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

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 4, 2010; C03

HOCUS BOGUS

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.

Naturally, the media wanted to know more about the mysterious Émile Ajar -- at least until a certain Paul Pavlowitch conveniently came forth as the man behind the pseudonym. But Pavlowitch was the son of Romain Gary's cousin. Some journalists started to probe more deeply.

Gary desperately wanted to keep secret that he had written the Ajar novels, if only because nobody is allowed to win the Prix Goncourt more than once. What to do? He retreated to Switzerland and in two weeks produced "Hocus Bogus," publishing it with the support of his cousin and frontman. In its first-person pages Pavlowitch recounts the whole Ajar adventure, showing clearly that he is the "onlie begetter" of the novels. But why all the mystery? Because Pavlowitch, as his extraordinary writing style reveals, is certifiably insane and frequently delusional.

In truth, "Hocus Bogus" is an utterly convincing impersonation of an artistically gifted schizophrenic, worthy to stand on the same shelf as Paul Ableman's classic "I Hear Voices" and Louis Wolfson's "Le Schizo et les Langues." At the book's kaleidoscopic climax, Pavlowitch actually accuses his famous writer relative of trying to take credit for the Ajar novels and for spreading the hurtful rumors that their actual author is . . . Romain Gary. Thus, with a magician's flourish, "Hocus Bogus" put paid to those very rumors: Pavlowitch was obviously Ajar.

Nowadays, we can more fully appreciate the tour de force that Gary brings off: As Bellos observes, the book is simultaneously "entirely fictional and yet contains almost nothing but the strict truth." Moreover, by "writing as someone else pretending to be someone else and also quite mad, Gary was at last free to say what he had to say as himself." To read "Hocus Bogus" in Bellos's superb translation is to marvel at its dizzyingly distorted syntax ("I don't speak Danish, but not well enough"), constant wit ("reptiles are always first in the firing line when it comes to hate speech") and sheer energy.

Many of Pavlowitch's remarks actually sound like those distorted aphorisms that the writer Harry Mathews dubbed "perverbs": "When you get a dead man on the line, it goes on forever." "You can't drown a fish just because you're a surrealist." On every page there's a bit of skewed "Hocus Bogus" wisdom: "In Denmark ambulances don't wail as sharply as ours do. Perhaps it's because there's less suffering in Denmark and so they don't need to scream so loud."

Sometimes Pavlowitch/Ajar/Gary sounds practically metaphysical: "Chairs make me particularly afraid because their shape suggests a human absence." And surely many of us can share the author's fear of crosswalks: "Given the nature of the motor car, pedestrian crossings are the places you're most likely to get run down. They're narrow and well defined, and the guy with his foot on the pedal can aim straight at you."

Most of all, "Hocus Bogus" returns again and again to the nature of writing and the literary marketplace: "If it's junk, it'll be called nonfiction, or witnessing, or life writing. Life writing is always garbage because of the subject matter. . . . Write us something along those lines of no value whatsoever, and that will make it an authentically human document."

Like Max Beerbohm's "memoir" of Enoch Soames or the hoax poetry of Australia's Ern Malley, "Hocus Bogus" blurs genres and dances on the line between fiction and nonfiction. But there's no denying the truth of its humor and angst: "Every time a new day dawns, I open the window and shout for help." "Love is just a word with a prettier song than the others."

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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