French in June and #20Books: Romain Gary

Romain Gary in 1956, roughly around the time he would have been writing this book – there aren’t many pictures of him looking very corporate and diplomatic.

Book 7/20: Romain Gary: L’Homme a la colombe (writing as Fosco Sinibaldi)

An unusual book for my next French in June read (which I also conveniently snuck in my #20Books of Summer pile), one that I would never have come across if it hadn’t been suggested to me by Emma, inveterate Romain Gary lover and reviewer of a wide range of literature on her always enticing Book Around the Corner blog. You can read Emma’s thoughts on this book here.

I love books about international organisations such as the UN. My father worked for the UN International Development Organisation for quite a large chunk of the 1970s and 80s, so I grew up hearing plenty about the idealism and the disappointments, the successes and the nastier politicking side of things. What is surprising, however, is that Romain Gary seems to have lost his innocence and hope for the UN quite a bit sooner than most people, for he published this hard-hitting satire about the organisation in 1958 (under a pseudonym, of course). Shirley Hazzard published her satire People in Glass Houses roughly ten years later.

The Secretary-General of the UN and his two most trusted advisors (incidentally, because of the nationalities of the people involved, it sounds a bit like the beginning of a joke: a Frenchman, an Englishman and a Persian) are worried when they find out that an outsider, a man with a dove, has managed to penetrate the heavily-guarded building and set himself up in a secret location, a room that does not appear on any architectural plan, that no one seems to know anything about.

At first no one, not even the young intruder himself, seems to know what the purpose of this ‘protest’ is. Then the young man goes on a hunger strike and they are forced to conclude that he is of that rare category, a dreamer and believer in the principles of the UN. I loved the contrast between the suave, poetical Persian Bagtir and the very pragmatic Englishman Praiseworthy (while the Frenchman burst into tears dramatically and easily):

‘Instead of hiding his presence, I would suggest, on the contrary, that you tell the press. It is very poetical. Omar Khayam says that Allah only listens to the prayers in a new mosque when a swallow has made a nest under its roof…

‘That’s all very well, but if the public opinion here in America finds out that we are spending twenty million dollars per year to shelter a swallow, that could cause great trouble. Alas, America is a very prosaic country.’

The young man, the son of a Texas millionaire, is trying to demonstrate that Americans too can be idealistic, that they can die for an idea, and not just be consumers obsessed by wealth. But he isn’t acting on his own – he has his own aiders and abetters, including con-men, gamblers, a girlfriend and a Hopi chief who has become a shoeshine boy in the building, to remind people with lofty ideas that they too have feet and need to be more down-to-earth. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however – the public seems to take the man with the dove at face value, rather than understand the profound irony, and so his behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

The story is a complete farce, absurd yet with bite. There is much to enjoy in the sarcasm with which Gary describes the UN’s high officials’ plans for how to resolve the problem – a lesson for politicians everywhere!

‘Above all, we musn’t give the impression that we are against him, that the UN refuses to provide shelter to the man with the dove. We therefore have to welcome him publicly, even formally, showing our respect for the ideal he is defending, which is after all our ideals, and then channel all that enthusiasm and sympathy towards us… you can be sure that once he enters these walls, he will cease to be a problem. He will get worn out, no longer attract attention, disappear bit by bit… What is essential is that we appropriate him. After that, we no longer need to worry – he will become an abstration. After all, that is one of the reasons for our success: we transform all problems and realities into abstractions, empty them of any real content.’

As you might imagine, Romain Gary, as a working diplomat for France at the time, had to publish this book under a pseudonym. He never acknowledged the work as his own or wished to see it reissued; however, an edited version was found among his papers after his death, so he didn’t fully abandon it either. Many of us now share his disenchantment with international organisations and national governments: although it is a slight work compared to his other, later novels, it remains a sharp yet utterly readable condemnation of politics.

#OzFeb: Frank Moorhouse and the League of Nations

Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days, Picador, 1993.

It seems I am a sucker for long books written by Australian authors – or, rather, that the 512 pages of The Man Who Loved Children did not put me off attacking the 674 pages of Grand Days. And I’ll state up front that I enjoyed this novel far more than its predecessor. It is, quite appropriately, the winner of the Miles Franklin Award, and in some respect its main protagonist reminds me of Sybylla in My Brilliant Career.

For some reason, international organisations don’t seem to be represented very much in fiction, other than very much in the background. Perhaps it is too sensitive a topic? Anyway, I find them endlessly fascinating (both the organisations and the novels about them), so when I heard from my expert in all matters ANZ, Lisa Hill, that there was a novel about the League of Nations, I simply had to acquire it – and read it very soon thereafter.

