Johnny Hallyday: Children of 'French Elvis' challenge will that leaves everything to his fourth wife
'I hear you, dad, and I’ve chosen to fight. I would have preferred that this stayed in the family, but unfortunately in our family, it is like this. I’m proud to be your daughter, I love you, dad'
Lucy Pasha-Robinson Monday 12 February 2018 16:22 GMT
The children of late French rock icon Johnny Hallyday will reportedly contest the decision in his will to leave all of his property and artistic rights to his widow and their adopted daughters.
Laura Smet, the second child of the singer who died last year, said she discovered “with amazement and pain” that Hallyday’s fourth wife Laeticia was the sole beneficiary to his estate, and not one single item had been left to her, according to her lawyers.
Hallyday married Laeticia Boudou in 1996 and they adopted two Vietnamese-born daughters, Jade and Joy. The will also revealed that in the event of Laeticia Hallyday’s death, his estate will be inherited by his adopted children only.
Ms Smet’s lawyers said “not a guitar, not a motorbike, and not even the signed cover of the song ‘Laura’ which is dedicated to her” had been left to Ms Smet, Hallyday’s eldest daughter from his relationship with actress Nathalie Baye.
David Hallyday, his eldest child and only son from his marriage to French singer Sylvie Vartan, is also excluded from the will.
Ms Smet wrote an open letter addressed to her father to challenge the decision, which was passed by her lawyers to French news agency AFP.
“I learnt some days ago that you wrote a will that disinherits David [Ms Smet’s half-brother] and myself,” the letter reads, according to Europe1. “A few weeks before that, you were saying to be at the dinner table: ‘So, when are you going to have a baby?’ But what am I going to be able to pass on to them from you, you that I admire so much?”
She added: “So many questions without answers. All those times we had to hide to see each other and call each other. It’s still unbearable that I was not able to say goodbye, dad, do you know that at least?
“I am so proud to be your daughter. Every night you come to me in my dreams, I see you, you are handsome, without any tattoos, you are finally free and you run in the fog with an air of being completely lost and pure.
“I hear you, dad, and I’ve chosen to fight. I would have preferred that this stayed in the family, but unfortunately in our family, it is like this. I’m proud to be your daughter, I love you, dad.”
Lawyers for the children are arguing that the will, which was signed under Californian law, is contradicted by French legislation that prevents children from being disinherited.
Hallyday died in December, aged 74, from lung cancer. The rocker was a mainstay on the French music scene for more than 50 years and was dubbed the “French Elvis”.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to pay their respects during his funeral. President Emmanuel Macron also paid tribute to the singer in a eulogy at the Madeleine church in Paris.
POSTMODERNISM AS LIBERTY VALANCE: NOTES ON AN EXECUTION
THE RITUAL KILLING OF POSTMODERN LITERATURE IS A THREE-MAN GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (ALLEGORICALLY SPEAKING)
DISCUSSED: Priggish Young Lawyers from the East, Amoral Thugs, Pynchonian Names, Contradictory Imperatives for American Novelists, “The Way We Live Now,” Murderous French Critics, The Value-Neutral Fog of Culture, Gorgon-Headed Monsters, The Unabomber, Those Guys, Sacrificial Chalices, Innovations of Bebop
(1) Spoiler alert. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valanceis an allegorical western that I am now going to totally pretzel into an allegory for something else entirely. Actually, I’ll reverse it: The original allegorizes the taming of the western frontier, the coming of modernity in the form of the law book and the locomotive, and memorializes what was lost (a loss the film sees as inevitable). My version allegorizes the holding at bay, for the special province of literary fiction, of contemporary experience in all its dismaying or exhilarating particulars, as well as a weird, persistent denial of a terrific number of artistic strategies for illuminating that experience. The avoidance, that’s to say, of any forthright address of what’s called postmodernity, and what’s lost in avoiding it (a sacrifice I see as at best pointless, an empty rehearsal of anxieties, and at worst hugely detrimental to fiction).
(2) The chewy center of TMWSLV is a gunfight. A man stands in the main street of a western town and (apparently) kills another man. The victim—for this is, technically, murder—represents chaos and anxiety and fear to all who know him, and has been regarded as unkillable, almost in the manner of a monster or zombie from another movie genre; his dispatch is regarded by the local population with astonished relief and gratitude, such that they will shower the killer with regard (he’s destined to become his party’s nominee for vice president of the United States). The secret the movie reveals: the killer was not the man in the street, but another.
