Is Emile Ajar the greatest writer who never lived?

Most of the books I read were written by dead people. But my favourite of all the books I read in the last ten years was written by a writer who never lived. Emile Ajar was not only a pseudonym, it was the pseudonym of a writer who only pretended to exist.

Emile Ajar wrote four books, published in France between 1974 and 1979. One of them was the top-selling French novel of the 20th Century. He was awarded France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

In the media frenzy surrounding the success of this mysterious writer, he was finally outed as one Paul Pavlowitch. But then someone noticed that Paul Pavlowitch was the nephew of one of the greatest French writers of the century, Romain Gary, and questions were raised…

Romain Gary (real name: Roman Kacew) had already won the Prix Goncourt for his 1956 novel The Roots of Heaven. This book, incidentally, was named by Colin Wilson of The Outsider fame as one of the masterpieces of the 20th Century. It is full of truly wonderful things. Personally, I wish the author told the story chronologically instead of shifting the perspective so often. However, having now read a number of Romain Gary books, I’ll return to The Roots of Heaven more attuned to this author’s decidedly otherwise sensibility.

Back to the Prix Goncourt: The rules of the prize stipulate that an author can only win it once. Could this have been the reason why Emile Ajar refused the prize, that he had already won it?

However, such speculation was quelled by Pseudo, an autobiographical novel in which Paul Pavlowitch described his mental breakdown, his troubled relationship with his uncle (a clear reference to Romain Gary) and all the kerfuffle around his identity. This erased any doubt that he was the author of the Emile Ajar books.

After Romain Gary’s suicide in 1980, this entire book was revealed as a hoax perpetrated by Gary to protect his identity as Emile Ajar. His nephew Paul Pavlowitch was a willing participant in this, even granting media interviews.

Pseudo was finally published in English in 2010 under the title Hocus Bogus, but despite its many dazzling sentences and twists, it probably only holds interest for literary historians. The first Emile Ajar book, Gros-Calin, has never been translated into English.

The other two Emile Ajar books – The Life Before Us (Momo on first publication) and King Solomon – are well worth seeking out. Both are now openly credited to their true author, Romain Gary.

The first of these is the one that made “Emile Ajar” famous. It is a beautiful book. I found Momo a trifle cutesy with its child narrator, but 1.2 million buyers and the Prix Goncourt judges suggest I’m wrong.

The second is the best book I’ve read since 2000. King Solomon is one of the few books that had me laughing and crying, gobbling up sentence after sentence. I’ve read it three times in ten years and I’m still not done with Jeannot, Madame Cora and King Solomon. It is a delight to read, and often profound.

Interestingly, while Gary was having his amazing success as Emile Ajar, he also wrote an outstanding book under his own name, Your Ticket is No Longer Valid (also published as The Way Out).

Add his first book, the traditional war story A European Education, and deeply amusing works such as The Ski Bum (which he wrote in English) and the science fiction novel Gasp, and it boggles the mind that Romain Gary isn’t much more famous. It’s almost like he didn’t exist.

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