Romain Gary: La vie devant soi (The Life Ahead of You)
The furore surrounding this book is well known in France, but let me quickly summarise for those who don’t know. Romain Gary had already won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Les racines du ciel in 1956. Since no one can win the prize twice, he wrote another novel under a pseudonym (he used several during his lifetime) Emile Ajar and won again in 1975. He carried on publishing under that pseudonym for about 4-5 years, getting a nephew to pose as the reclusive writer, but finally killed him off (the pseudonym rather than his nephew) and admitted the truth.
I found it a little surprising that people didn’t spot the similarities in style and subject matter between La vie devant soi and La promesse de l’aube (published in 1960). Or is it just because those are the only two books by Romain Gary that I’ve read at this moment in time (they certainly won’t be my last)? Both are about the relationship between an older woman (the mother, in the case of the earlier book; the childminder in the case of the later one) and a young boy. Both are about the unsentimental love and support they give each other, even as they disagree about things and annoy and hide things from each other. The style is also that unmistakable combination of pain masked by sardonic humour, strong sentiment tempered by a core of steel. My blogger friend Emma, who is a real Romain Gary connoisseur, calls that his Jewish humour and French rationality.
Madame Rosa is a former prostitute turned childminder (or foster mother, really) of prostitutes. She lives on the sixth floor of a building without a lift and is finding it increasingly difficult to climb the stairs, as she gets old and overweight. She is also a Jewish refugee who has never forgotten the horrors of the war, is constantly suspicious of the authorities and has an ‘escape hole’ in the basement. Momo, the narrator, is a young Arab boy who has been living with Madame Rosa since he was three years old. It seems both his mother and father have forgotten him and haven’t been paying for his upkeep for years, but his childminder hasn’t got the heart to turn him out. Momo feels bad about not being able to pay his way, however, and he is also afraid that Madame Rosa might die soon, so he starts planning for the future. Of course, the only life he knows is the life of the street in Belleville, so he shoplifts or tries to pimp out other women or to find protection elsewhere. Through his naive child’s eyes we see a whole neighbourhood and some of its eccentric characters, the daily troubles of people barely able to make ends meet, but also the way people can pull together in times of need. Euthanasia, aging, drug use, prostitution, the life of refugees and transvestites, mental illness – all heavy themes, but done with compassion and kindness. Above it all rise the resilience and beauty of the human spirit. And of course it is the story of a remarkable friendship, one might say a love story, as Momo helps the old woman face death (the thing she fears above all is cancer).
The book is full of remarkable observations and memorable sentences (beautiful in French, forgive my paltry translations)
Monsieur Hamil is a great man, but circumstances stopped him from becoming one.
‘This is where I hide when I am scared.’ ‘What are you scared of, Madame Rosa?’ ‘You don’t have to have a reason to be scared, Momo.’ I’ve never forgotten that, because it’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard.
People care more about life than anything else, which is funny considering how many beautiful things there are in the world.
‘Don’t worry, Momo, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ Was he trying to scare me or what? I’ve noticed that old people always say ‘you’re young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you’ with a big smile, as it it’s something to look forward to. I know I’ve got all my life ahead of me, but I’m not going to make myself sick with worry over it.
I don’t really care that much about being happy, I prefer real life. Happiness is a fine piece of dirt, a nasty piece of work, it should be taught how to live. Happiness and me are not on the same side at all, I don’t have anything to do with it… there should be laws against it, to stop it being such a shit.
This book also fits in the #EU27Project, although I already have a fair number of French entries there. However, I do wish Romain Gary were better known in the English-speaking world. Child narrators are always tricky, but Momo’s ahead of his years in some ways and remarkably innocent in others, which is probably understandable given his unconventional upbringing. A real gem, which has been adapted for cinema in 1977 under the title Madame Rosa and translated into English as The Life Before Us in 1986 (now out of print).
I’m already planning my next Romain Gary book, although I’ll have to have it sent over from France: Les racines du ciel, about saving(my beloved) elephants in Africa.