(3) The three persons in TMWSLV: James Stewart, a.k.a. “Ransom Stoddard,” the upstanding, even priggish young lawyer from the East, defined by his naive sincerity and dedication to the rule of law; John Wayne, a.k.a. “Tom Doniphon,” cynical veteran of the frontier, who tends to an isolationist-libertarian approach toward civilization but is essentially lovable and will become heartbreaking by film’s end; and Lee Marvin, a.k.a. “Liberty Valance,” a sadistic, amoral thug who delights in sowing chaos and exposing the fragility of social convention (by terrorizing family restaurants, newspaper offices, elections, etc.).
(4) Stewart/Stoddard believes he’s “the man who killed Liberty Valance” (he stood, after all, in the center of town, visible to all, with a gun in his hand). More important, the witnesses believe he’s the one. In fact, it was Wayne/Doniphon who did the deed, while hidden in a shadowy alley, after having elaborately conspired to goad the helpless and pacifistic Stewart/Stoddard into his public role as a gun-toting defender of public peace against the savage anarchy of Marvin/Valance.
(5) Liberty Valance, i.e., “Free Persuasion”—what an absurd, obvious, Pynchonian name! But then, the characters in Dickens and Henry James have odd names, too.
(6) “The American novelist is buffeted by two increasingly contradictory imperatives. The first comes as the directive to depict ‘The Way We Live Now’… Cliché it may be, but the notion that no one is better suited to explain the dilemmas of contemporary life than the novelist persists… [The] other designated special province of the literary novelist: museum-quality depth. The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture… If these two missions seem incompatible, that’s because they are. To encompass both… you have to persuade your readers that you have given them what they want by presenting them with what they were trying to get away from when they came to you in the first place.” —Laura Miller, the Guardian
(7) Let’s wade into the unpleasantness around the termpostmodernism: nobody agrees on its definition, but in literary conversations the word is often used as finger-pointing to a really vast number of things that might be seen as threatening to canonical culture: author-killing theories generated by French critics; collapsings of high and low cultural preserves into a value-neutral fog; excessive reference to various other media and/or mediums, especially electronic ones (ironically, even a Luddishly denunciatory take on certain media and/or mediums may be suspect merely for displaying an excess of familiarity with same); an enthusiasm for“metafiction” (a word that ought to be reserved for a specific thing that starts with Cervantes, but isn’t), for antinarrative, for pop-culture references or generic forms, for overt (as opposed to politely passive) “intertextuality,” for unreliable narration, for surrealism or magical realism or hysterical realism or some other brandof“opposed-to-realism” affiliation, for “irony” (another term that’s been abused out of its effective contour and function, and its abusers, by the way, have fewer excuses than do those ofpostmodernism), etc., etc., etc. Now, any writer espousing, let alone employing, all of the above things would be a Gorgon-headed monster, surely deserving rapid assassination for the safety of the literary community in general. (Or maybe not, maybe they’d be splendid.) But—and I present this as axiomatic—such a person, and such writing, is impossible to consider seriously, because all of the modes denounced under the banner of“postmodernist” are incompatible: you can’t, just for instance, exalt disreputable genres like the crime story and also want to do away with narrative.
(8) The reverse person, a literary person inclined toward or at least compelled by none of the above-named modes or gestures—and I present this not as axiomatic but as an obnoxious opinion—would be dull beyond belief. They basically would have declined the entire twentieth century (and interesting parts of several others). You’ve read our entire menu, sir? And nothing was of interest? Really, nothing?
(9) “… as a phenomenon, postmodernism is either specifically aesthetic or more generally cultural; it is either revolutionary or reactionary; it is either the end of ideology or the inescapable conclusion of ideology… It is expressed in architecture, art, literature, the media, science, religion, and fashion, and at the same time it is equivalent to none of these. It is both a continuation and intensification of what has gone before and a radical break with all traces of the past. It is, above all, simultaneously critical and complicit.” —Kathleen Fitzpatrick,The Anxiety of Obsolescence
(10) I suggested that abusers of the word postmodernism had excuses. I offer the above quotes as exculpatory evidence. The serious use of the term manifestly propagates bewilderment. But the quotes are also a reminder that the term has serious uses. It means more than “art I don’t like.”
