world...[...] Well then, when you meet them, when you talk to them, promise me one thing. Promise me to tell them [...] Tell them there was once a Mr Piekielny who lived at Number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in Vilna.” Mr Piekielny, as Gary writes, shared the fate of many other Vilnius Jews: he died in a death camp during the war. “At number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in the town of Vilna, there lived a certain Mr Piekielny,” said Gary to the Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as she was inspecting his air squadron. Later, Gary repeated the same to De Gaulle and Kennedy, when he and his second wife, Jean Seberg, were invited to the White House for dinner.

In May 2014, a young French writer, François-Henri Désérable, came to Vilnius. By chance he found himself on the same street where Gary and his mother had lived. The name of the street has changed, but there is now a commemorative plaque where the tenement house used to stand. Promise at Dawn was one of Désérable’s beloved books. Standing in front of this house, he recited from memory: “At number 16, Grand Pohulanka, in the town of Vilna, there lived a certain Mr Piekielny…” Inspired by this coincidence, he wrote the book A Certain Mr Piekielny (Un certain M. Piekielny). Published in 2017 and warmly received by reviewers, it is not only a tribute to Gary, but also fulfils the promise to remember the tragic fate of Vilnius Jews. “Whether Mr Piekielny really existed or not does not really matter,” said Désérable on the ‘La Grande Libraire’ TV show, “even if he was fictitious, he embodies all those who died.”

Equality and fraternity

In photographs, Gary’s gaze is magnetic. “As beautiful as Clark Gable,” wrote one journalist. However, Gary didn’t like his looks and thought he was its victim. “The mix of blood bequeathed by my ancestors give me a lightly Tartar appearance. In France it tends to be interpreted according to certain moral and psychological assumptions, assuming traits such as cruelty, unruliness, indifference to suffering. What’s more, during a war I suffered an injury and it is difficult for me to smile. This means that my appearance does not reflect who I am.”

Romain Gary / Wikimedia Commons
Romain Gary / Wikimedia Commons

Gary considered such interpretations of his appearance, as well as circulating rumours (“adventurer, drug addict”), as manifestations of a culture that glorifies toxic masculinity. He was a great opponent of machismo, the cult of strength, the ethos of masculinity reflected in the books of Hemingway and Jack London. According to Gary, masculinity understood as an obsessive competition (who is faster, stronger, fanfaronade) was merely a substitute, a façade covering the fear of weakness and sensitivity. He also pointed out the connections between toxic masculinity and consumerism. “Don Juan with his constant need to find new women gave birth to consumerist society.”

Listening to Gary’s views on the relationship between men and women, I am struck by how often he uses the terms ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ – the fundamental concepts (at least in principle) of French society. What’s best in people manifests itself in a relationship between the sexes that is based on equality and brotherhood, in a couple that shares their dreams, goals and plans. Gary admitted that he was not an easy partner, because the two greatest loves of his life were literature and femininity (“not so much women, as femininity,” he emphasized). His passion for literature made it difficult to get involved in other areas of life; he was often emotionally unavailable. Gary expressed love for femininity by creating poignant heroines in his books. He defined the feminine element as tenderness, acceptance of weakness, and acceptance of mortality, and considered the absence of the feminine element in our civilization as appalling. He remained friendly with both of his ex-wives.

What does the ocean say?

“[…] and I have only to raise my head to see the ocean. I listen attentively, and again I feel that I am just on the point of understanding what it is trying to confide in me, that I am going to break the code, at last, that the insistent, incessant murmur of the surf is striving, almost desperately, to deliver a message, to give me the explanation, the meaning, the key.”

Gary concludes Promise at Dawn with a long, cinematic sequence on Big Sur Beach. It is a scene of his imagined death and simultaneously an expression of his love for nature; his dream of communicating with her. The narrator recalls the hope with which he waited for two lizards he once saw in the desert of New Mexico to speak to him. An attentive reader will remember that what saved little Roman from thinking about death after the embarrassment caused by his mother in front of their Vilnius neighbours, was the cat in the attic who licked his cheek (Roman knew, he had bits of poppy seed cake stuck on his cheek).

The calls to protect nature were already prominent in one of Gary’s first books, The Roots of Heaven, whose main character fights to stop elephant hunting in Africa. The book was published in the mid-1950s (and received the Prix Goncourt award). 20 years later, Gary noticed in an interview that in the 1950s hardly anyone was concerned about littering the sea, poisoning the biosphere and protecting the environment. He expressed great sadness that “the land of Montaigne and Fontaine” had put off the serious pursuit of ecology for too long. Gary saw destructive human behaviour, such as extermination of whales, as irrefutable evidence that humanity is condemning itself to destruction. In the oneiric ending of Promise at Dawn, he fantasizes: “The seals on their rock are silent, and I lie here, with my eyes shut, smiling, imagining that one of them is swimming quietly towards me, and that suddenly I shall feel, against my cheek or in the hollow of my shoulder, a friendly nudge…I have lived.”

Gary’s books were loved by readers, but not sufficiently appreciated by reviewers, says Tzvetan Todorov. They were neither ‘involved literature’, whose patrons were Sartre and De Beauvoir, nor did they belong to the new genre of novels in the spirit of Alain Robbe-Grillet – the most fashionable in France at the time. Gary’s ‘cosmopolitan’ reputation also bothered his critics. And yet, “what Gary brought to French literature is difficult to compare with anything else,” says Todorov. “Gary certainly belongs to the five greatest French authors of the twentieth century.” Gary is one of my most beloved writers; I love the emotional palette of his books. I always keep copies of Promise at Dawn and The Life in Front of Us, and buy more to gift to those I care about.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Agnieszka Drotkiewicz

is a writer. She has published several novels (“Paris London Dachau”, “Dla mnie to samo”, “Teraz”, “Nieszpory”) and collected interviews (two conducted along with Anna Dziewit: “Głośniej! Rozmowy z pisarkami” and “Teoria trutnia i inne”; and two by herself: “Jeszcze dzisiaj nie usiadłam” and “Piano rysuje sufit”). Agnieszka also published “Dusza światowa” – an extended interview with Dorota Masłowska. Together with Ewa Kuryluk, she wrote a book in the form of a conversation (“Manhattan i Mała Wenecja”), for which they received the Warsaw Literary Premiere Award.