Promise at Dawn, Romain Gary, 1960. A novel disguised as an autobiography, or a memoir packed with amusing lies. Emma of Book Around the Corner loves Gary and suggested I read this one, given that it is funny, revealing, dramatic, and features one superb character, Gary’s irrepressible, smothering, preposterous mother – the book is worth reading just for her, honestly. Emma has written a number of pieces about Gary; the one about a stage adaptation of Promise at Dawn contains lots of good information that I can now skip.
Yet as good as the book is, I am having trouble approaching it. One reason is the subject matter. The novel is roughly split two-thirds childhood and school years, one-third World War II. The latter is exceptionally interesting, but do you see a lot about WWII at Wuthering Expectations? The other problem is that nobody ever talks about Gary. By “nobody” I of course mean writers in the literary magazines I have been reading for twenty-five years. Well-read Francophiles like litlove know his work. The strange thing is that Gary was once a best-selling author in the United States, a reasonably big deal. What happened to his reputation here (he is still a big deal in France)? Have I been reading the wrong magazines? I should have picked up a received opinion by now, one that I can test when I actually bother to read Gary’s books. That’s the way literature is supposed to work, right? Why did no one tell me what to think?
The central line of the book is Gary’s mother's work to make her son a man, and French, and also a great artist of some sort. They settle on writer after some misfires:
The singing lessons were discreetly abandoned. I heard one of my coaches refer to me as “the child prodigy”: he claimed that he had never in his life seen a youngster so completely devoid of ear, voice or talent. (Ch. 13)
Since Gary began life as a Lithuanian Jew, even the journey to Frenchness is complicated enough:
From the age of eight, whenever we hit on difficult times – and we seldom hit on anything else – my mother would come and sit opposite me, her face weary and a haunted expression in her eyes. She would smoke a cigarette, look at me for a long time with a knowing and satisfied eye, and state with calm assurance: “You are going to be an Ambassador of France; your mother knows what she is saying.”
All the same, one thing puzzles me. Why didn’t she ever make me President of the Republic while she was at it? (Ch. 13)
And heck if Gary – the real Gary, not just the one in the novel – does not become a French ambassador, win France’s highest honors during the war, and win the Prix Goncourt not once but twice, the second award the result of a hard-to-believe hoax, all of it – all but that second prize which comes later, after Promise at Dawn – urged on him by his amazing mother.
Thanks, Emma, for the recommendation and the advocacy! Lots more people should read Promise at Dawn. The title’s kind of fuzzy, so there is a criticism.