(11) What postmodernism really needs is a new name—or three of them.
(12) The first “postmodernism” that requires a new name is our sense—I’m taking it for granted that you share it—that the world, as presently defined by the advent of global techno-capitalism, the McLuhanesque effects of electronic media, and the long historical postludes of the transformative theories, movements, and traumas of the twentieth century, isn’t a coherent or congenial home for human psyches. Chuck Klosterman details this suspicion in his essay on the Unabomber, called “FAIL” (though it might as well be called “Sympathy for Theodore Kaczynski”). His conclusion, basically, is that in the teeth of contemporary reality we’d all be a little bit crazy not to sometimes wish to kill that sort of postmodernism. I speak here as one who’s spent loads of his own good faith hurling tiny word-bombs at the rolling edifice of the triumphalist Now. This postmodernism we’ll call Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.
(13) The second substitute term I’ll offer is for the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U.S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, John Hawkes, a few others, many of them one another’s friends, and many of them influential teachers. A few non-teachers—Pynchon, of course (unless he was teaching high-school social studies or geometry somewhere). This clan, when Barth and Pynchon were scooping up major prizes, rode high enough that they seemed worth knocking down. This is the epoch John Gardner tilted against in On Moral Fiction. True, this tribe once had the effrontery to imagine itself the center of interest in U.S. fiction, but if you still hold that grudge your memory for effrontery is too long. To go on potshotting at these gentlemen is not so much shooting fish in a barrel as it is shooting novelists who rode a barrel over Niagara Falls twenty or thirty years ago. Or the equivalent of the Republican Party running its presidential candidates against the memory of George McGovern. (Of course, both are done, routinely.) We’ll call these guys Those Guys.
(14) Last, the “postmodernism” consisting simply of what aesthetic means and opportunities modernism and an ascendant popular culture left in their wake (or not their wake, since both, or at least popular culture, are still around). By “means and opportunities” I’m alluding to the vastly expanded and recombinant toolbox of strategies, tones, traditions, genres, and forms a legacy of modernist-style experimentation, as well as a general disintegration of boundaries (between traditions, tones, etc.), has made available to a writer, or to any kind of artist. Louis Menand made this very simple in an essay on how Donald Barthelme’s stories go on stubbornly regenerating their uses and interest for new generations of readers;he suggested that postmodernism, as an artistic movement, represents the democratization of modernism’s impulses and methods. We’ll call this third principle, for the sake of my allegory, Liberty Valance.
(15) I’d like to suggest that the killing of Liberty Valance in order to preserve safety and order in the literary town is a recurrent ritual, a ritual convulsion of literary- critical convention. The chastening of Those Guys, and the replacement of their irresponsible use of Free Power with a more modest and morally serious minimalist aesthetic sometime in the late ’70s, was a kind ofGunfight at the O.K. Corral, a point of inception for the ritual. Who first played the role of Stewart/Stoddard, the true-of-heart citizen shoved into the street to take on the menacing intruder? Was it Raymond Carver? I think Raymond Carver might have been the original Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Who’s played the role recently? A few: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Franzen.
(16) The worth, or the intentions, of the writer propped up on Main Street as the killer of postmodernism is not the point. The person (or book) in the street is a surrogate. The Wayne/Doniphon figure is the critic in the shadows, maneuvering the writer in question in a contest of the critic’s devising (excepting, I suppose, the John Gardner or Tom Wolfe scenario of self-appointment, where both roles are played by the same actor). According to the critic’s presentation, the writer has, at last, killed Liberty Valance on behalf of the terrified populace. Yet the terrified populace is probably a straw man, too, a projection of the critic’s own fear of disreputability or disorder.
(17) The persistence of the ritual disproves the ostensible result: Liberty Valance is shot, but never dies. (“Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again; finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.”—Kafka) Books don’t kill other books, nor do literary stances or methods kill, or disqualify, differing sorts, and those—stances and methods—don’t actually originate from moral positions per se. A given book elaborates its own terms, then succeeds or fails according to them, including on the level of morals. None of this ensures the accomplishment of any writer working in any methodology (whether conscious of a choice of method or in merry obliviousness to the range of options from which he’s selected). A book as full of misrule, as seemingly heedless to ethical consequence as Marvin/Valance in John Ford’s film, might be as sacred as any other.
