Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 06 Jul 2019

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary

When I saw that Promise at Dawn, Romain Gary’s 1960 ‘memoir’ (the term needs to be used advisedly) had been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, I snapped it up, realising only later that I had confused him with the Nobel laureate Romain Rolland. In some respects, this isn’t surprising, for even Romain Gary confused himself with Romain Rolland, as he did with any number of other towering figures, whether in literature (Balzac, Zola, Proust), diplomacy and politics, or sheer dashing heroism. He was a fabulist; less charitably, one might say a compulsive liar. Sartre considered this book “a goldmine”, and given Sartre’s own predilection for mythomania and self-aggrandisement, it isn’t hard to see why.

Born to a family of impoverished Lithuanian Jews on the eve of the First World War, Gary reinvented himself – with the aid of this memoir and his driven, indomitable mother, who, of course, may or may not be an invention too – as a dispossessed member of the Russian gentry.

Promise at Dawn is first and foremost an elegy for his fiercely protective, ambitious, undaunted mother, who spent every moment of every waking day hustling to keep food on the table, to keep poor young Romain respectably dressed, and devising schemes that would see her somewhat sickly only son elevated to such a level that everyone would be forced to recognise his greatness and share her unwavering conviction that he was a giant amongst men. And to some degree, almost by accident it seems, this is precisely what he became – a Goncourt prize-winning novelist, resistance hero, French patriot and diplomat. Indeed, he is the only writer to win the Goncourt twice – once for a novel under his own name and a second time for a novel under an invented pseudonym (Émile Ajar). Everything he did – including making the journey to join de Gaulle’s Free French Air Force in England and fly missions against the Reich – was done to live up to his mother’s expectations.

It should also be said, however, that much of this is not quite how it sounds. Leaving aside for a moment the actual veracity of Gary’s account, what makes the book such a rollicking pleasure is its crafty self-deprecating humour and the fact that throughout Gary regards himself as a hapless schlemiel. Nothing he attempts goes quite according to plan.

But nor does this mean that Promise at Dawn is a zany, picaresque romp. For the odd thing is that somehow, amidst all the invention, it manages to be a deeply moral, even existential book, written with profound affection and love for his mother, and perhaps an even greater love for himself – although this always has a glint in its eye: he knows it isn’t deserved and that he is always just moments away from complete and utter calamity. It is one of those rare creatures – a funny, unreliable book of the utmost seriousness.

In a brilliant piece about Gary in The New Yorker, the US essayist Adam Gopnik says that Gary’s real downfall was his clumsy slapdash style – that he wrote so much (perhaps as many as fifty novels under four different names) that his books invariably ended up racing towards their end as if Gary had suddenly realised he was late for dinner. But in fact, this is not a fault that Promise at Dawn exhibits. If anything, quite the reverse. It is for the most part superbly written and beautifully translated, but it is without doubt a little too long.

The best parts are those where his mother looms largest. The early chapters about his childhood and teenage years capture his mother as a deluded but heroic woman, moving relentlessly from one shady business venture to another, maintaining her personal myth as a highly acclaimed tragic actress who but for the Russian Revolution would even now be striding the boards of the world’s greatest theatres, a grande dame, known to every person of civilised taste, pursued by admirers and weighed down with the extravagant bouquets of admiring audiences. This is also where the book is at its funniest. Gary’s early quest for a literary nom de plume which will do justice to his mother’s aristocratic ambitions, for example, becomes all-consuming and of immeasurably greater significance than the minor obstacle of not having written anything. Barely out of his teens he almost marries, having led astray the girl in question by encouraging her to read all of Proust. By Gary’s literary code this suggests a lifelong commitment: it is as good as saying – and even his mother recognises this – that she should order her wedding dress.

Ultimately, Promise at Dawn is a very French book. Its humour is complex and sometimes paradoxical, at times even philosophical. At its best it can read like a funny Camus; at its worst, it can sometimes go on a bit. I would have enjoyed it even more had it been thirty or forty pages shorter, but even so Gary’s voice is utterly engaging and distinct, a little like being buttonholed by a charming rascal. There is something undeniably glamorous about him – saturnine, darkly humorous, mordantly witty, a lothario, something of a nineteenth century figure; a man determined to live life to the full, and if not quite on his own terms, then with honour and on his mother’s.

Romain Gary committed suicide in December 1980. After a good lunch with his publisher he walked back to his Left Bank apartment and shot himself in the head with a service revolver. In a text which accompanied his suicide note he said: “To renew myself, to relive, to be someone else, was always the great temptation of my existence.”


Alun Severn

July 2019