In “Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold His Shadow,” Ralph Schoolcraft explores the career of the French author, film director and diplomat—a romantic and tragic figure whose fictions extended well beyond his books.
Born Roman Kacew, he overcame an impoverished boyhood to become a French Resistance hero and win the coveted Goncourt Prize under the pseudonym—and largely invented persona—Romain Gary.
Although he published such acclaimed works as “The Roots of Heaven” and “Promise at Dawn,” the Gaullist traditions that he defended fell from favor, and his critical fortunes suffered at the hands of a hostile press.
Schoolcraft details Gary’s struggle to evolve as a writer in the eye of a public that now considered him a known quantity. Identifying the daring strategies used by this character as he undertook an elaborate scheme to reach a new readership, Schoolcraft offers insight into how authorship and fame operate within the French literary institutions.
Moving behind the mask of his new creation, Gary was able to win critical and popular acclaim and a second Goncourt in 1975. But as Schoolcraft suggests, Gary may have lost his authorial persona by marketing himself too effectively.
Going so far as to recruit a cousin to stand in as the public face of this phantom author—an Algerian immigrant by the name of Emile Ajar—Gary concealed his secret until his violent death in 1980 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The press reacted with resentment over the scheme, and he was shunted into the ranks of literary oddities.
The book is as much a fascinating biographical sketch as it is a reflection on the assumptions made about identities in the public sphere.
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on March 28, 2002