(18) The reason postmodernism doesn’t die isn’t that the man in the shadows has a peashooter instead of a weapon. Critics do kill things: books, frequently; careers, from time to time (just ask Those Guys). The reason postmodernism doesn’t die is that postmodernism isn’t the figure in the black hat standing out in the street squaring off against the earnest and law-abiding “realist” novel against which it is being opposed. Postmodernism is the street. Postmodernism is the town. It’s where we live, the result of the effects of Liberty Valance’s stubborn versatility and appeal, and the fact of Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.
(19) Yet Liberty Valance and Kaczynski’s Bad Dream aren’t the same “postmodernism.” The freedom and persuasiveness of the full array of contemporary stances and practices available to the literary artist aren’t something to renounce even if the Full Now makes us anxious to the verge of nervous breakdown. At its best, one is a tool for surviving the other—the most advanced radiation suit yet devised for wandering into the toxic future.
(20) Changing metaphors entirely at the last minute: both Kabuki and Noh theater began as fluid popular forms, licensed to depict their own contemporary reality, before sealing themselves within sacralized pools of approved forms, metaphors, and references. And in the history of twentieth-century popular music there’s a name for the school of jazz that glanced at the innovations of bebop and all the implications and possibilities of what lay beyond, but declined to respond. The name for that school is Dixieland.
Jonathan Lethem has written either twelve or fourteen books, and is at work on the thirteenth or fifteenth. His collection The Ecstasy of Influence will be published in November. He lives in Los Angeles and Maine.
Film still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Courtesy of Paramount
This issue features a microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, conducted by Peter Andrey Smith. In addition to being the author of Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Fortress of Solitude(2003), and Chronic City (2009), Jonathan Lethem is a seller of other people’s books. He’s long supplemented his income as a writer by working in used-book stores; it’s the only job he’s ever had. Lethem currently co-owns Red Gap Used Books in Blue Hill, Maine, with André Strong and Marjorie Kernan. Like the title essay of his latest collection, The Ecstasy of Influence(2011), his shelves are a patchwork of collections and influences.
MICROINTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LETHEM, PART I
THE BELIEVER: You once interviewed Paul Auster for theBeliever, and, in the spirit of appropriation, I’d like to ask you the first question you asked him: what were you doing before I arrived at your bookstore today?
JONATHAN LETHEM: I was devouring fish-and-chips and a frosty soft-serve chocolate shake from our local fried-fish emporium, The Fishnet. Before that, I was doing real editorial grunt-work: proof corrections on Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. One of my fates in life is to be a slave of various dead authors. Philip K. Dick probably never did proof corrections in his life; he was a notoriously sloppy writer. And here I am, giving over weeks of my summer to try to make sense of these scrawled lines that he wrote in these manic, overnight bouts. So yeah, I hit send on the whole shaggy mess just before getting over here, so I’m celebrating with a chocolate shake.
BLVR: If I were to look around the bookstore, would I find much Philip K. Dick?
JL: We have a few of his books. They’re actually some of my favorite books in the world because they’re talismans, simultaneously, of my discovery of his writing and my own interest in a certain eccentric kind of book collecting. His publishing history is a strange one—a lot of his first editions are paperback originals. Very ephemeral items publishing-wise, barely more than a notch above a comic book or a porn magazine. Some of his canonical books now in the Library of America—acid-free, in beautiful bindings, and they will be forever, or for as long as anyone cares about the twentieth-century American canon—were first published in these really sleazy editions, the opposite of acid-free—these were acid-laden pages, 90 percent pure-acid pages.
BLVR: Is that what first attracted you to them?
JL: Absolutely. And the covers were painted by these guys who hadn’t read the inside. They just painted sexy women with three breasts or monsters from the id, no matter what the story might actually be about. We’ve got a few; there’s one still on the shelf,Dr. Bloodmoney, Ace edition. One of his greatest novels. The price on the cover is 40 cents.
MICROINTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LETHEM, PART II
BLVR: When did you first start collecting books?
