Just when France was showing signs of boredom with the Socialists' political takeover, novelist Romain Gary has come back from the grave -- literarily if not literally -- to provide summer doldrum diversion.
If a book just published by his 34-year old cousin Paul Pavlowitch is to believed, Gary used Pavlowitch to perpetrate one of modern letters' more elaborate hoaxes.
For six years before he committed suicide Hemingway-style last year by shooting himself in the head at 66, Gary had Pavlowitch pose as Emile Ajar, a mysterious author of four bestselling novels.
One -- "La Vie Devant Soi," the story of an Arab street urchin befriended by an old Jewish bordello keeper -- won the Goncourt Prize in 1975 and was a made into a much praised movie starring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa. The book was published in English under the title "Momo."
The Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, which assures the winning author a best seller, is supposed to reward young talent and is to be given to a person only once.
Since Gary had already won the Goncourt in 1956 for "The Roots of Heaven," a worldwide best seller also turned into a successful film, that might have been reason enough to justify inventing Ajar.
But Gary was not so linear a man and Parisians are not so easily satisfied when it comes to literary puzzles.
BASTARD SON of a Lithuanian Jewish woman who immigrated to France, soldier, career diplomat, adventurer, Gary possessed the kind of tortured sensitivity that sometimes requires a suspension of disbelief.
Before the furor died, Gary dead had received more attention than in the last seven years of his life when, quite apart from the Ajar works, he wrote seven other novels.
Capping the proceedings was a long television program about Gary and starring Pavlowitch, a psychiatrist, a major literary critic and novelist Michel Tournier.
Just to add spice -- and a hint of scandal and tragedy -- was an outburst by Diego, the 18-year-old son Gary had by his former wife, the late American actress Jean Seberg.
Heroine of that classic "new wave" movie "Breathless," she preceeded Gary in suicide. Her naked body, covered by a blanket, was discovered in a parked car in a Paris street in 1979.
Gary blamed her death on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which he said had planted a story in the press in 1970 suggesting she was pregnant by a black militant.
Diego last week accused Pavlowitch, who revealed Ajar's "real" identity in a book called "L'Homme Que I'on Croyait" ("The Man They Thought"), of jumping the gun to reap publicity and profit.
Diego said he was entitled to break the news and his editor announced publication of what was purported to be the real McCoy written by Gary himself and entitled "The Life and Death of Emile Ajar."
In an excerpt from what Diego says was his father's own explanation of the Ajar caper, Gary was quoted in March 1979 as saying, "I had fun. Good-bye and thanks."
Pavlowitch quotes Gary as saying in 1972 when Ajar was dreamed up that he wanted to "write something entirely different under another name" because "I no longer have the necessary freedom."
SOME CRITICS said they were convinced that Gary felt he was so disliked and out of favor that his work was no longer receiving a fair hearing.
Others noted he had used two other pseudonyms before the Ajar quartet and suggested that he wanted to see if he could win critical acclaim by posing as a newcomer and using a style clearly distinct from that of the rest of his work.
Even the name he chose was ambiguous. Was Ajar an acronym in French for the Association of Jewish Resistance Fighters to which Gary once belonged, the Russian word for burning embers or simply the English word "ajar"?
Was Gary, as his cousin claims, a bit jealous about hearing constantly of Ajar's success when his own reputation was in partial eclipse?
But in an effort to confuse persistent doubters who suspected Ajar's real identity from the start, Gary had Ajar attack him in a subsequent book -- and in no uncertain terms.
Moreover, Gary went to considerable lengths to keep critics, public and his own publisher away from Ajar, who was described as a recluse based in Brazil.
Gary finally produced Pavlowitch-Ajar when the Goncourt committee awarded the prize to "Momo."
Even then Gary ordered Pavlowitch to refuse to accept the prize in person.
JACQUELINE PIATIER, Le Monde's literary critic, thought she had pinned Gary down when she got him to write, "I am not Ajar and I have not collaborated in any way in the works of that author."
But, as she recalled wryly last week, when the hoax was revealed, Gary had added, "If this is not true I would act in the same way."
Piatier said, "I thought then he was joking."
Others have suggested that Gary invented Ajar to avoid the super taxes occasioned by Ajar's best sellers coming on top of the more modest revenues from books Gary published under his own name.
Pavlowitch signed at least the contract for "Momo," which sold 1.2 million copies in France alone. It is estimated that "Ajar" may have made as much as $2 million including the movie rights.
Who now gets the royalties and pays the tax collector -- Pavlowitch or Diego? people are asking.
No wonder some of France's highest paid lawyers are involved in trying to sort out the Ajar affair.
"The exception of everything is the rule for Gary," a critic once wrote. But as perhaps is only fair in this case, Gary himself is credited with the best summation.
"Don't ask me anything about myself," he once told a friend. "I don't know myself."