When Hilary Mantel won her second Booker Prize it was big news. When diplomat-author Romain Gary won his second Prix Goncourt it was big trouble.
By winning the 1975 Prix Goncourt under a pseudonym, Gary threw a pie in the face of the Paris literary establishment and became the only person to ever win the Goncourt twice.
Unlike the Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature, Goncourt rules state that a writer can only win the award, worth less than 100 Euros, once in a lifetime. The French publishing world responded with rage not unlike the Islamophobia that is rampant throughout France today.
With finalists for the Prix Goncourt scheduled to be announced soon, the Parisian literary establishment is caught in a crossfire between Islamophobes and the backlash against them that is spreading across the Middle East.
After literary tabloid Charlie Hebdo published cartoons blaspheming the prophet Muhammad, the Quai d'Orsay and French security services are scrambling to temporarily shut down embassies and other facilities in twenty Middle East and South Asian countries, hoping to avoid the sort of events that have sent the Obama White House into damage control mode.
Gary's second Prix Goncourt The Life Before Us, (La Vie Devant Soie) examines the lives of a female Holocaust survivor and a wayward Arab boy she takes off the streets of Paris into her boarding house of tawdry misfits and helps him adapt to contemporary society. The theme of adaptaion is the key issue in the Franco-Islamist kulturkampf.
The book has sold over 1.2 million copies since being published in late 1975 and is considered the most popular French novel of the 20th century. It was made into a movie, Madame Rosa, starring Simone Signoret, which earned an Oscar as best foreign language film for 1977.
Rolling out Gary's book as a public diplomacy carrot could help reset relations with moderate Islam at a time when France needs cultural allies in the Middle East and South Asia.
Unlike Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan, who studied creative writing at Malcolm Bradbury's program at the University of East Anglia, Romain Gary was a self taught novelist with a bent toward sarcastic popular fiction. Born in Lithuania to Jewish parents under the transliterated Litvak name Roman Kassov the man we know as Romain Gary moved to Nice, France with his mother in 1928, when he was fourteen. Nice was a party spot for America's Lost Generation at that time, a wide open city full of rich playboys, gigolos, high stakes gamblers and celebrities like Josephine Baker and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald who hung out at the Negresco Hotel. As an impressionable teen the pristine Cote d'Azur beaches and the high life would figure in Gary's his ambitions later in life.
Gary spoke enough languages (Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Lithuanian, French and English) to be a writer-spy like W. Somerset Maugham. But even though he would later become friends with Phillipe de Vosjoli, the French secret service (SDECE) liaison in Washington who also dabbled in the film world, Gary was destined to become another kind of larger than life figure, a major influencer in French cultural affairs.
He left law school for the French Air Force and followed General Charles de Gaulle to London after the Nazi takeover of France, serving as a pilot in the Free French Forces. While Hemingway was sitting out the war in Europe and was brought over to Paris to ride in the Liberation parade Gary was a highly decorated hero of the resistance.
He married British Vogue editor Lesley Blanch and entered the French diplomatic service. After winning his first Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, he was posted to Los Angeles as Consul General of France. With Gary serving as France's man in Hollywood the couple became A-group in the entertainment world jet set. He mixed with other larger than life figures like David O. Selznick, John Houston, and Orson Welles. After divorcing Blanch he married young Hollywood actress Jean Seberg and the Garys dined with John and Jacqueline Kennedy.
But after retiring from the diplomatic service and returning to France, Gary, who benefited from the largesse of the Gaullist Party, gradually fell out of favor with readers who viewed him as increasingly passe, much as they viewed President de Gaulle himself.
Frustrated and with enough bravado to challenge actor Clint Eastwood to a duel after learning the tall ex-Marine had an affair with Seberg, Gary doubled down on that trait and developed an elaborate scheme to win the Prix Goncourt a second time.
In a plotline that could have fit into Woody Allen's ghostwriter spoof The Front, Gary created the literary persona of a French expatriate writer living in Brazil, Emile Ajar, as his front and even recruited his cousin, Paul Pavlovich, to work the press and play the role of Ajar at media events.
It wasn't until after Gary's suicide in 1980 that it became known that Ajar was really Gary.
Gary's recent detractors, principally in academia and in the mainstream press, remain unwilling to acknowledge that envy might have influenced their efforts to damage his reputation -- a dead man no longer around to defend himself is an easy quarry.
English-born David Bellos, a comparative literature professor at Princeton, wrote a biography that calls Gary the most glamorous of literary con men and tags his writing as "bullshitting." Bellos also raises questions about Gary's war record. But Bellos, whose deconstructive critiques seem in alignment with the dimmed down individualism consistent with French socialists like Jack Lang and others who helped craft European cultural policy.
Writing in The Independent, reviewer David Conrad buzzed up other Bellos charges, namely, that Gary was a liar.
Emily Garman in Tablet, a Jewish publication, follows the lead of Bellos, calling out Gary for his relative ambivalence to Judaism. Stoddard Martin, writing in The Jewish Chronicle Online criticizes Gary as a wandering Jew who moved around and changed his name too many times. Martin also seems to forget that Gary was a French citizen, made a commander in the Legion of Honor and was badly injured in resistance efforts to put an end to Hitler and his Holocaust.
Thanks to the internet, however, a groundswell of interest among students is developing around the controversial author. Facebook fan club pages offer members an opportunity to discuss his work. An exhibit devoted to Gary was held over at the Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris.
Cornell University has chosen Gary's The Life Before Us as part of the curriculum for its incoming student reading project.
French president Francois Hollande has racheted up the rhetoric, threatening to deport those who hit the stereotypical Islamist profile. Supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Khameni has lashed out at those who assimilate into modern Western society like Gary's character "Momo" (short for Muhammad) in The Life Before Us.
As the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran Ayatollah Khomeni's minions, ensconced in their compound in Yvelines west of Paris, did not issue any complaints against Gary's second Prix Goncourt winner when it was published, and they were quiet about Oscar winning Madame Rosa too. Will they stay quiet today?