JL: It really begins with my walking into a shop, one that’s a big part of my life history: Brazen Head Books, on Atlantic Avenue. I was fourteen, and the place was a really strange amalgam of a puppet theater, a moving company, and a used-book store. It was run by these two guys, Michael and Larry. They took me under their wing and I became a simultaneous triple apprentice to all three enterprises. I’d help them with the moving jobs. I’d do special effects—I mean, lighting the flashpots and so forth—and collect the tickets at the puppet shows. And I helped Michael with the bookshop. He became this guru for me. I read what he told me to read, and I took my pay home in used books. Michael was the first person to make me see how, for the used-book seller, the store’s an extension of your collection—things flow in and out of your home and onto the shelves in an uncanny, unpredictable way. Though you treasure your books, there’s also this pleasure you have in having this sort of public interface, a space where the books don’t yet belong to someone else, but could. You’re showing them off and also implicitly setting them free at the same time.
BLVR: So becoming a bookseller was a big part of your education?
JL: It was my college, all the way down the line. The books I read from my mother’s shelves, and then out of Michael’s shop, the books I read through my high-school years, and what should have been my college years—I basically kissed off a formal education in favor of a bookseller’s autodidacticism. I took the transmission of the shelves. It meant that my interest in contemporary writing was always subject to a ten- or fifteen-year time lag. In the mid-’80s, I didn’t even know that Pynchon and Barthelme and Coover and Richard Brautigan were not “the happening thing” anymore. To me, they were still breaking news. I preferred old stuff and found it more relevant. I dislike new books. It’s like drinking wine that’s not ready. When my first novel was published, Gun, With Occasional Music, I insisted the jacket be made to look like it was old. The gimmick was that it was going to look like a pulp paperback, even though it was a brand-new hardcover. I wanted to be a writer like Philip K. Dick, or Charles Willeford, or some others I revered who’d been published only in these disreputable, ephemeral ways, and who you could find only in used-book stores. I wanted to be out of print before I was even in print.
MICROINTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LETHEM, PART III
JL: I have a lot of shelves now, but the state people found me in—including my wife when we first met, nine years ago: I had such a terrifying number of books in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor that some people were worried that the building was going to fall down. Everything was full of books. The bed wasn’t a bed; it was boxes of books with a mattress on top. I also had this artifact that was growing like a Star Trek salt monster. A pile of books engineered so it would stay together in the middle of the living room, a mound that just kept growing. I had gotten to a point that if there were certain books I needed for reference—books that I knew were in my own living room, somewhere in the inaccessible inner layers of the mountain—I’d make a triage decision, leave the apartment, go to the bookstore, and buy a new copy. I’d begun purchasing second copies of things I not only knew I owned, but could point to where they were. Somehow the defining crime, though, is if your kitchen cabinets are full of books. More recently, thanks to Red Gap and owning two shelf-laden homes (a rambling farmhouse in Blue Hill and a ranch house in Claremont, California), I’ve found significant alleviation. But that’s not to say I don’t have my own books on the shelves at Red Gap and about forty cartons of books in the attic.
BLVR: Besides collecting more books that you already own, how do you go about acquiring books?
JL: Any time I’m in a new place, the question is “What are the bookstores like here?” I was in Ann Arbor to do a visiting-writer gig last March. It’s a good bookstore town. It’s a college town, and commercial real estate is not cost-prohibitive, so there are some good storefront shops that have loaded up over the years. The greatest thing you can ever hear from a bookseller when you walk in is “Well, if you’re really interested, you could look in the basement.” This was what the bookstores were like when I was a kid in New York. You’d beg and plead to get into the basement, where they had layers and layers of accumulation, things people hadn’t been looking at for a long time. In Ann Arbor, I hit two of these shops where they were like, “Well, there’s more lit in the basement.” Music to my ears. I think I shipped five or six cartons of books home. The kinds of books I like to read aren’t all in print, many are out of print, and you don’t lay hands on them easily. At least before the internet you didn’t. So if I saw something that I remotely thought, I might want to read that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again, the answer is to buy it. You have to buy under those circumstances.
MICROINTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LETHEM, PART IV
JL: I’ve been an advocate against the view of the writer as a partitioned genius hanging in conceptual space, or up on a mountain, a bringer of Promethean fire, some unique transmission that comes out of nowhere. I prefer the opposite view—that writers come from somewhere. They read things, and they think about them, and they incorporate other people’s thoughts. Reading and writing are the same thing; it’s just one’s the more active and the other’s the more passive. They flow into each other. And in the same sense, making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.
