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Gary, Romain

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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Primary pseudonym of Lithuanian diplomat, military officer and author Roman Kacew (1914-1980), primarily in France from 1928, a French citizen from 1935. During his life he had presented various versions of his family background, giving (as an example) his surname as Kacewgari and his birthplace as Tiflis, Georgia; it is not known how seriously he mean any of these personal histories. He began to call himself Romain Gary in 1940, just before his World War Two service as a bombardier-observer with the Free French Forces (at redoubled personal risk because he was Jewish), surviving at least twenty-five missions, and gaining several awards. He served in the French diplomatic corps 1945-1960. He remained Romain Gary for most of his writing work after 1945, though he also published as by Fosco Sinibaldi, Shotan Bogat, René Deville and Émile Ajar (which derives from the word for "heat" in Russian, just as Gary – i.e., "gari" – derives from "burn"). Throughout his career, Gary tended to treat the various identities that he (and his multifarious characters) took on as garbs of gallant selves abiding within, rather than as protective disguises. As Ajar, he won an unprecedented second Prix Goncourt, a deliberately transgressive imposture (the prize is not intended to be won more than once by an author) not uncovered until after his death.

Gary was much praised for such novels outside the sf field as the nonfantastic Les racines du ciel (1956; trans Jonathan Griffin as The Roots of Heaven 1958), for which he was awarded his first Prix Goncourt. Work of sf interest includes early and untranslated novel, Tulipe (1946; rev 1970), about the Blacks taking over Earth, seen in retrospect in a narrative extending from World War Two and featuring a Buchenwald survivor in New York. In his later work Gary utilizes generic material usually to point up ethical issues; Gloire à nos illustres pionniers (coll 1962; trans Richard Howard as Hissing Tales 1964) contains some sf, notably the title story. In this later work, he tends to utilize generic material to point up ethical issues (see Mainstream Writers of SF): the Genghis Cohn sequence, comprising La danse de Gengis Cohn (1967; trans Gary as The Dance of Genghis Cohn 1968) and La tête coupable (1968 trans Gary as The Guilty Head 1969), is a clearheaded though strangely light Fabulation about the Final Solution, in which his own father (indirectly but inescapably) perished (see Holocaust Fiction). Rather similar to the inferior On A Dark Night (1949) by Anthony West, the sequence depicts a supernatural transference of a victim's personality into the body of a Nazi. In Genghis Cohn it is Cohn himself, a Yiddish comedian, who, as a dybbuk, enters the mind of the SS officer who had ordered the massacre in which Cohn was shot. The novel takes place in the late 1960s, with the former officer, now a police superintendent, obsessed by his dybbuk, who torments him, and with Germany itself tormented by an incursion of allegorical figures representative of her spiritual plight.

The Talent Scout (1961; French version as Les Mangeurs d'étoiles 1966) is a Faust fantasy set in South America, where a dictator aspires to sublimity and absolute power [for Pacts with the Devil see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Chien Blanc (early version 9 October 1970 Life as "The White Dog"; 1970; trans Gary as The White Dog 1970) also verges on allegory in its depiction of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and of the ideologically-compromised attempts to reprogramme it. In The Gasp (1973; French version as Charge d'ame 1978) it turns out that the élan vital which escapes from the body at the moment of death can be captured, and then used in warfare. Les Cerfs-Volants (1980; trans Miranda Richmond Rouillot as The Kites 2017), again returns, skirtingly, to the Holocaust, which is conveyed through a Magic Realist articulacy evocative of the work of H G Adler (1910-1988) or Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018), though more heavily fantasticated. Gary was a sharp, clear-headed and passionate novelist of considerable stature. [JC]

see also: Eschatology; History of SF; Power Sources; Religion.

Roman Kacew

born Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania: 8 May 1914

died Paris: 2 December 1980



Genghis Cohn

  • La danse de Gengis Cohn (Paris: Gallimard, 1967) [Genghis Cohn: binding unknown/]
    • The Dance of Genghis Cohn (New York: New American Library/The World Publishing Company, 1968) [trans by the author of the above: Genghis Cohn: hb/]
  • La tête coupable (Paris: Gallimard, 1968) [Genghis Cohn: binding unknown/]
    • The Guilty Head (New York: New American Library/The World Publishing Company, 1969) [trans by the author of the above: Genghis Cohn: hb/uncredited]

individual titles

  • Tulipe (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1946) [pb/]
    • Tulipe (Paris: Gallimard, 1970) [rev of the above: pb/]
  • Gloire à nos illustres pionniers (Paris: Gallimard, 1962) [binding unknown/]
    • Hissing Tales (New York: Harper and Row, 1964) [trans by Richard Howard of the above: hb/Charles Gorham]
  • Chien Blanc (Paris: Gallimard, 1970) [early version 9 October 1970 Life as "The White Dog": binding unknown/]
    • The White Dog (New York: New American Library, 1970) [trans by author of the above: hb/]
  • The Gasp (New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1973) [original English-language text: hb/]
    • Charge d'ame (Paris: Tallandier, 1977) [originally written in English: pb/]
  • The Talent Scout (New York: Harper and Row, 1961) [written in English: listed as translation from the French: the translator credited, John Markham Beach, is a pseudonym of the author: hb/Lajos Szalay]
    • Les Mangeurs d'étoiles ["The Star Eaters"] (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) [French version of the above: trans by author: binding unknown/]
  • Les Cerfs-Volants (Paris: Gallimard, 1980) [binding unknown/]
    • The Kites (New York: New Directions, 2017) [trans by Miranda Richmond Rouillot of the above: hb/]


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