Romain Gary: Adieu Gary Cooper, Gallimard, 1969. (There is also an earlier version of this which Gary wrote in English in 1963, entitled The Ski Bum)
I had heard of this book from the Romain Gary superfan Emma – she actually reviewed the English-language edition on her blog, but stated that the French one is funnier and more poetic, so that was the one I read. I also read it right after my week-long stay in Switzerland plus the second part of the book takes place in the Geneva area, so every little detail was so familiar to me, including crossing the Franco-Suisse border (although without any smuggled gold in my car).
So the location and the skiing captivated me from the start, because, let me be completely honest with you, I could so easily have become a ski bum myself (and am still very upset that I’ve lost the best years of my skiing life living in countries where skiing is not easily accessible). The ‘ski bum’ seems to be the official, if rather unflattering name of the wintry counterculture hero, the winter edition of the ‘surf dude’ if you like. Prepared to do any kind of job, live in fairly basic conditions, as long as they can catch that perfect powder snow and ski for 100 or more days per season. This is not the perfectly groomed, rather crowded, very expensive skiing experience that most of us have when we go on a week-long skiing holiday, but a sort of return to nature – perhaps more fantasy than reality, but perfect escapism.
For Lenny, the ski bum of the English title, it is certainly escape from conscription to go to Vietnam, but also from JFK’s statement: ‘Ask now what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’, which simply sounds sinister and coercive to him. Lenny is a dropout, with minimal education and no desire to better himself, but with the movie star looks of Gary Cooper he is able to make a bit of extra money as a ski monitor to wealthy ladies. He admires Gary Cooper as the strong, silent type, which he also strives to become (especially since he doesn’t speak any other languages, and in fact has some trouble expressing himself clearly even in English). He avoids any romantic entanglements, looks down upon any displays of emotion, although he isn’t quite the nasty macho type – more like a bewildered little boy that women would like to mother.
However, he is slightly ridiculed for his Gary Cooper fixation by the motley crew of other ski bums who have all converged at the chalet of their rich, generous friend Bug Moran (I can’t help wondering if Gary deliberately chose such an unprepossessing name for him):
Gary Cooper is over. Completely and utterly over. Farewell to the quiet American, sure of himself and his sense of what’s right, who fights against the baddies, always for a good cause, who lets justice triumph in the end and always wins. Farewell, American certainties! Ciao, Gary Cooper!
If Lenny’s friends are all hustlers without any loftier ambitions than finding the perfect slope, Jess Donahue, the daughter of the American consul in Geneva, is surrounded by a group of wannabe revolutionaries spouting ideologies and pictures of utopian future worlds they plan to build. Both groups are equally deluded and funny, yet somehow Jess and Lenny come together as the most unlikely (yet nevertheless touching) couple ever. Except that there are ulterior motives to their relationship… and a lot of betrayal and heartbreak will follow, no matter how cynical both Jess and Lenny claim to be.
Gary addresses some serious themes in this novel: the loss of ideals, the gruesome consequences of Realpolitik, the search for identity as an individual but also as a state when the political landscape has changed. Yet these are all handled with a light touch, deftly concealed in a gripping, almost cinematic story with many moments that made me laugh out loud.
For example, in the first part of the book, Lenny is trying to escape from a short affair with Swiss secretary Trudi, but she won’t take no for an answer, so he finally tells her that he killed a policeman in Basle and is therefore on the run and cannot remain with her. A tearful separation scene follows, but, needless to say, the next day the Swiss police shows up to arrest him as Trudi felt obliged to report him. Yep, that’s the Switzerland I know and love!
Frothiness and satire, with a dash of social critique and genuine emotion – I don’t know how Romain Gary does it, but he does it well!
I should add that there is a Genevois rock band named Adieu Gary Cooper and their album Outsiders is full of social critique done in a humorous way as well, such as the one below: ‘Work is badly paid’.
14 thoughts on “#FrenchFebruary: Romain Gary, Gary Cooper and Ski Bums”
That takes such a deft hand, Marina Sofia – critique with a light touch, and social commentary that doesn’t weight a story down. And how lovely, too, that it takes place in an area you know well and remember so fondly. It’s interesting, too, how the translated version can miss some of those subtleties. Skilled translators are heroes to me.
Oh! No translator did anything to this book. Gary first wrote it in English and then made a French version.
As Emma says below – it is the same book, but rewritten in French about 5 years later by the author himself. The French edition of it is much easier to find than the English one.
I’m happy you enjoyed it, it’s a wonderful mix of social commentary, romance, adventure and general thoughts about life.
Gary was a diplomat in Switzerland and was bored during that time. I suspect that Jess’s father is based upon his experience. Of course after being a diplomat in Sofia when the Communists took power, lots of positions much have felt tame.
For a French who has lived through WWII, what Trudy does is a big No No.
I imagine that Jess and Jean Seberg have something in common, too. (Willing to change the world with a weird crowd around her)
He had a great political sense and a good understanding of youth. (Maybe having a much younger wife helped!)
As a daughter of a diplomat who was often disenchanted with his country’s policy, I can totally relate to that. I really do think I was the perfect target audience for this book! And yes… I can’t help feeling the Swiss would have made even better Germans than the Germans, if you know what I mean… Satire with empathy, though, I loved that.
I didn’t know that there was such a thing as #FrenchFebruary!
Now, can I find a short book that I can read in time to contribute?
Off to search the TBR shelves…
Voilà! Guy de Maupassant’s Butterball (‘Boule de suif’) https://anzlitlovers.com/2023/02/22/butterball-1880-boule-de-suif-by-guy-de-maupassant-translated-by-andrew-brown/
Thank you (and Emma) for reminding me I need to read more Romain Gary instead of just resting on the 2-3 books I have read many many times too long ago!
Sadly I can’t read the French version but you have encouraged me to finally get The Ski Bum out of the TBR pile!
You had it in English? I understand it’s quite a rare sighting out in the wild! Can’t wait to hear what you think about it.
Ooh, I had no idea! Yes, it’s buried in the TBR somewhere…
I like the idea of the Apres Ski, not so much the throwing myself down the side of a mountain part.
But you can apres-ski anywhere, and not pay exorbitant sums to be in a mountain resort!
My reading of Gary has stalled for the moment – and not just because his books are so hard to come by in English – but it’s always a pleasure to read about him. (I also didn’t know these were the same book!)