Book review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Hocus Bogus' by Romain Gary (& Emile Ajar)

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 4, 2010


By Romain Gary, writing as Émile Ajar

Translated from the French by David Bellos

Yale Univ. 197 pp. $25

That great woman of letters Mary McCarthy once described playful, intricately structured novels -- like Nabokov's "Pale Fire" and Felipe Alfau's "Locos" -- as her "fatal type." She couldn't resist them.

"Hocus Bogus" would have left her swooning, faint with palpitations, madly in love.

Beautifully produced by Yale University Press, the book is the perfect length -- just under 200 pages. Roughly the size of a trade paperback, it fits nicely in the hand. The black matte-finished dust jacket catches the eye with its cover image of a man's face, half in shadow, half outlined in spooky white, like an old-style photographic negative. The sturdy binding opens easily without cracking; the paper is a faint cream and thick enough to avoid see-through; and the page layout is airy, with good margins. Even the chapters are invitingly short.

Most important of all, the award-winning translator -- Princeton professor David Bellos -- provides not only a wonderful English version of "Pseudo," as the book is called in French, but also a brief introduction that one should under no circumstances skip: It provides the essential context for this elaborate jeu d'esprit. Even more detail can then be found in the appended "Life and Death of Émile Ajar," a confessional essay translated by the brilliant Barbara Wright.

Born in 1914 in Vilna, the remarkably talented Roman Kacew changed his name to Romain Gary and then went on to acquire a half-dozen languages, earn a law degree, fly missions for the Free French during World War II, serve as a diplomat, win the Prix Goncourt, direct films and marry two extraordinary women, the writer Lesley Blanch ("The Wilder Shores of Love") and the actress Jean Seberg ("Breathless").

But approaching 60, Gary felt trapped by his success, lumbered by his image as a slickly professional, bestselling author. More and more, the critics viewed him as old-fashioned, a literary celebrity past his prime. He wanted to start afresh. "I was tired of being nothing but myself."

So, in 1974 there appeared a very strange book about a statistician living with a pet python in a Paris apartment. Before long "Gros-Câlin" -- Bellos gives it the English title "Cuddles" -- was shortlisted for the Prix Renaudot for the best novel by a new writer. At the last moment its author, Émile Ajar, withdrew his work from consideration.

The following year Ajar brought out "La Vie Devant Soi" -- titled in English "Life Before Us" -- and it went on to become fabulously successful, eventually "the highest-selling French novel of the last century, with more than 1.2 million copies sold." It was awarded the Prix Goncourt and later filmed as "Madame Rosa," winning the 1977 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

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