By David Bellos
Harvill Secker, £30
By virtue of linguistic skill and geographical displacement, the Lithuanian Jew who called himself Romain Gary was able to devise a storybook life.
Born under Russian imperium prior to the First World War, he grew up in a renascent Poland, only to move to Franco-Italian Nice before the Nazi-Soviet pact brought catastrophe to his region.
War rendered him French in a way that prejudice might have disallowed had catastrophe not turned west. He joined De Gaulle in Britain, had a "good war" as an airman and was able to exploit Slavic origins in an "authentic" novel about resistance in the East. By 1946, he was installed as a French diplomat and married to English Vogue editor, Lesley Blanch.
Like Joseph Conrad, the Polish speaker would move from French to English as a writer, though not giving up a nationality and language necessary for his job and for winning kudos from the likes of Malraux and Camus.
Sartre, whose fictions were thinly disguised representations of life, was envious of Gary's existential material but Gary himself rarely used life-matter directly. Like some literary Chagall, he animated his work with the fantastic brio of the East; if it failed to reach the highest accolades, this was from lapses in what Sartre excelled at - les mots. "Style does not interest me", Gary would claim; nonetheless, he won the Prix Goncourt twice, second time under a hoax identity, which caused furore and may have contributed to his suicide in 1980.
Gary's carelessness was deliberate. He believed in the "total" - that is, the compendious, open-ended, human as well as humane - as opposed to the "totalitarian", which in his formula denoted the constricted formality of closet classicist auteurs of his day. His "rebirth" as Émile Ajar was intended to show up this establishment for its cabalism and false values. It retaliated by branding him a sloppy purveyor of sentimental page-turners suitable for the middle-brow taste of his English first wife or the Hollywood friends of his second, Jean Seberg, whom Gary met in his 40s when glamorous French Consul in LA and she was fresh from teen stardom as Joan of Arc.
As celebrity and writer, Gary had "antennae that picked up the trend and direction of current affairs". At the same time, he never lost his Russian angst and Polish/Yiddish humour. His great creations - his own mother in the memoir Promise at Dawn and Mme Rosa in Life Before Us, as well as the picaresque "Sganarelle", whom he placed at the centre of all narratives - hark back to these sources.
Writing in English reflected his transnational status as much as desire for a wider audience and more money, but the "Free French" label opened doors here, too, first when he was being promoted by the Brits in the '40s and later via connections made during his postings in New York and LA.
Gary's forays into film were as disastrous as his marriage to Seberg, but his novels sold well in the States where their "total" character anticipated sprawlings of Mailer, Bellow and Thomas Pynchon (whom he tried to sue for using his character Genghis Cohn in The Crying of Lot 49). David Bellos chronicles all of this in a sprawl of his own, with brilliant critical insights meeting the organisation of the card file. Chapters are devoted to categories - politics, sex, books, etc - and readers hoping for a life told in compulsive sequence may be disappointed.
Lesley Blanch described her husband's writing as "an organic necessity". Gary characterised it as "une évacuation quotidienne". Bellos follows by calling it "bullshitting", a term the Princeton academic uses a dozen times in as many pages. His objective is to vindicate a remarkable figure whose bête noire was "the well-made book". This is admirable, but more readers might be persuaded had he adopted the French classical injunction to be clair, net, précis et rapide au but.