This year is French writer Romain Gary’s centenary and Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ is hosting ‘Romain Gary Literature Month’ to celebrate the occasion. I have wanted to read a Romain Gary book since I discovered him last year and so I decided to participate and read Gary’s memoir ‘Promise at Dawn’. Here is what I think.
‘Promise at Dawn’ is Romain Gary’s memoir from the earliest time he can remember till the time around the end of the Second World War. The book starts with Gary sitting in the beach alone in the company of birds and seals and looking back at his life. Gary then describes his early life from the time he lived in Russia where his mother was an actress in the theatre circuit. It then charts their journey from Russia to Poland where they lived for a few years in between and then their move from there to Nice in France. Gary talks about his mother’s love for him, the dreams she had for him (should study to become a lawyer, should become an officer in the airforce, should become an Ambassador of France, should be popular among women, should become a famous writer and win the Nobel prize – Gary managed to achieve all of it, except the Nobel prize winning part, but in his defence he won two Prix Goncourt). The early scenes in which Gary describes his family’s poverty and how his mother tries her best to make ends meet while always making life comfortable for him, are very moving. The way his mother shows him gentle maternal love when it is needed and the way she shows him tough love when it is required is beautifully portrayed. Gary’s prose is simple and beautiful. There are long sentences – positively Proustian in their length – but they pull us inside the story and so they don’t feel long. I sometimes found myself resisting the pull of the story and putting myself outside it and trying to find out how long some of the sentences were (and they were long, very long). I think it is a tribute to his mastery that he makes long sentences accessible to a general reader.
There are beautiful passages throughout the book which I lingered on when I read the first time, and which I went back to again and again and re-read many times. Some of my favourites were these :
My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips, I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.
How Goethe Lied
I also feel it is time that the truth about Faust be made known. Everyone has lied before, Goethe worse than anyone; he has lied with genius. I know that I should not say what I am going to say, for if there is one thing I hate doing, it is depriving men of their hope. But there it is : the tragedy of Faust is not at all that he sold his soul to the devil. The real tragedy is that there is no devil to buy your soul. There is no “taker”. No one will help you to catch the last ball, no matter what price you are willing to pay. There is, of course, a gang of smart phonies, who give themselves airs and claim they are prepared to make a deal, and I don’t say that one cannot come to terms with them with a certain amount of profit. One can. They offer success, money, the applause of the mob. But if you have had the misfortune to be born a genius, if you are Michelangelo, Goya, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Malraux, you are destined to die with the feeling that all you have ever done was sell peanuts.
The Attraction of Endings
I was sitting in my room on the ground floor in front of the open window, writing the last chapter of the great novel I was working on at the time. It was a great last chapter. I regret to this day that I somehow never got around to writing the preceding chapters. I have always had a certain tendency to do last things first, a feeling of urgency, an eagerness for achievement that always made me very impatient with mere beginnings. There is something pedestrian and even mediocre about beginnings. In those days I had written at least twenty last chapters, but I somehow could never bother to begin the books that went with them.
There is an underlying sense of humour throughout the book. The fairytale picture of France that Gary’s mother paints when they live in Russia and Poland, telling him that one day they will reach there and become truly French, are touching but also make us smile. One of my favourite funny scenes was when a girl suddenly arrives by taxi to Gary’s home rushes in and hugs his mother and starts crying and tells his mother that Gary made her read all the volumes of Proust and now no one would marry her and so he should marry her immediately. There were also many touching and beautiful scenes in the story. One of my favourites was about his friend from the airforce called Bouquillard during the Battle of Britain. It goes like this :
He became the first French “ace” in the Battle of Britain before being brought down after his sixteenth victory. The roof of his cockpit jammed and he couldn’t bale out, and twenty pilots standing in the operation room, their eyes riveted on the black maw of the loudspeaker, heard him sing the great battle hymn of France until his Hurricane exploded…
No Paris street has been christened after him, but for me all the streets of France bear his name.
That passage brought tears to my eyes when I read it the first time. It brings tears when I type it now.
There were mentions of writers in the book, some of whom are my favourites, which made me happy – the poètes maudites Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Walter Scott, Karl May and Robert Louis Stevenson. There is also mention of a delicious biscuit called Les Petits Beurres Lulu (At the time of the writing of the book, Gary says that this biscuit is still available. It has been fifty years since the book was first published. I hope Les Petits Beurres Lulu is still available. Because I want to try that.) Gary also mentions Russian dill pickles many times and says that his favourite thing to do was to buy them from a vendor put them on a newspaper and sit somewhere and eat them slowly and peacefully. One of my biggest regrets was not trying them when I was strolling the streets of Moscow. Maybe I should make a trip again just to try them. Or maybe I should make it at home. The ingredients mentioned in the recipe look like ones I could get.
The ending of the book was like the climax of a novel or a movie. It was surprising and heartbreaking, though Gary leaves some clues before and I could see it coming.
I loved ‘Promise at Dawn’. It is the story of a mother’s love for her son and her dreams of a new country and a new future for him. It is a beautiful song that Romain Gary sings for his mother and it is sweet to hear, though it talks about both the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful things of the world. Definitely one of my favourite reads of the year and one of my favourite memoirs ever.
Have you read ‘Promise at Dawn’? What do you think about it?