The French-Russian writer had published over fifty novels under four different names, directed two movies, fought in the air force, and represented France as a consul. His marriages—first to the British writer Lesley Branch, then to the American actress Jean Seberg—had brought him celebrity. He had enmeshed some of France’s literary giants in an elaborate hoax that broke fundamental precepts of the country’s cultural institutions. But Gary always saw his own life as a series of incomplete drafts. Even as he planned his own death, he remained on the path to self-improvement. “To renew myself, to relive, to be someone else, was always the great temptation of my existence,” read the essay he left with his suicide note. It’s perhaps no surprise that biographies of the author often seem overwhelmed by the slippery nature of their subject.
His novels, published under the official name, met with instant success. A European Education was acclaimed by its 1945 audience; Jean-Paul Sartre speculated that it might be the first great novel about the Second World War. By 1956, Gary had achieved France’s highest literary honor. His novel, The Roots of Heaven, won the Prix Goncourt, an award given annually to the best novel written in French.
Romain Gary spent much of his existence inventing secrets, but at the end of his life he was very clear. As he prepared to kill himself in 1980, he wrote in an essay: “And the gossip that came back to me from fashionable dinners where people pitied poor Romain Gary, who must be a little sad, a little jealous of the meteoric rise in the literary firmament of his cousin Emile Ajar… I’ve had a lot of fun. Good-bye, and thank you.”