I moved, once, from a London commuter county to the edge of the world.
I did not live in the village where I was head teacher. No : I made very certain not to. I chose a tiny place slightly inland with an ancient church where the bellas rang out on Sundays and it had a good pub.
But I had neglected to foresee the affinity of the Cornish for a good rat run. The shortest route from the village to the nearby market town led straight past my window.
And thus, life was never, ever private.
I would lean back and stretch after weeding a patch in the front garden and a noisy carload of children would cheer raucously by:”Hello, Mrs Shrewsday!” would come the good-natured bellow.
My house felt like a television set the locals could switch on at the flick of a button.
I had not bargained for being such a very public figure.
When Maddie made her presence felt, we moved to a cheaper town on the edge of Dartmoor. My window looked out on fields and I chose to speak to as few people as possible. The A38 streamed by, not half a mile away, and I gloried in the anonymity this new life had brought.
Moving away from yourself: it’s a good trick if you can do it. We upped sticks and left the goldfish bowl: but a goldfish can reinvent himself in other ways: especially if it a very literary goldfish bowl.
It does pay, though, to remember who you were in the first place.
Best to start by writing in two languages, not one. If you write in both French and English you have two distinct audiences straight off. Then invent myriad childhoods. Truth is not in charge here: multiple fictions are the order of the day.
And this is how Romain Gary started.
“Since I knew I was fictional,” says one of his best known characters,”I thought I might have a talent for fiction.”
Was he born in Moscow, or Kursk, or Vilnius, Lithuania? Was his name Roman Kacew? Was his mother Russian or French? The details morph effortlessly in the hands of this master.
Romain Cary arrived in France at the age of 14, and went on to study law before joining up as a pilot in the Free French Forces of World War II.
And then the books began. Brilliant, mercurial works of wit and wonder, in two languages(though the French are generally thought to be better). They brought him instantly to national acclaim. In 1945 he won the Pris Des Critiques for A European Education.
What was it make Cary want to step away from the name?
In a posthumous confession, Gary says: ’I was tired of being nothing but myself … (and) of the Romain Gary image I had been stuck with once and for all during the previous thirty years’.
Step away he did. In the early 1970s, he wrote a manuscript entitled Gros-Calin. He had it sent to his publishers from Brazil, under a new name: Emile Ajar.
Naturally it was shortlisted for the Renaudot Prize for new novelists.
Gary panicked. He withdrew, and hired his cousin’s son to be Ajar for real. The second book under the name - A Life Before Us, 1972 -was awarded the prestigious Goncourt which one can only win once. Predictably, Gary had already won it.
Deception, deception. It does tangle one up so: or it may be that Gary was happy in the midst of this spider web of alternative realities.
The ending is unhappy: he took his own life, in Paris in December 1980.
Yet he left a trail of brilliance behind him.
Whoever he was.
Written for Side View’s Weekend Theme: Nom De Plume, which you can find here
Feature picture source: here