Excerpt: David Bellos' Romain Gary: A Tall Story

The Excerpt Reader is used to reading and reviewing well-to-do or much-spoken-of novelty-novels for its crowd of devotees, ocasionally lending out a hand to a Twitter or Facebook buddy in need of a break, usually in the form of a quick book excerpt review (for what else can the Excerpt Reader do?!)

But from time to time, the Excerpt likes to do something for the soul.

Forget all those high-profile and much-hyped novelists and devote a reading & review to a long appreciated scholar/writer.

David Bellos is one of these writers.  

English-born translator and biographer, Bellos teaches French literature at Princeton University in the United States. He has published numerous translations of french writers, such as Georges Perec and Fred Vargas, and has translated Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's novels from previous French translations (a practice I believed was already extinct within the field of professional literary translation, but there you go..)

Translations aside, Bellos' undisputed forte are his award-winning literary biographies of great French figures: So far he's written Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993)Jacques Tati. His Life and Art (1999).

I've been wanting to buy Bellos' Georges Perec: A Life in Words ever since I read an excerpt from it in 2004 (I am an excerpt reader after all..). The excerpt was very insightful and learned, providing new information and original perspectives into this enigmatic and wonderful French writer of Jewish decent. 

Since the book has been out of print for a few years now, there are only a handful of second hand volumes trotting the world, and these are hard to come by today (the Reader would appreciate any information about the whereabouts of a decent copy of this biography).

This November, Random House will publish Bellos' latest installment, Romain Gary. A Tall Storyanother literary biography, of a great French writer, no less monumental than Perec as he is enigmatic.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Born Roman Kacew in Russia, and immigrated to France at the age of fourteen, Gary wrote most of his oeuvre in French, until he decided, almost as a whim, to start writing in English, a language he had only begun to acquire at the age of 30.

Quite as versatile as he was profilic (he published almost 40 novels, memoirs and screenplays), Gary lived a life as rich as no other: he was a French diplomat, novelist, film director and screenwriter, World War II aviator, and is to-date the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt twice; once, in 1956 for Les racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven in English) published under his own name; and another, in 1975, for La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us in English) published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar. 

Funnily enough, Gary was never awarded the nobel prize for literature.

Bellos' 'calling' in writing this biography, as well as to introduce this at-times enigmatic writer to the average 21st century reader, is, it seems, to rectify this wrong and explain "how close he [Gary] came to being the twentieth century’s Victor Hugo."

Reading Bellos' biography and getting acquainted with Gary's life and oeuvre, one can easily appreciate the appeal this great writer had on Bellos, for, like Perec, Gary wrote under a few pseudonyms, toying with different literary genres, often 'inventing' a life for himself (Though a great deal of their writings were of an 'autobiographical' nature - well at least to a certain extent - both Perec and Gary invented their lives time and again in their works: Perec in W or the Memory of Childhood; Gary in Promise at Dawn, for both were "skillful liars" who obsessively reinvented their lives time and again, if only to enjoy "the experience of being someone else," or to remake themselves as someone else.

Focusing on the works as well as on the life of the person who wrote them, Bellos' task in this biography, as it must have been when writing Perec's biography, is doubly frustrating, as he confesses: 

"Nothing can be recovered of Gary’s life as a child save for a few possibly flawed documents, a couple of photographs, and the memories – but are they memories? that Gary retails in Promise at Dawn"

Life or fiction, which comes first? Sometimes it's hard to tell:

"Such was the intensity of Gary’s commitment to the shaping of the world by the imagination that his own work occasionally seems to be prophetic of his life, rather than dependent on it. [...] In these instances, experience must have seemed to Gary to vindicate his underlying belief that imagination can pattern events..."

The biographer's job then is to 'separate the wheat from the chaff', to tell the 
right from wrong, if such a thing is possible..

I love that Bellos is not recoiled by this arduous task.

Challenge is his elixir, and his readers are all but damaged by this.

VERDICT: BUY IT (but only if culture isn't some dirty word you like bringing up 
in cocktail parties)


  1. At these cocktail parties I frequent so often, I will try to say "cuiture!" and see what happens. And I really liked the image of second-hand volumes trotting the world :). The review is interesting and lovingly written. I must confess that Promise at Dawn and La Vie Davant Soi felt to me somewhat inauthentic. Not because of biographical truth or lack thereof, something about the tone.
    And please make the letters bigger for the partially blind... like the font in the quotes... :)

  2. Tx for the kind support Lee and for your authentic reading.

    The fonts are the same throughout the opst (the quotes are in italic0, but i can't seem to get 'normal' size. Blogspot is becoming really annoying, both in this blog and in my other, hebrew blog, when it comes to general outlines and text, etc..

    As for Gary, there might be a little inauthenticity in him, for he was, after all, trying to 'hide' most of the time and display images of things he was not, but that's maybe the life's story of most (great) authors.
    i think if you'll dig beneath this facade you'll find a lovely, compassionate, humane person pining for recognition.. (or for the 'fiords', whichever is easier to get..)