David Bellos Harvill Secker, £30
THE life of Romain Gary - born Roman Kacew in what is now Lithuania - would seem unbelievable as a piece of fiction.
For any biographer, his propensity for what might charitably be described as "endless self-reinvention" and less charitably as downright lying makes him a very tempting challenge indeed. David Bellos, the acclaimed translator and biographer of Jacques Tati and Georges Perec, certainly has fun with the story.
Fleeing the Russian city of Vilna (now Vilnius and sometime Polish Wilno: his birthplace went through as many changes as he did) with his beloved mother, Kacew, arrived in Nice; and became "Romain Gary" when he deserted the French Air Force to join the "Lorraine Squadron" (RAF 324) after the German defeat of France.
At that time, he wrote his first novel, A European Education, which initially appeared in an English translation as Forest Of Anger. Gary would go on to become a Companion of the Liberation, a diplomat (he was the Consul General in Los Angeles, the "Ambassador to Hollywood"), a film director, the husband of Jean Seberg, star of Truffaut's Breathless, Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, Paint Your Wagon and Airport, and the only French writer to win the Prix Goncourt twice. Just to twist the tale further, it wasn't "Romain Gary" who won the Goncourt twice.
It was "mile Ajar" who won the second time. More than just a pseudonym, Ajar was a novelist created by Gary, who paid his nephew to impersonate the fictitious writer.
Gary committed suicide in 1980. He was deeply misanthropic and hopelessly idealistic. And he was a satyromaniac to boot, sleeping with scarcely fewer women than Georges Simonon, most of whom were prostitutes and teenaged. Bellos's affection for Gary doesn't mean succumbing to his mystique: frequently, Gary's intellectual positions are described as "bullshit".
To my shame, I've never read any of Gary's novels, and Bellos's biography certainly succeeds in that I have now ordered some. Why is he not as well known as contemporaries such as Perec, Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute? Perhaps because he was popular.
Bellos has a telling line about how they "recognised Gary in the street and comforted themselves with the thought that they'd just seen one of the writers they would never need to read". As what here would be called a "mid-list" author, Gary had sales, celebrity and connections to the powerful, but not prestige.
The slightly stale air of the senior common room hangs over some pages. Bellos chastises Gary's former biographer, Myriam Anissimov, so frequently I began to wonder if she was an invention, like Flann O'Brien's De Selby. Although he is very astute in unpicking Gary's multiple mistruths, mistakes and outrageous fibs, especially in his autobiography, this sceptical delicacy disappears when he writes about Gary's suicide note, which he treats as a simple truth. "I have at last said all that I have to say," Gary wrote (with The Life And Death Of mile Ajar safely in his publishers' hands).
The Ajar hoax is central to Gary's story and Bellos claims, convincingly, that it was just another variation on Gary's life's theme.
He had previously appeared in print as Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat and Ren Deville; the idea of the book that creates its own author is contained in his apparently unreadable thesis on the novel, For Sganarelle.
In his memoir, he reminisces about the wholly fictional moment when he received news that his first novel had been accepted for publication: "I took off my flying helmet and gloves and stood for a long time looking at the telegram. We were born." Those last three words seem to encapsulate every intriguing thing about this intriguing author.
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 31 October, 2010