Tuesday, August 28, 2012

She was, by now, in the throes of a particularly revolting literary seizure - Gary fights for the honor of the French uniform

I hadn’t really planned on spending more time with Romain Gary’s Promise at Dawn, but I got caught just leafing through it.  The structure is episodic both in the childhood and wartime sections, so it is easy to fall upon particularly enjoyable adventures.

Gary is in England, flying with the Free French.  It is 1940, during the Battle of Britain.  He has discovered that he has made a mistake at a London dance hall:

On the second day, while a more than usually violent raid was in progress, I found myself in the company of a young poetess from Chelsea…  My lady friend was a great disappointment for she never stopped talking and talking about T. S. Eliot, and about Ezra Pound and Auden, into the bargain, gazing at me with blue eyes literally sparkling with imbecility.  (Ch. 36)

Kissing provides only a temporary respite because “I was obliged, after a while, to abandon her mouth in order to breathe – and off she went again about E. E. Cummings and Walt Whitman.”  Gary thinks about faking an epileptic seizure (“it had worked before in similar circumstances”) and tries to fob her off on a series of Polish officers hoping that “with a little luck my Ezra Pound might find other points of contact besides literature, and I would be rid of her.”  But she always returns, “embark[ing] upon a dissertation on the symbolism in Finnegans Wake.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the officers in the nightclub are interpreting events a little differently – those Poles are stealing a French officer’s girl!  The “prestige” of the French uniform must be defended:

“Well what next?” I asked them.

“Duel!” barked one of the three lieutenants.

“Nothing doing,” I told them.  “No more audience, blackout everywhere, no more spectators, so no more need for heroics.  Get that, you stupid asses?”

“All Frenchmen are cowards,” stated the second lieutenant, with a polite Polish bow.

“All right: duel,” I said.

I mentioned yesterday that Promise at Dawn is in part about the Lithuanian Jewish Gary becoming French.  Here we witness a step in the process.  Heck if they don’t fight a duel, in a hotel corridor, in the middle of a massive air raid that could pulverize them at any time, all in the company of Ezra Pound:

She was, by now, in the throes of a particularly revolting literary seizure, and, raising her moist eyes to mine, kept murmuring, in erotic undertones:

“You are going to kill a man!  I can feel it!  You are going to kill a man!”

But of course he will do no such thing, “because Mickiewicz was a great poet but also because I did not want to get into trouble.”  The whole episode, which with some minor adjustments, might as well come from a Dumas novel.  It is funny, has several little twists I have omitted, and is extremely French.

I am not convinced I gave a good sense of the Gary’s voice yesterday.  This should do it – “eyes literally sparkling with imbecility” is representative.  I could do this several more times and cover Gary’s idealism, his fatalism, and of course the center of the book, his deep love for his titanic mother.  But the comedy and derring-do should be enough.  If this scene sounds good, the rest of the book ought to work out all right for you.


  1. Gary is a writer I need to read more of I ve only read one and did like his voice ,this sounds great I like episodic style fiction ,all the best stu

  2. You see, I find this really funny. Particularly that bit about being a great poet, but also not wanting to get into trouble. Hence my admiration for Gary, but also for the French attitude with all that good stuff of irony, self-deprecation, robust dislike for fools and a little sparkly idealism. It just works for me.

  3. Damn it, I want to read this book so much now!

  4. I often read memoirs, or memoir-like objects, slowly, as if I do not want to cram too many years of childhood into a single sitting. I want to match the pace of reading to the pace of the book. I guess. The episodic Promise at Dawn matched my habits well. I did speed up as we got into the war.

    litlove, me too. This scene is a particularly funny one, but it has rivals. Two or three of the childhood scenes are just as good, like the one about the boys competing for the affections of a demanding eight year-old girl, A sample:

    "'Janek ate his whole stamp collection for me.'

    Such was the beginning of my long martyrdom."

    Gary is the perfect Gaullist author, even more than Malraux. It likely helps that he was an immigrant - it allows him to be ideally, perfectly French, but with a sharp ironic distance.

  5. He's just a French with a Jewish sense of humour and a Russian background. That's why he never takes himself too seriously. The mix is huge huge fun.

    I LOVE his sense of humour, all his books are full of it. And he has a way to create strange and funny effects with the language.

    Now I want to read Promise at Dawn again.

  6. Even with serious subjects, Gary has a light touch.