I’m basically a curator. If I write an introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or a liner note for the Criterion disc of Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours—what is that except the same thing I was doing as a twenty-year-old, working, organizing, grooming the lit section at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, making it full of books I cared for? In a way, that essay is a bookshelf. If you took every one of the sources I quoted in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” you’d have to build a pretty large bookshelf to line them all up. It’s literally an anthology of writings I cared about, writings that flowed into me, then flowed literally onto the page.
MICROINTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LETHEM, PART V
BLVR: From what I understand, you’re a writer who writes exclusively in front of the screen.
JL: I don’t have a lot of paper in my immediate work environment, except when I’m doing things like checking these godforsaken proofs. Yet I’m making a book and I’m going to care immensely about what words get bound in the pages, and I want the object to look good. I won’t believe in it and it won’t be real to me until there’s a finished book I can hold. The computer is the way I’m making it. I think of the books I write on a sculptural level. I was an art student. That’s what I did before I realized I was going to write, and I still think about the physical properties. I visualize the length of a book, the proportions of a book, in material terms. For better or worse, I’m attached to talismanic things.
BLVR: Near the end of Chronic City, Perkus Tooth ends up with an excerpted passage stuck to his cheek. Am I going to find that your books are missing pages from where you literally excerpted certain passages?
JL: I don’t cut up books. I’m really anxious about this. I hate underlining—even in pencil. I’m like: just remember what was important to you. This is where I’m like a bookseller in that way.Don’t fuck up the book. I hate libraries for the way they put stickers on things. I don’t approve of folding over pages, or of writing in books. God, forget scissors—that’s beyond the pale.
Peter Andrey Smith is a freelance writer, an enthusiastic collector of ephemera, and a lifelong devotee of faits divers. He lives in Maine.
What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?
I’m all over the place right now, happily. In my office I tend to be racing through short books — Russell Hoban’s “Turtle Diary” and Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose books and Lydia Millet’s “Magnificence” just now, while at the bedside table and on trains and airplanes I’m grinding away at monsters over a period of months, if not years: Robert Musil’s “Man Without Qualities” and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” I’ve been trending to these galactic structures lately — last summer I had my head broken open by Doris Lessing’s “Four-Gated City” and so now appear doomed to read the Martha Quest novels — backwards. I also recently noticed how many unfinished novels have been important to me: Musil’s, Kafka’s, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Christina Stead’s “I’m Dying Laughing.” Reading around in Ellison’s “Three Days Before the Shooting . . . ”; I bet I’d like that thing in Salinger’s safe.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
I just devoured in succession two spanking-new studies of great artists, both terrific reading experiences, brain-expanding but embracing, too: Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound” and T. J. Clark’s “Picasso and Truth.” Both hit their very tricky targets. They’ll be with me for a good long time.
If you had to name a favorite novelist, who would it be?
I hate this question. My favorite letter is D, which gives me Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Dick, Delany and DeLillo. Unless it’s S, which gives me Stead, Spark, Salter, Saramago and others. I could go to a desert island with D or S, I think.
Care to call out your nominees for most overlooked or underappreciated writer?
Every writer I’m reading and loving seems underappreciated to me — then you mention the name and people say either, “Everyone reads them!” (Charles Portis, Dawn Powell) or, “You’re being willfully obscure!” (Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Anna Kavan). That said, this is a major sport for me — I bore my friends with this all the time — so let’s go: Laurie Colwin. Iain Sinclair. James Tiptree Jr., Stanley Elkin and Stanley Ellin. And. . . . But I’ll stop. I’d also champion the familiar-but-taken-for-granted: the greatness of Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, Brian Moore, Thomas Berger. The stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I notice other people are surprised to see so much of a certain kind of postwar British novelist: Anita Brookner, Penelope Fitzgerald, L. P. Hartley et al. They’re not surprising to me. I think people who haven’t read them imagine they’re cozy books, but they’re not — despite their relatively traditional form, they’re often unsettling.
Do you ever read self-help? Anything you recommend?
As a kid I used to compulsively reread Alan Watts’s “Wisdom of Insecurity.” I didn’t think of that as self-help at the time, but I think of it that way now. It’s still the help I need.
What are your favorite Brooklyn stories? And now that you’re at Pomona College, your favorite books about California?
