Gary, Romain

Tagged: Author

Primary pseudonym of French diplomat and author (1914-1980) who (it has now been confirmed) was born Roman Kacew in Vilna, Lithuania; during his life he had given various versions of his family background, also giving his surname as Kacewgari and his birthplace as Tiflis, Georgia. He began to use his main pseudonym in 1940, serving in World War Two with the Free French Forces (at redoubled personal risk because he was Jewish), and used Romain Gary for most of his writing work after 1945, though he also published as by Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat 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 Coats of Nessus.

Gary was much praised for such novels outside the sf field as Les racines du ciel (1956; trans Jonathan Griffin as The Roots of Heaven 1958), for which he was awarded his first Prix Goncourt. An early and untranslated sf novel, Tulipe (1946; rev 1970), is 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. Gloire à nos illustres pionniers (coll 1962; trans Richard Howard as Hissing Tales 1964) contains some sf, notably the title story. In his later work Gary utilizes generic material usually to point up ethical issues, and La danse de Gengis Cohn (1967; trans by Gary as The Dance of Genghis Cohn 1968), with its sequel, La tête coupable (1968 trans by Gary as The Guilty Head 1969), are certainly Fabulations. Rather similar to the inferior On A Dark Night (1949) by Anthony West, they depict 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 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. In The Gasp (1973; in French 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. The Talent Scout (1961) is a Faust fantasy set in South America. Gary was a sharp, clear-headed and passionate novelist of considerable stature. [JC]

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

Romain Gary

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

died Paris: 2 December 1980

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