If you ask me who my favorite writer is, I’ll probably say Albert Camus, because I love his writing and his ideas and also because his name is recognizable and thus me liking him helps construct a certain image of me. But I am less moved by Camus and the Nobel-prize-crowned glory of his rhetoric than by one more obscure author, whose ideas boil down to little more than a grammar of unhappiness: my favorite novelist, Romain Gary. He is famous for being married to Breathless manic pixie dream girl Jean Seberg, but he also lived a full, badass life: he spent World War II serving in the Free French Air Force and its aftermath in the French diplomatic corps, and is the only two-time winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor. It’s not meant to be given to the same person more than once, but a literary hoax enabled him to win it under two different identities. The man most widely known as Romain Gary was so ill at ease in his own skin that he wrote under four names other than his own. He was born Roman Kacew, signed novels under his given name and those of Shatan Bogat and Fosco Sinibaldi, but found fame under the last name Gary, which means “burn!” in his native Russian, and as Emile Ajar (“embers”). Both of these characters, who were only revealed to be the same person after their creator shot a bullet into the roof of his mouth in 1980, left behind works distinguished by a casual mastery of language, explorations of the theme of loneliness, estrangement, and alienation, and the specter of World War II.
I say characters because these are more than just pen names. Romain Gary is lyrical, directly autobiographical, and eminently readable, with echoes of Tim O’Brien. Emile Ajar feels more like Bardamu, the seething narrator of Céline’s stream-of-consciousness hatefest Journey to the End of the Night. Ajar expresses something beyond shell shock: a profound sense of alienation. His painfully oblivious characters recount their lives in a tone that is both matter-of-fact and completely misses the point. Even their approach to language is warped, and the subtle wrongness of their idioms and cultural references is a powerful device to depict estrangement. Gary is the brooding, disenchanted war hero to Ajar’s poetically inclined psychiatric inmate. Because the author is often referred to as Romain Gary, it’s easy to feel that this is his real name and by extension that Romain Gary represents a truer expression of self than the other aliases. But Gary’s work is a veneer of sorts: he produces an aestheticized account of the gaping wound that Ajar suffers from. In a generation of Europeans that all bear the scars of the second world war, Ajar is one of the rawest voices clamoring against the heightened sense of solitude that followed this war that had left everyone with a hopeless need to find in humanity a sense of belonging or, really, anything in which to believe.
Ajar’s most famous work is The Life Before Us, which tells the story of an orphan, Momo, who is brought up in a poor neighborhood in Paris by an obese Holocaust survivor, Madame Rosa, and a transsexual prostitute, Madame Lola. The contrast between Momo’s naïve outlook and the harsh reality he lives in is realized in the narration: “I didn’t know I didn’t have a mom and I didn’t even know you needed one. Madame Rosa tried not to talk about it so I wouldn’t get any ideas. I don’t really know why I was born or what had happened exactly…It seemed like everyone had a mom but me. I started to get stomach cramps and convulsions to make her come. There was a kid on the sidewalk across the street who had a ball and who’d told me his mom always came when his stomach hurt. I got a stomach ache but that didn’t work and afterwards I had convulsions and that didn’t do anything either. I even shat everywhere in the apartment to make sure. Nothing. My mom didn’t come and Madame Rosa called me a dirty Arab for the first time.”
This excerpt is what passes, in this book, for comic relief. Still, because of the book’s fame, the child’s perspective justifying the off-kilter narration, and the (somewhat) (relatively) heartwarming ending that shows the strength of the love that binds Momo and Madame Rosa, The Life Before Us is far from the most “Ajar” of the works of Emile Ajar. That would be Gros-Câlin, in English Big Cuddle, which tells a story centered on the fairly banal theme of loneliness and alienation in the modern urban world. The protagonist is named Jacques Cousin: a name referring to a family relationship for someone who has neither family nor relationships, someone who is completely alone but has a deep faith in humanity. This is the kind of dirty trick of fate the author imposes on Cousin throughout, making the reader feel abjectly sad for him. Cousin is a grown man with a desk job in the Ministry of Statistics, an orphan and foster child from a young age but with a normal place in society. It soon becomes clear, though, that he is deranged. His introspective lyricism, his missing-the-point use of idioms, and his faithful recurring return to the same cultural malapropisms and self-coined jargon relating to dehumanizing modernity take his obliviousness from cringe comedy into what I can only describe as cringe tragedy. His life is so hilariously sad that its hilariousness loops right back around into being heartbreaking.
The plot reads like an escalation of misery: Cousin starts out as a bit of an oddball who adopts an adult python only to prove unable to stomach feeding live mice to his pet, whom he has named Big Cuddle. The reason for this name is both grotesque and poignant: “When you need an embrace to fill your gaps, especially around the shoulders, or in the small of you back, when you become too conscious of how much you miss two arms around you, a 2.2-meter python is marvelous. Big Cuddle can embrace me for hours and hours.” Cousin even takes ventriloquism lessons in order to converse with Big Cuddle.
While this plot thread is over-the-top enough to write a whole novel about, it soon takes a backseat to Cousin’s love story with a young Black French Guianese woman from his office, Mademoiselle Dreyfus. He first speaks of her as though they were engaged, but the first scene in which they interact shows they are merely colleagues and don’t even know each other that well—he interprets everything she says as though they have a secret understanding. On the contrary, though, their relationship is defined by epic misunderstandings. When he invites her over to see Big Cuddle, he prepares his apartment with heart-shaped candles as if for a date, only for her to bring several other colleagues along. The setup is right out of a bad romantic comedy but falls into the territory of Francis Veber’s 1998 Le dîner de cons (recently remade into the shitty Dinner for Schmucks), a comedy so cruel that its humor ceases to be humorous. I laughed many times while reading this book, but always on the wrong side of my face—never more so than during the weirdly comic climax of this book. Cousin goes to the Ministry of Statistics bearing violets for Mlle Dreyfus and she isn’t there. He asks his boss where she is, explaining that she and he are going to get married, whereupon his boss informs him she has moved back to Guiana. Cousin carries around his wilting bouquet of violets all day and then goes to visit his favorite brothel. He is offered his choice of three prostitutes, and one of them is…Mlle Dreyfus. She, too, was unhappy at the Ministry of Statistics; she feels more fulfilled as a prostitute because she can make a difference in people’s lives.
After this punchline of a surprise, Cousin starts to break down. He lets out Big Cuddle, whom he claims to no longer need, in a botanical garden, and goes to buy a watch that he insists must be a wind-up because he wants something that would not be able to function without him. He then convinces himself so thoroughly that he is a snake that he starts to eat mice and can no longer wind up his watch because he thinks he doesn’t have arms. The end.
If that sounds miserably saddening, it is, but there’s still something very relatable about Big Cuddle. Cousin’s diatribes about how alienating modern life working a nine-to-five job in a city is come packaged so eloquently in the hallmarks of madness—repetitive, self-contradictory, passionate speech—that it’s not until the reader is weeping and wondering why that he or she realizes how similar Cousin is to all of us. Though his affinity for snakes might bring to mind animalism, he’s actually excessively human to the point that he can’t even function in society. He is too eager in offering and demanding the companionship everyone craves. The reason people reject him isn’t really that he’s a lunatic with a pet python: it’s that he’s a socially awkward lunatic with a pet python. The author doesn’t try to make his character hard to figure out: he’s an orphan who took his childhood habit of hugging himself to its logical extreme. Really, he takes to extremes the pursuit of the unconditional love that Emile Ajar, Romain Gary, Roman Kacew, and all of us desperately want.