Two merciless little novels — Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” and L. J. Davis’s “A Meaningful Life” — bring to life the South Brooklyn I knew as a child in the early ’70s. Apart from that, however, I don’t much seek out books about Brooklyn; I’m more turned on by what Brooklyn grain I detect (or imagine I detect) in the voices of certain Brooklyn-born writers who leave the place largely unexplored as a subject: Robert Stone, Gilbert Sorrentino, Maurice Sendak.
As for California, I read Raymond Chandler long before I’d been here. I breathed in the atmosphere of those books before I even understood Chandler was writing about real places rather than conjuring a zone where his stories could be enacted. Now that I’m here, I see his books — and Ross Macdonald’s — as making a deep stratological survey of the place, in the manner of John McPhee.
Did you identify with any literary characters growing up? Who were your literary heroes?
Starting at about 11, with “Alice in Wonderland” and Lewis Carroll, I began identifying with the writer — or what I’ve learned now to call “the implicit author” — of a given fiction, rather than with the characters directly. Possibly some would say this explains a deficit of heroes in my stories.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
An invitation to air one’s limitations? Sure, I’ll bite. Based on other things I like, people keep insisting I read Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.” Each time I try, I discover an allegory of Russian politics, both labored and coy, starring Lucifer and a black cat — just about what I’d least wish to read in the world.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
I know I should use my time machine to go deep-canonical, but the prospect of trying to navigate a dinner party with Herman Melville, Charlotte Brontë and Honoré de Balzac — figuring out what I could say to them, or what they could say to each other — is beyond my capacities as a bon vivant. Instead, I think I’d want to hang out with three guys I just missed out on knowing, a group more ‘relatable’ to 20th-century me — Don Carpenter, Philip K. Dick and Malcolm Braly. They’re all, as it happens, semi-outlaw types with Marin County connections, so they’d probably have a good time if thrown together. And I could flatter myself and claim I’ve been implicated in the revival of each of their posthumous careers, so we’d have something to raise a glass or spark a joint to. I’d be thrilled to let them know they’re in print.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
In the matter of putting things down unfinished, I’m too old now not to do it all the time, when something’s not working. No harm, no foul, just mutual détente. As for the classics unread, in that too I try to leave shame out of my game. The existence of vastly more great books than I can ever hope to read is a primary locus of joy in this life, and weight on the scale in favor of human civilization. What’s weird is that I’ve already doubled back on myself — rereading those classics to which I gave giddy short shrift in my teenage years, I find them as mysterious as if they were new. What good does it do a 50-year-old to go around feeling as if he’s read “The Red and the Black” or “Malone Dies” when he did it as a high school freshman? I often bear false confidence — I’ll reference these things in conversation, or with students — then open the book and wonder who it was that actually read it. Not me.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve got a beautiful stack right here: Hilton Als’s “White Girls,” Tao Lin’s “Taipei,” Jamie Quatro’s “I Want to Show You More,” the new compendiums of William Gaddis’s and Italo Calvino’s letters. And “Daniel Deronda,” which, you know, I always meant to read and never got around to. I hear it’s good.
The writer Romain Gary was an inveterate fabulist. But his work is sustained by an authentic moral vision.
By Adam Gopnik
January 1, 2018
Romain Gary was a great big liar. The French novelist, war hero, and diplomat made up stories the way other people make up beds: daily and conscientiously and without much premeditation. He lied all the time, and about many things. He lied about his background: born Roman Kacew in Lithuania, in 1914, right at the beginning of the European catastrophe, as a poor Jew among poor Jews. He lied about his mother, his father, his education, his literary history, his loves. His fine and patient and entirely admiring biographer, David Bellos, not only called his study of Gary “A Tall Story” but throughout uses words like “bullshit” and “eyewash” to characterize the tales his subject told.
But Gary was a big liar. This desperately poor Eastern European Jew reinvented himself as a French patriot and literary figure, titles he earned by fighting for France and by writing very good novels in French, one of which won the Goncourt Prize, France’s highest literary award. And then, when he was famous under one made-up name and persona, he invented another name and persona, and wrote well enough in this very different voice to win a second Goncourt Prize. (The rules say it can be awarded to someone only once, so he remains the sole writer with this distinction.) No lie Romain Gary told was bigger than that he was Romain Gary.
