June 05, 1996
Curiosity, total, uninhibited curiosity is a fascinating phenomena, a devouring habit which only true writers can sustain without succumbing to madness!
Writing is incompatible, unbearable with "normal" life. A drenching work which to be effectively performed requires solitary confinement, a sort of temporary death. A writer is a voracious enzyme, a voyeur, constantly in search of material, preferably human, convoluted and thespian. A French writer once said that "only the readers believe that the writers are generous beings." He added, "writers are selfish; as Momo would say [Momo was the hero of his novel], they are dirty bloody stupid egoists." Then realizing that he was indeed defining himself, or that his peers may not appreciate his frankness once printed, he had an after-thought: "I believe there is a part of forgivable irresponsibility", he said.
The story has a funny little twist: This writer, whose name is Emile Ajar, had just published "La vie devant soi"; the year was 1975 (or, in writers's jargon, MCMLXXV) and the novel became an immediate sensation, winning him the Prix Goncourt, which is considered in France as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Literature (French are not particularly famous for their sense of measure and their humility!) as well as a substantial financial purse. Anyway, the book and its author, a chap of the literary world, was on everybody's lips. In a matter of weeks he was drawn out of relative obscurity -- he had published his first novel, "Gros-Câlin", just a year earlier -- into being the center of attention, the only subject 'digne d'intérêt' of the Parisian Salons and around the country where tea, pies and delicate cookies turn language into a boring experience (My Deaaar, I have just met Emiiiiile... What a Daaaaarling!).
So Emile was making the rounds. He appeared on all the TV networks where literary shows abound. France is famous for its literary shows. Writers dream of them. Publishers swear by them. The public love them. This deserves some explanation. Writers, being who they are, have a real disposition to mental strip-tease and can spend hours ruminating about their belly button! Publishers see their sales and thus their profits climb accordingly. The public, beside being voyeurs themselves and envious of celebrity, can savour their camembert and glass of wine and, filled up, satisfied, go to sleep musing upon the what if's and imagining their life in the sun. In America it would rather be popcorn, beer and sports. But the result is the same! Money and vanity...
Coming to mind is one of these shows when the host, the celebrated Bernard Pivot, who himself, having at that time never written anything, was even more famous than the authors he invited. And, convinced of his own royal stature, Bernard Pivot would receive his guests like Louis XIV did in Versailles. He was courted, feared, envied, hated, loved and all, and his reputation surpassed many "princes of the voting cooky-jar", as Montherlant used to define politicians. Indeed, even French presidents visited Pivot or had dinner with him at Lipp's, the famed brasserie of Boulevard Saint Germain. Only one author, it seems, succeeded in fixing the conditions of his appearance on the show. He wanted to be alone with Pivot, to receive the questions that Pivot wished to ask in writing, to prepare the answers in writing, to have Pivot read the questions and to read his answers. Nothing more, nothing less. Pivot obliged to be the first interviewer to ever have the author appear on TV. This was the most memorable show of the entire series. The answers, carefully crafted, even included total spontaneity. What a talent! The author? Not Emile Ajar but Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita's Nabokov!
Back to Emile. The old chap was giving interviews upon interviews until a strange phenomena started to develop. It was like an odd feeling, an uncomfortable perception. The man was talking a lot, writing articles in Le Monde and other newspapers, and, somehow, one could not associate his spoken words with his written words and his written words in his articles with his written words in his two novels. Rumors began to surface like all rumors do, like the London fog, "licking its tongue into the corners of the evening", says T.S. Eliot. No one knows where they started and who started them. But there they were, rubbing their "muzzle on the window-panes". At the beginning they really were small, almost insignificant. Just a confused sentiment that maybe, maybe the books had been written by someone else.
Now, try to imagine poor Emile. He is confronted with having to prove a negative. How can one ask such an unfair, indecent, uncourteous deed from an author? Writers have nothing to prove and everything to tell, haven't they? Yet, the situation was quite embarrassing. How could one tolerate a fraud in the country of Voltaire? This was unimaginable. Oh my Deaaaar, my Deaaaar, have you heard what I have heard? I cannot believe it, this pooooor daaaaarling... But what is it that you have heard, my deaaaar? Emile, our daaaaarling Emile, well, you know, Emile Ajar, this novelist that we came to meet once, I think, just once... Well, what is it? You will never believe it when you know. But I do not know if what I know is really known, you know what I mean. So my deaaaar, I'm telling you in confidence, you understand, don't you? By now of course the dear so-and-so is ready for the kill. She looks over her shoulder and finally murmurs the fatidic words: He did not write the books. And with a mix of guilt and satisfied importance looks at her mirror with an angelic yet somewhat perplexed face, the mouth forming an accent circonflexe, the eyes question marks... And the tongues keep running! The breeze dissipates the fog but creates wild fires. This breeze was not a breeze, it was not a wind nor a gust. It was a sirocco, a hurricane that illuminated the whole of France, shaking its very institutions, threatening President Giscard d'Estaing himself, the man who was flying the French flag from the Elysee Palace with his own blazon on it. For an American reader to truly understand these historical events, let's say that in comparison, Watergate was child's play!
So Emile was sent back to the Toilets of History where he wisely stayed while the coteries looked for the actual author. But history likes malice and in 1979 "L'Angoisse du Roi Salomon" was published under the signature of none other than Emile Ajar. The controversy resurrected and the publisher salivated the future green harvest. However, this time, Emile remained in a discreet posture. He refused to answer his telephone, barricaded himself in his golden retreat paid with the monies from the literary price and denied any inference to the contrary and contrary to the inference, which meant nothing except that he was then sick and tired of the incestuous literary world, did not appreciate infamy and rather enjoyed his present life.
And so from the thickness of the London fog, through the magician's hat, appeared Romain Gary, the French diplomat and author of innumerable books and novels who quietly decided to come out of the closet. Not the gay Paris, mind you, but the cloud of smoke and mystery that behind all the strip-teases envelops a true and complex human being, called a writer. And he told his story in a few, very few and concise words. He simply wanted to prove that a good writer could write in a different style, different tales, with the same excellence and success.
Talk about writing!