Monday, August 27, 2012

You are going to be an Ambassador of France; your mother knows what she is saying - Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn

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.


  1. "A memoir packed with amusing lies" makes me think I would like Gary. I don't suppose he reminded you of a French Vila-Matas at all, eh?

  2. A name that's been bandied around a lot in our circles, but I agree - I have little idea about Gary or his work.

    Even after reading your review...

  3. Gary in his lifetime was such an interestingly hide-y sort of person that he perhaps did just too well at hiding after his death. And has now been forgotten. When I was last thinking about him, I idly checked out how many of his novels were still in print in the UK, and the answer was none. It's a shame as he is always worth reading. I have yet to read Promise at Dawn but am looking forward to it. I never can resist a monstrous maternal figure. And to Richard I would definitely suggest he tries him, although I would probably recommend La vie devant soi in the first instance. I believe one of the translations is entitled 'Momo'.

    1. Merci pour the reader-specific tip, Litlove, which I have duly noted!

  4. I have two "of courses" too close to each other - lemme fix that. Okey dokey.

    Really different than Vila-Matas, or at least Bartleby & Co., the only one I have read. Different in purpose and tone. Gary is not at all insular. They share a good trait, though: they both go for the joke when one presents itself. But their jokes are not at all the same.

    Tony, it is worth knowing about the Prix Goncourt hoax, which is unbelievable. The novel litlove recommends, which is not written by Gary but by the even more mysterious Émile Ajar, is the relevant one.

    Also, he was married to Jean Seberg for awhile. That's also post-Promise. What a life this guy had.

    Nothing in print in the UK! Now that is sad. In the US, New Directions has kept Promise and La vie devant soi in print.

    You will love the mother. She is a lovable monster. Like Cookie Monster.

    1. Hello Tom, Gary was also married to the formidable Lesley Blanch; not sure if you've come across her but her autobiography 'Journey into the Mind's Eye' is worth reading just for the highly enjoyable account of a train journey to Corsica.

      Promise at Dawn sounds great!

    2. Helen, how interesting. I did not have any idea who Lesley Blanch was - thanks for the pointer.

  5. It looks like everybody has a different favorite Gary, for some it's the Roots of Heaven, for Emma it seems to be Promise at Dawn, for me it was The Life Before Us. It reminded me, in its premise of the tale of a corrupt world as seen from the eyes of children and teens, of other favorite books like What Maisie Knew, Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen, Bonjour Tristesse, the beginnings of Fanny by Gaslight, Quevedo's The Swindler (El Buscon)...
    I recall when the Madame of the place of ill-repute where the narrator (Little Momo) is being raised tells Little Momo that there is no connection between love and companionship, just look at how some people just tie their dogs while they go on vacation. (I think that some people even tie them to the roof of their cars...:) ).

  6. Oh no no, none of that here. Wuthering Expectations is a politics-free zone. Unless the politics are from 1918 or earlier.

  7. Oops. So sorry. It will never happen again. Count that as strike one against me. I wish I could edit that part and delete it. However, I did not mean the comment in any way as endorsing any political view (Disraeli or Gladstone are all the same to me). I just wanted to show how the wisdom of a book written 40 years ago is still very relevant today. Nonetheless, I apologize, it was a big lapse in judgement on my part.

  8. What! The great patriot Disraeli the equal of that scoundrel Gladstone! Fighting words!

    Or should that be the other way? Patriot Gladst - eh, who knows.

    Bookish opinions cause enough trouble!

    You raise a really interesting side of Gary that is only lightly present (but definitely there) in Promise at Dawn, that he is a great animal lover. Or not just that - his love of animals is a big part of a number of his books. The way you describe The Life Before Us shows what he does with the idea.

    I would say it is unusual for a author who is not much of a nature writer to give so much of his imaginative space to animals, but then I remember that Colette was similar. Two examples is almost enough to concoct a theory.

    "On one such occasion, diving almost to ground level on a herd of elephants, our machine touched on of the elephants and crashed, killing both elephant and pilot. Climbing out rather sheepishly, and as usual without a scratch, from the wreckage of the Luciole, I was greeted by a blow from the rifle butt of a Belgian game warden, whose indignant words 'No one's got the right to treat life like that!' have long remained in my memory." (Ch. 38)

    1. Have you read Colette's memoir, Earthly Paradise? She seems to have been born a nature writer, and then Paris must have happened.

  9. This is one of the few books given to me by my spouse that I have yet to read (yes, I know, I'm bad, I should rectify that promptly, but it's almost okay in that, I mean, well, she's given me a lot of books...). Anyway, the film has quite a nice soundtrack.

    One other interesting Gary note: the screenplay for the movie based on his novel The Roots of Heaven was co-written by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who actually has a cameo appearance in the film.

  10. Someday I should check out that omnibus of Claudine novels and sink into Colette. Follow it up with who knows what. That would make for a fun week or two of writing.

    I have not read Earthly Paradise or anything, I now see, from the later half of her writing career.

    Gary sure crossed a lot of interesting paths.

    Maybe I'll write about him a little more. Who's gonna stop me?

  11. The review and the discussion have been so interesting now I'm really curious to read this book. Another addition to my ever-growing TBR list.

  12. Very interesting for me too. Enough to keep going for another day, if nothing else to give people a better sample of Gary's humor.

  13. Hi Tom,

    I'm delighted you liked it. As you said in your intro, I love him. I can't figure out why he's forgotten in your country. He used to be famous, his books were translated and he used to write articles for magazines and newspapers.

    Promise at Dawn is a wonderful book, funny, sensible, sensitive, a good way to try Gary. I discovered him when I was 18 and when I reread his books now, I appreciate them even more because I understand the references better. Also, having read other Jewish writers such as Roth, I'm more aware of the Jewish side of his books. He tried to conceal it but it filters. It's the same about his Russian origins. I don't speak Russian but I read somewhere that the syntax is more flexible than in French. And Gary has a unique way to use the French language, twisting the syntax, innovating with the words. It's fantastic.

    His mother wanted him to be a man, in the Mensch sense. He tried his whole life to reach that goal.

    Here are other recommendations:
    - Life Before Us: an excellent way to start, a good one everybody loves but not my favourite.Not for someone who doesn't like children narrators.

    - The Roots of Heaven: for someone interested in ecology and colonisation. It was written in 1956.

    - White Dog: for someone interested in cinema, dogs, the 1968 movements in France and in the USA. It's autobiographical. Phenomenal insight about the 1968 events as he wrote while they were happening.

    - Lady L : set in England

    - Gros câlin: there's a review on my blog. "The lonely people, where do they all come from?" That's it. Loneliness in an anonymous Paris and a strange friendship with a python.

    - Clair de femme: made into a film with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. It's about illness, rebound, hope and love in a very subtle manner.

    - Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n'est plus valable
    Only in French. About ageing in your body but not in you mind and full of comments about the 1973 crisis.

    - Adieu Gary Cooper. Don't read the English version, The Ski Bum. It has nothing to do with it. The wit is gone and lots of funny passages are missing. Probably my favourite one for the way he uses the language.

    - His first book, Education Européenne, is worth reading too. It's about a group of resistants in a forest in an Easter country.

    I'm unstoppable about him. I had a Reading Romain Gary page in store, you've just given me motivation to finish it. Can you give me the time too?

    Last but not least, a French blogger has a special blog for him

  14. My pleasure, Emma.

    What a useful list. Yes, please put it up somewhere on your site.

    You should mention the punchline about The Ski Bum - Gary is full of jokes. It was written first, in English. The French version was "translated" a few years later by Gary himself. I guess he thought of some funnier stuff while he was "translating."