Romain Gary: A Tall Story by David Bellos – review
Josh Lacey encounters a writer whose life was stranger than fiction Josh Lacey Saturday 15 January 2011
n 1975, Emile Ajar's second novel, La Vie devant soi, was a French literary sensation. The fictionalised memoir of an Arab boy growing up in a Parisian suburb, packed with extraordinary slang, aggressive jokes and almost unbelievable characters, the book was lathered with praise by critics, eventually wining the Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Booker. It went on to become the bestselling French novel of the 20th century. There was only one problem: Ajar was actually Roman Gary, already a bestselling French author (and previous winner of the Goncourt, which is supposed to be awarded to any particular writer only once), who had reinvented himself to outwit the literary establishment and win a new readership.
David Bellos doesn't appear to be a huge fan of Gary's work – he describes at least one of his books as "unreadable" and others as "middlebrow" – but he's cleverly used his life to investigate the connections between a writer's fiction and his autobiography, and as an excuse for some very funny digs at literary fame, fortune and fashion.
Bellos's magnificent biography of Georges Perec, published in 1993, was an elegant portrait of a writer who claimed to have no imagination, led a fairly humdrum existence and was almost painfully honest about his own shortcomings, but wrote the most fabulous books. Gary may not have been nearly such a good writer as Perec, but he led a far more exciting life, flying planes in the war, marrying a movie star and screwing a different teenage prostitute almost every day. Even so, he felt the need to lie about his own exploits; Bellos describes how Gary had already invented himself several times before he created Emile Ajar, changing his own name, fibbing about his past and publishing some thoroughly unreliable memoirs.
Roman Kacew was born in 1914 in Wilno, now in Lithuania, although part of Poland for most of Kacew's youth. His father soon scarpered, starting another family, and his mother took her young son to France, where he went to school and then joined the air force, failing his final exams through the simple error of being Jewish.
Once the war started, such flaws ceased to matter. Gary fled to England via Morocco, joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French and flew in an RAF squadron packed with French refugees. At the end of the war, only five of his original comrades were still alive.
By then, he'd already published his first novel and married his first wife, Lesley Blanch, an English writer who offered him access to high society. Even more importantly, she didn't mind with whom he had affairs. During the rest of the 40s and the 50s, Gary worked for the French diplomatic service, taking him and Blanch to Bulgaria, Switzerland, New York and LA, where he was consul general, rubbing shoulders with the movie world. He eventually left Blanch and married Jean Seberg, star of Bonjour Tristesse and Breathless.
Meanwhile, Gary was writing novels in both French and English, often translating himself from one to the other, inventing the names of his translators or, even more oddly, paying someone to translate his work from English to French, then rewriting it himself. His books were prizewinning bestsellers. Many were filmed. Gary become a literary celebrity, regularly pontificating in newspapers and on TV.
But literary fame is fleeting; critics and readers need a constant supply of new blood. At the beginning of his career, Gary had been young, beautiful and unknown; by the 70s, he was old, wrinkled and familiar. He may have been respected, but no one wanted his books any more. So he had to create a new identity for himself, a younger man more in tune with the times. Enter Emile Ajar.
The success of La Vie devant soi turned Ajar into a major literary star, who could no longer be hidden behind veils of secrecy. Gary asked his cousin's son, Paul Pavlowitch, to impersonate the writer in interviews, but made the mistake of allowing a photograph to be distributed too. When Pavlowitch was recognised and journalists made the connection, Gary first issued statements promising that he was not Ajar and then dashed off a book, Pseudo, written in six weeks and published under Ajar's name, in which Pavlowitch acknowledged his own authorship while admitting that he was quite mad.
The critics were satisfied. Readers lapped up the books. Pavlowitch got the fame and Gary was widely pitied for being less talented than his young cousin. He had painted himself into a tragic corner; as Bellos says, "His best work, his real work, was now, by his own action, no longer his."
Pseudo was finally published in English for the first time earlier this year, nicely retitled Hocus Bogus (Yale, £16.99). In Bellos's very free translation, the novel is pun-packed, exhaustingly energetic and a lot of fun, but the narrative simply isn't nearly as interesting as the circumstances of its creation.
As for Gary himself, the effort of creating Ajar seemed to sap something within him. He published a couple more novels, one under his name and the other under Ajar's, then shot himself in the head. Like a true celebrity, he left a suicide note addressed "For the Press."
Josh Lacey's Three Diamonds and a Donkey is published by Marion Lloyd.