I did not know that this is the first volume in a trilogy featuring Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman joining the League Secretariat. The first volume covers roughly the period 1926-1930 and is a novel of optimism, youthful enthusiasm and hope (but also growing up and facing reality). The second charts the decline of the League of Nations, disillusionment and the world sinking irrevocably into war. The third is set in Australia, as Edith returns after the war to her home country, to the new capital Canberra.

But it’s not just the subject matter to which I am partial, which made it a far more pleasant reading experience than Christina Stead, nor the fact that it sent me down all sorts of research rabbit holes and made me nostalgic for my life in Geneva. It is also the way Edith grows and develops, at times infuriating or pitiful, at times smart and admirable, but above all, always intensely self-analytical and unpredictable – and shaped by the social and political events of the time.The Edith in this first volume is still quite naive and idealistic, very self-confident and bolshy in some respects (very much a ‘New Woman’) but endearingly or even annoyingly silly in others. Just like people in general then (particularly young ones)!

It is also the most accurate and funny description of the way organisations operate:

Back in Australia, she’d liked astonishing people by saying that she revelled in a good committee meeting. She thought of committes as parlour games where each person’s contribution was their throw of the dice from which followed certain moves around the board… Of course, there should be a place in administration for dashing individualism and for grand leadership, but in her experience it was never a bad thing for lofty plans to be brushed down and combed by the committee.

The book is meticulously researched (Moorhouse lived for several years in France and Geneva while writing it) and full of juicy anecdotes, as well as historical figures perceived with some criticism or irony by the fictional figures, but the author really excels in showing the distancing from one’s one country that most expats, especially those working for international organisations, start to feel (although, to be fair, some of them double down and live in little ‘home country’ enclaves):

There was something unnerving about the idea of a visit from someone she had left behind… The discarded self… Did the visiting person seek to find the person they’d known? Or did they hope to find a new person who’d surprise and dazzle them? Or did they fear meeting some formidable new person who would dismay them?

She wanted to feel that she was absorbing from her world… She knew that French culture… would shape her, not into a French person, but into another sort of person… She had also lost mythical ‘Europe’… of her childhood pictures books… She lived in a real Europe now – and in some minor ways, regretfully.

The book is full of amusing insights and a blend of historical and personal events. It is also the story of Edith’s sexual awakening, as she embarks upon a relationship with the damaged English former military man, Ambrose. The Roaring Twenties were perhaps not quite as roaring if you were an Australian country girl living in Geneva, and some of the scenes of vice are funny while others are squalid. The novel is epic and detailed, but at times gets bogged down in tangentials and repetition. There are perhaps a few too many prurient details: I am not sure I needed quite so much information about different types of poo, for example. Nevertheless, it was good fun to read – and how can you resist observations such as this?

The best political arrangements were those which did not place ordinary people in situations in which they had to make difficult choices, because often they would choose badly and behave badly… When she was younger she’d opposed all red tape. Not any more. Red tape was often just a way of causing a pause in the impatience of things so that everything could be properly checked and considered… She’d come to know, sadly, that idealism did not ensure that things were done well or efficiently.

Palais Wilson in Geneva, formerly a hotel, then the HQ for the League of Nations until the new Palais des Nations was built.

If, like me, you love reading books about the flaws and idiosyncrasies (but also good intentions) of international organisations, then here are a few more I’ve come across:

Robert Menasse – The Capital (EU) Eurocrats are people who are polyglot, highly-qualified, enlightened and liberated from the irrationalities of national identity – although full of personal fiefdoms and rivalries.

Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses (UN) – chaotic, rambling, bureaucratic, stifling creativity – but also very funny, with the occasional bewildered idealist wandering through its corridors.

Dan Brown: Angels and Demons (CERN) – imperfectly understood science and conspiratorial misrepresentation of the way CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) is funded and works (as well as full of clunky prose), so this is not a book I can really recommend, but hey, it’s all entertainment!

Romain Gary: L’Homme à la colombe (UN) – thank you to Emma for drawing my attention to this one, which Gary published under a pseudonym, since he was working as a diplomat at the time (haven’t read this one yet) – not available in English, unfortunately

Mischa Berlinski: Peacekeeping (UN) – this is one I haven’t read yet either, but it sounds compelling: dogooders and misfits on Haiti. I think I may also have to get his first novel, Fieldwork, as it is about anthropologists, another subject I will never knowingly ignore.